Living Life As A Georgia Shrimper

Daryl Gay | June 29, 2023

“We didn’t have depthfinders. We had a lead sinker with soap on a string.”

The world—including the serene, salt-flecked beauty of the coast around Darien—was a different place 60 years ago. So was making a living, off the land or water.

And sometimes both.

Henry Arden “Skip” Skipper, Jr. is the current patriarch of that legendary McIntosh County name, which is intertwined with just about anything that can be caught in the surrounding ocean, marshes and rivers. For the past few decades, mostly shrimp.

Darien was founded—in 1736!—as a port on the Altamaha River, roughly 50 miles below Savannah. It’s a friendly, sleepy little town of  around 1,500 folks, most of whom seem to have permanently affixed smiles. Sitting down with Skip, son Chris and his wife Jennifer and son Dalton, was like being hosted by neighbors. I wanted to learn, as well as pass on, a bit of the story surrounding Darien, shrimp, the Skippers and that mighty river.

I’d come to the right place.

“I went to the University of Georgia and majored in forestry, because I decided that if I was going to work for somebody else, then it was going to be outdoors,” Skipper related. “After graduation (Class of 1959) I came home to Darien and worked for Georgia Pacific for three years, then went to work for my dad at Skipper’s Seafood.”

Skip’s dad Henry Arden Skipper, Sr. started Skipper’s Seafood in 1936.

“There’s not a lot of farming going on in the winter time in Georgia, and back then in the late 1950s and early 60s, a lot of farmers would come down to the Altamaha and catch shad to sell. Daddy built a boat with a set of scales on it to go out on the river, and he’d have the fishermen bring their catch to him to save them time fishing and distance traveling. Shad season runs roughly from Jan. 1-March 31, and you talk about a cold boat ride!

“He would get on the river before daylight in Darien and run all the way up the Altamaha to just below Jesup. There would always be five or six thousand dollars in his pocket, and the fishermen would be paid cash for their catch according to poundage. That’s what they liked, cash money! He did it just like the U.S. Mail: every day.”

The homely shad caught in these waters begins its upstream run from Florida’s St. Johns River. It will weigh 2 or 3 pounds initially, gaining a couple before reaching the Altamaha.

“The shad is a big sardine,” Skipper said. “It’s oily, and when He made them, the Good Lord had a handful of extra bones on hand and just threw them in! It’s a good fish for smoking, full of oil and full of bones. The Catholic tradition of eating fish on Fridays kept us in business. We would box and ship 3,000 pounds a day during the height of the season, and all of them went North. We shipped to Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, all the big cities. That’s something that’s lost now; I don’t know how the tradition changed, but when it did, the shad market fell out.”

And with it went the wintertime farmers and their gill nets. Not so the shrimp market.

In the early 60s, Skipper purchased his first of a progression of shrimp boats, the 35-foot Mary Virginia. In 1980 came the McIntosh Lady, a 68-footer that roamed the coast until sold in 2003. Sadly, word is that the Lady now rests at the bottom of the Atlantic.

With the early boats, Skipper would go out every day. With the Lady, he and a crew of one or two more could stay out up to 10 days. Bottom line? “You needed to gross a thousand dollars a day to stay afloat and make a living,” Skipper said. “Price depends on a wide range of variables, including size of the shrimp, white shrimp, brown shrimp, on and on. We had to get after it and stay after it.”

If you’ve been to a beach, you’ve probably seen a shrimp boat. If you’ve done any serious shark fishing, you may well have trailed one and tossed baitfish into the maelstrom behind the dragging nets. (And if you’ve ever been close enough to see exactly what’s in that whirling water, you may STAY on the beach…)

Skip Skipper with a big redfish he caught years ago.

But what’s a day on a shrimp boat out of Darien like? Let’s go see.

“There’s always the boat check, engine oil, fuel, making sure you have everything you need for as long as you’re going to be out,” Skipper recalled. “But for me, the first thing I wanted to hear when I got on the boat was bacon or sausage sizzling, one of the crew members cooking! Coffee would be boiling and we’d have breakfast while the engines were warming up.

“We had about a 45-minute run down to the ocean, depending on the tides. You wanted to get out on a mud bottom to look for the shrimp, but we didn’t have depthfinders back then to show us what was down there. We had a lead sinker with soap on a string. The wet soap would be soft and whatever was on the bottom would stick to it, whether mud, shells, whatever. The string would give us the depth. Experience was what found the shrimp. The older fellows wouldn’t tell you much, but they’d tell you a little. It was like they had a job out there picking up $50 bills. Why should they call anybody for help?”

Depthfinders were only a figment of the imagination seven decades ago, as were GPS and other navigation aids. It’s one thing to know where the shrimp are and quite another matter to know exactly where YOU are!

“Most of the time were were 2 1/2 to 3 miles out, but in the winter, we would go as far as 10 to 12. How far out the shrimp were was linked to what the wind was doing and the moon phase. I got around by landmarks. If that lighthouse on Sapelo Island had ever fell down, we all would have been in a mess. There used to be a huge pine tree on Blackbeard Island that I used, but it got struck by lightning; I like to have cried!

“Even years later after the directional devices came out, I’d find that my landmark reckoning was better than theirs in a lot of cases. It might not be much—but it could mean the difference in catching or not catching shrimp.”

When it’s time to get serious, shrimp located, the work begins. The outriggers (pointing skyward on the McIntosh Lady) will fold down and out to the sides of the boat.

“When you let the outriggers down,” Skipper says, “the net feeds out net doors and out onto the outriggers. When we first started, we pulled two nets on the smaller boats. The McIntosh Lady pulled four 50-foot nets. When the nets are on the bottom, you’ll catch shrimp, fish, conch, crabs, anything that hugs the bottom real close.”

The shrimp are sorted and everything else goes back in the water. Some mornings there are things out there that don’t need to be caught…

“You never know for sure how things are going to be out on the water, because weather can change so quickly,” Skipper recalls. “I remember one morning we got into a solid wall of mist on the water and couldn’t see much of anything away from the boat. I spotted something floating, and it looked exactly like one of those exploding mines you see during war time or something. I dodged that stupid thing all day until the mist finally cleared off enough to let me see that it was a floating buoy from who knows where.”

Henry Arden “Skip” Skipper, Jr. lived life as a Georgia shrimper in the Darien area. He went to work for his father’s compnay Skipper’s Seafood in the ealry 1960s. His dad started the company in 1936.

Over the years, all three of the Skipper sons—Chris, Hank and Bill—worked in the family business. Chris well remembers another situation that caused for dodging.

“There was always something going on, maybe a net improperly dragging or not closed off the way it should be,” he laughed. “Everything would be OK until Daddy’s hat came off and he started scratching his head. Somebody was about to get a chewing out, and there’s nowhere to run on a shrimp boat.”

There is, indeed, a way to rig a net and a way not to, the technicalities of which are beyond me. But I do understand, as Skip said, that if it’s not done right, you may well have one side of the net loaded with shrimp and the other dragging empty with them flowing over, under or through it.

“I had a guy on the boat once who rigged one side wrong, and I called him on it. We had a catch on one side and not a single thing on the other. He told me he was sure he had done things just the right way and that a porpoise had untied the bottom of the net so he could get at the shrimp. I told him that must be one educated porpoise, because he also re-tied that complicated original knot before he left!”

In 2000, the family closed Skipper’s Seafood and sold the property. The area was so iconic that new owners asked to continue using the name, hence Skipper’s Fish Camp Restaurant. Condos have also been built on part of the area.

Skip Skipper has seen myriad changes in the business of seafood and shrimping over more than 60 years. I asked him his thoughts for the future.

“I would like to see, at some point in time, not to catch the first roe (spawning) shrimp and see what comes of that. When I first starting fishing, if you bought a box (100 pounds) of roe shrimp that was really something special. Now it’s probably half the money. I know the shrimpers would be opposed to that because they’ve got to make a living. Things have come a long way. I just think it would pay off in the future.”

The shrimping life still runs deep in the Skipper family. If you’re ever fishing around Darien, look for a shrimp boat called Damon Boy. Give a friendly wave to Capt. Bill Skipper, Skip’s youngest son, who will be dragging those nets. On deck you will see Kyle, Bill’s son and Skip’s grandson.

Payday! This picture was taken in May 2020 and are Skip’s grandsons. Kyle Skipper (son of Bill Skipper) is in the white slicker and Dalton Skipper (son of Chris Skipper) is in the orange slicker.

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