North Shore Crabber Sings the Pontchartrain Blues

by / Newsroom Ink on August 21, 2013
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A native of Ponchatoula, Laramie Hill is counting down the days until he pulls his crap traps and packs his belongings to head off to Iowa where he will work in the construction industry with his brother. Photo: Ashton Daigle/Newsroom Ink

by Ashton Daigle/Newsroom Ink for Louisiana Seafood News

From Manchac to the Rigolets, the rows and rows of neatly stacked crab traps sitting unused on docks and piers tell a story that local crabbers hope will eventually have a happy ending. But for the time being, many are bracing and preparing for the worst. Among them is Manchac-based crabber Laramie Hill.

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Hill’s boat sits at the dock waiting for traps to be unloaded one last time. Photo: Ashton Daigle/Newsroom Ink

A native of Ponchatoula, Hill is now counting down the days until he packs his belongings and heads off to Iowa where he will work in the construction industry with his brother. Laramie explained that his decision to make the move is not out of choice, but out of sheer necessity.

This year’s shortage of blue crabs in and around the Lake Pontchartrain Basin, which also includes Lake Maurepas and Lake Borgne, is the worst Hill has seen since he started as a crabber. He began crabbing commercially in 2000, shortly after meeting his wife Amanda.

“It was my father-in-law who introduced me to it,” he said. “He brought me in and showed me the ropes. That’s how I got started. He’s been at it for a long time, at least since the mid 1970’s and he says this is the worst he has ever seen it.”

Slow Start, to Grinding Halt

Hill said this season got off to a sluggish, but workable start. According to him crabbers typically begin the season in mid-January, provided the winter is not a particularly harsh. Peak season is between March to July, and then tapers off until the onset of fall.

“It started fair, but it’s been downhill ever since,” said the longtime fisherman. “It was bad in February and by the time March got here, we were barely getting anything. Now are really our big money-making months, if you haven’t made what you had to make by now you can practically hang it up for the season.”

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Expenses are another factor that weighed into Hill’s decision to seek work elsewhere. Fuel, boat and motor maintenance and traps quickly add up. Photo: Ashton Daigle/Newsroom Ink

Hill said he initially tried to push through and continue to run his traps. The more traps he set out though, the more it seemed his efforts were fruitless.

“It used to be that in some parts of the lake you could set traps in the morning and come back the same evening and have a big haul,” he explained about years past. “It’s to the point now where we set traps out, let them stay out for a few days and even then, most of the time they’re just empty when we come back to them. It’s like you go deeper and deeper into the hole on every trip you.”

Expenses are another factor that weighed into Hill’s decision to seek work elsewhere. Fuel, boat and motor maintenance and traps quickly add up. Hurricane Isaac damaged many of his traps or “pots” last fall, which meant he had to replace more than usual to the tune of thirty dollars apiece.

“That wouldn’t be a problem if we were catching crabs today, but we’re not,” Hill lamented. “When things are good this is a great job. There are people out there who would kill to have a job like this. You set your own hours and you’re your own boss. When it’s hard, it’s scary. A lot of guys up and down this canal are very nervous.”

Hill said he does not know what the cause is behind the apparent lack of blue crabs. Some have blamed cooler-than-usual water temperatures.

“I don’t claim to know all the science behind it, so cooler water temperatures may actually play a small part in it,” he said sitting on his boat he leaves behind. “But I also know I’ve been out in past seasons when it was in the 40’s outside and I’ve caught plenty of crabs. These crabs should be biting right now, but they’re not.”

Hoping For the Best

Hill unloads his trap from his boat one last times to store them on-shore while he is gone.  Photo: Ashton Daigle/Louisiana Seafood News

Hill unloads his trap from his boat one last times to store them on-shore while he is gone. Photo: Ashton Daigle/Newsroom Ink

For the time being he is hoping for the best.

Hill’s wife and three children will stay behind in Ponchatoula while he makes the 15-hour trip to Iowa. It is not a perfect arrangement but he says he will try to make it home once or twice a month.

Although slated to start work in Iowa in a matter of days, he will return to Louisiana if the crab season shows sign of improvement.

“I’m hoping for the best but I’m preparing for the worst,” said the Ponchatoula native. “Some guys around here don’t need to do this. They’re retired and they collect pensions. For them crabbing brings in a few dollars each year and gives them something to do. For us younger guys this is our job, our livelihood. I’ve got a wife and three children that I have to provide for, I can’t afford to sit around waiting for the crabs to bite.”

 

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About the Author

About the Author: Ed Lallo is the former editor of Gulf Seafood News and CEO of Newsroom Ink, an online brand journalism agency. .

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