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“You can’t bring a banana on a boat.” “Wha—?” The woman in rubber boots pauses on the dock, confused. The captain, Tommie Jarman, points to the jacket tied around her

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“You can’t bring a banana on a boat.” “Wha—?” The woman in rubber boots pauses on the dock, confused. The captain, Tommie Jarman, points to the jacket tied around her

Shrimp & Grit in Sneads Ferry

“You can’t bring a banana on a boat.”

“Wha—?” The woman in rubber boots pauses on the dock, confused.

The captain, Tommie Jarman, points to the jacket tied around her waist. “Isn’t that a banana you’ve got there?”

She looks down. “Oh. Yes … why?”

“Bananas are bad luck on a boat,” Jarman explains. “A lot of captains wouldn’t let you on their boat with that.” He smiles and offers her a hand to step aboard. “Good thing I’m not superstitious.”

The last thing Jarman needs this evening is bad luck. He’s taking guests out on the New River for a shrimping trip — and keeping his fingers crossed that they’ll actually get to catch some shrimp. The last couple of years, shrimping hasn’t been good, and his nets have often come up empty. The banana bothers him a little, but Jarman is more than a shrimper and boat captain. He’s also a tour guide and small-business owner who understands customer service. So he lets the banana aboard.

Twenty-five years ago, Jarman was jammed inside an 8-by-8-foot closet, his eyes burning from paint fumes. He was 29, working as a contractor in Jacksonville and hating every minute of it. “I spent hours painting inside these closets with no windows,” he says. After one closet too many, Jarman quit. He bought a small shrimp boat and moved to Sneads Ferry, a fishing village across the river from Camp Lejeune. Shrimping is hard work, but for Jarman, it was a dream come true to be on the water every day, feeling the wind and sun.

“I just went head over heels for fishing,” he says. “I kept going a little deeper, a little deeper. I bought a boat; then I bought a bigger boat. My father has been a fisherman all his life. I guess you could say it’s in my blood.”

Capt. Tommie Jarman shares his knowledge of shrimping and his passion for working on the water through his company, Reel Livin’ Fishing Charters. photograph by Matt Ray Photography

The shrimping scene has changed a lot since Jarman started in the ’90s. He used to earn $40,000 to $50,000 a year selling the shrimp he caught. “Now, we’re lucky to do $10,000,” he says. “It’s almost not worth it anymore.” Environmental changes, competition from international markets, and stricter regulations on commercial fishing are some of the factors that Jarman says have made things more difficult. Last year’s high fuel prices made it even worse. There were some days when Jarman didn’t even bother taking the boat out. He would’ve lost money just leaving the dock.

“If I didn’t have another source of income, I would have to let this boat go,” he says. “I just do it because I like it. I fill our freezer, fill my parents’ freezer.”

Whereas most of his shrimping buddies have traded their boats for land-based jobs over the past decade or so, Jarman diversified. He got his charter captain’s license and started taking people out on the New River in his 35-foot skimmer trawl, Faith & Hope (named for his daughters), so that others could experience shrimping for themselves. The first year, his charter trips brought in triple what he got from shrimping. Along with a few rental properties and a second boat that he uses for offshore fishing charters, Jarman has been able to avoid going back to painting closets and stay on the water.

When people pay to go out on a shrimp boat, they expect to actually see some shrimp. So even though the past two or three years have not been great for shrimping, Jarman is hoping that he can give his guests a good experience today.

As his boat eases out of the harbor, Jarman hustles back and forth between the helm and the hydraulics levers. It’s windy, so he’s decided to lower the nets right away. Normally, he waits until they’re in deeper water and ready to start trawling. “But if the wind is blowing more than 10 knots, they act like sails and will turn the boat over on its side,” Jarman says. “I had it happen years ago and learned a valuable lesson.”

First Mate Danny Wells — better known as Danny K — helps Captain Jarman man the nets and educate passengers about the sea life that they catch. photograph by Matt Ray Photography

Jarman’s mate, Danny Wells, stands at the back of the boat, untangling any snags that he sees as the nets slowly lower from 32 feet in the air to hover just above the water. They putter along at five knots, half the speed they’d be able to go if the nets were up.

Jarman’s passengers take photos from the railing of the boat. The sky is Carolina blue. Wispy clouds glow in the late-day sun. A flock of gulls follows the boat. Everything on board is ready for a haul of shrimp — if they get lucky. Ten large coolers wait, holding a couple hundred pounds of ice. A miniature clothesline hangs taut with wooden clothespins displaying five clean pairs of gloves. If there are shrimp to sort, the gloves will keep the stink off people’s hands and protect them from the sharp points that are on the heads and tails. A clean white fiberglass table takes up most of the space on the boat — empty, but hopefully not for long.

Once they’re safely on the river and the nets are in position, Jarman starts chatting with his passengers, answering questions and telling stories. People who join him for shrimping trips range from experienced anglers to novices who’ve never been on a boat in their lives. Many assume that a shrimp trawler drags the nets through the water, scooping up shrimp as it goes. But shrimp hang out in the sand and mud at the bottom of rivers and oceans, where coral, rocks, and other debris would tear the nets. So instead, Jarman shows his passengers how the nets are attached to steel frames that keep them off the rough bottom, protecting them — usually — from getting snagged. The one time his nets got caught, it took him two hours and 30 dives down into the murky water to cut them free, and then $3,000 to replace them.

In the fall, trawlers fish for white shrimp, or “green-tails,” in particular. photograph by Matt Ray Photography

Jarman’s boat is a skimmer trawl, the only kind permitted in the section of the New River where he’s headed this evening. In North Carolina, skimmers are commonly used to shrimp on inside waters like bays and rivers. If you see a shrimp boat in the ocean, it’s most likely an otter trawler, dragging its net behind with a steel cable. Two large wooden doors hold the net open, with the bottom of the net stirring up a few inches of the seabed — and the shrimp along with it.

On skimmer trawls like Jarman’s, the nets are attached to frames and drop off the sides of the boat. A “tickler chain” runs along the bottom edge of the frames and bumps along the bottom of the river, startling shrimp out of the muck and up into the nets, which are spread wide and move against the current. White shrimp, which is what Jarman is after today, jump above the surface of the water — which turns out to be a convenient way to know if you’ve dropped your nets in a good spot.

“Brown shrimp don’t jump like that,” Jarman says. “With brown shrimp, we don’t know if we’re catching anything until we pull the nets up.”

At exactly 5 p.m., the hour that the North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries has set as the start time for Sunday shrimping this year, Jarman pushes down on the hydraulics lever, and the nets drop into the water. As if a silent signal has gone out, seagulls, which have been quiet until now, begin screeching and swooping. The flock triples in size. Gulls dive-bomb the nets from all angles. Shrimp are popping out of the water on both sides of the boat.

Now, Jarman needs to convert his passengers into crew. He hands everyone a pair of gloves. He gives one person a red plastic dustpan to scoop shrimp off the table and dump them into the red plastic baskets that Wells is placing on the deck by the table. Another guest gets a pair of tongs, the kind you’d use to scoop up a hot potato at the dinner table. Jarman eases up on the lever to raise the nets, and they erupt from the river, each bulging with a dripping, wriggling mass of shrimp. Wells unties the rope cinching the bottom of the nets, and — whoosh! — a teeming load of sea life rushes onto the table.

Before setting sail, Jarman fills the 10 coolers aboard Faith & Hope with a couple hundred pounds of ice. With any luck, he’ll send his passengers home with plenty of shrimp — and maybe some flounder and crabs, too. photograph by KAREN LANGLEY MARTIN

Thousands of grayish white shrimp flip and hop on the table, mixed in with the inevitable “bycatch,” unintended victims of the shrimp nets — a brilliant white-and-yellow pompano, a shimmering lavender lookdown fish, and blue crabs with red-tipped pinchers. The flurry of activity on the table demands action, and it’s all hands on deck. Banana Lady uses the dustpan to scoop shrimp with one hand and, taking a cue from Wells and Jarman, uses the other hand to pick up the bycatch and toss it back into the river. The gulls are shrieking, feasting. The passenger with tongs gingerly clamps the crab shells and deposits them into their own basket. Crabs aren’t worth selling in North Carolina this time of year, but they’ll make good eating.

Seven hectic minutes later, it’s all over. Jarman and Wells dump 14 baskets of shrimp into the coolers and top them with a layer of ice. “That’s about 700 pounds,” Jarman reports. Shrimp are priced by size, and his buyers will want to know how big they are. These are 20-count, he estimates, meaning 20 shrimp per pound. The lower the number, the bigger the shrimp. These are a good size. “Anything over 40 is very hard to sell.”

Already, just an hour after leaving the dock, they’ve caught more shrimp than on many of Jarman’s entire trips last year. They drop the nets twice more and both times haul up hundreds of pounds of shrimp. Jarman’s limit of what he and Wells can handle back at the dock is 2,000 pounds, so after they hit that in three drops, they start back.

The wind has died down, so Jarman can raise the nets for a faster trip home. The nets drip water as they rise, and a few stray shrimp dangle in the netting. The clouds turn orange and pink and plum as Faith & Hope heads back, riding a ton heavier in the water than when it left. This is Jarman’s best haul in two or three years.

As always, he shares the catch with his guests. Back at the dock, everyone fetches coolers from their cars, and Jarman fills them with shrimp and ice. For those who need it, he offers simple instructions on how to prepare the shrimp at home. (“Pop the heads off first, like this. Then use a plastic tool you can get for a couple bucks from Ace Hardware and zip the top vein out. Freeze them in water in plastic containers — not Ziploc bags, or the sharp part on the tail might poke through the bag.”)

A woman slides her cooler full of shrimp into the back of her minivan and turns around. She reaches into her pocket and hands Jarman the banana she never got around to eating. “Here,” she says. “You can have this. Maybe it’s good luck.”

Reel Livin’ Fishing Charters
132 Gull Drive
Sneads Ferry, NC 28460
(910) 330-7785

This story was published on May 29, 2023

Karen Langley Martin

Karen Langley Martin is a writer based in Durham.