Standing in the darkness along the shore of Tampa Bay, our leader, Peter Clark, went through a last-minute equipment check.
"Make sure your trap is working," he said. "Don't forget your bucket."
I tested the hinged door on my trap. Check.
I tugged on the 5-gallon bucket tied to my belt loop. Secure.
"Headlamps," he said. "Make sure they have fresh batteries. The brighter the light, the easier it is to see the shrimp."
About a dozen people had gathered at the edge of the grass beds on this full moon in May hoping to intercept the herds of pink shrimp headed offshore to spawn.
These tasty crustaceans spend the early part of their lives in the estuary, burrowing in the sea grass beds by day as they hide from predators such as snook, trout and redfish.
But come spring, on a new or full moon in May and sometimes June, they flee en masse to deep water.
"The trick is to be here before they head offshore," said Clark, executive director of Tampa Bay Watch, one of the region's leading environmental groups. "If you hit it right, they are pretty easy pickings."
Pink, brown or white
Most of the shrimp caught in Florida are members of the shrimp family Penaeidae. The pink shrimp, Farfantepenaeus duorarum, is the local favorite and by far the most common species found statewide.
The pink shrimp, so named because of their delicate pink color even after cooking, thrive in the clear waters, especially from Tampa Bay south, through the Keys, and into southeast Florida.
The two other species found in Florida are the brown shrimp, Farfantepenaeus aztecus, and the white shrimp, Litopenaeus setiferus. Brown shrimp, a close relative of our homegrown pink variety, are usually found in deeper water, primarily off northeast and northwest Florida.
The white shrimp is found in the same general area as the brown, but in shallower, more brackish water than the pink or brown.
Anglers are well-acquainted with the pink shrimp. The smaller ones, caught on the grass flats, are used for bait. But the same species, once it moves offshore and grows a little bigger, is again targeted by shrimpers and sold for food.
Pink shrimp are nocturnal. They lay low during the daytime, then hunt for food at night. That is where the headlight comes in. You won't see them moving through the grass, but when they turn to see what large creature is plodding through the grass beds, their eyes glow orange under electric light.
"The best approach is slow and steady," said Clark, who loves to shrimp each spring with his two teenage boys. "But once you put the trap down on top of the shrimp, you have to be quick."
After receiving my instructions, Clark and the rest of his crew walked parallel to the shoreline while I headed off into the darkness in about calf-deep water. As I moved ahead slowly, scanning the grass around my feet, I could hear the sound of trout popping in the distance.
Finally, after 15 minutes of aimless plodding, I spotted my first shrimp. I moved left, it moved right. Cheeky bugger, I thought to myself.
Then, with the crustacean in my sights, I dropped the trap and pulled the lever. The angled door helped to sweep the shrimp inside. As I lifted the wire box from the water, I could hear the shrimp's little tail snapping.
One down, only 49 left to go to fill my stomach.
A major industry
The commercial shrimp industry was once Florida's most important fishery. But by 2000, the flood of foreign imports had a disastrous effect on the domestic shrimp industry. More than 88 percent of the shrimp on the U.S. market came were imported from countries such as China, Vietnam, India and Brazil, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service.
More than 200,000 U.S. jobs were lost, then, in 2005, a string of hurricanes dealt another crippling blow to domestic shrimp production.
The federal government imposed tariffs against some of the countries exporting shrimp below fair market value, and Congress approved nearly $7-million of the federal disaster assistance to help Florida's beleaguered shrimp industry.
Most consumers were unaware of the flood of cheap imports. The state launched a campaign to bring the issue to light in 2004. A survey conducted by the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services found that 82 percent of those who responded would be willing to pay a little more money per pound for wild-caught, domestic shrimp. By 2006, Florida's shrimp industry supported 4,400 jobs and contributed $185-million to the state's economy.
To learn more, go to www.wild
The hungry shrimper
After an hour of hunting, I had only six shrimp in my bucket, but my shoes were full of sand and shells. Clark and his crew had not fared much better.
"We usually have better luck than this," Clark said. "I think we are a couple of weeks too early. Maybe we should try again on the new moon."
Clark had told me to bring along a cooler for my booty, but I was heading home nearly empty-handed. For a moment, I thought about swinging by the grocery store to buy a couple dozen, inexpensive, farm-raised shrimp.
But my mother-in-law, a fourth generation St. Petersburg resident, has discerning taste buds. She would surely know the difference.
No. I'd wait until morning, then canvass the local seafood markets until I found the real thing.
To learn more about Tampa Bay Watch and the efforts to restore Tampa Bay for healthy commercial and recreational fisheries, go to www.tampabaywatch.org.