History is best written by those who lived it.
“Where Have All of the Shrimps Boats Gone?” is the working title of a 79,000-word book by longtime Lowcountry fisherman and shrimper Woody Collins of Beaufort.
It’s the story of shrimping in Beaufort County told by someone who was involved in the industry for about 60 years. Covering nearly 100 years, the book tells an insider’s history of a segment of Lowcountry life that few have heard.
Collins began his shrimping career as a boy growing up in the 1950s in Beaufort and Port Royal. “I didn’t come from a fishing family,” he said in a recent interview. “I was the same age as boys whose daddies owned shrimp boats. If you showed an interest, you’d end up working on them.”
At 77, Collins has retired from the commercial shrimping business that sustained him for decades. But he is still vitally interested in telling the stories of the heyday, especially since shrimp boats are slowly disappearing from our waters. “From Texas to North Carolina,” he said, “boats that don’t work are just sitting at docks.
With little to no writing experience, Collins said he began the book about two years ago. “For me to write a book would be like David Lauderdale and Pat Conroy buying a damn shrimp boat,” he said. Nonetheless, he believes the story needs to be told, so “I just started writing.”
Back in the 1940s and ’50s, Collins said, shrimping dominated the Lowcountry. “At least 1,000 people in Beaufort County were involved,” he said. “The shrimping industry is what kept Beaufort from having bread lines.”
While boats still line several docks in Beaufort, Port Royal and Hilton Head, few of them are operational. Collins said there are 13 shrimp boats docked in Port Royal, at the end of 11th Street, but only five are operational.
There are three boats working on Hilton Head and five in Beaufort, according to Collins. Capt. Larry Toomer still operates his boats in Bluffton.
Some might think environmental issues or over-fishing have caused the decline of the shrimping industry, but Collins said that’s not the problem. “Shrimp are like mosquitoes,” he said. “If conditions are right, you’ll have them coming out your ears.”
Starting in the 1980s, the “slow dance” of decline began. Costs of maintaining the vessels, especially the older ones, became overwhelming. Captains had to find other ways to supplement their incomes.
Among other factors were the closure of some shrimping grounds, increasing federal regulations, restrictions on the size of nets, mandatory turtle excluders and fish reduction devices, new requirements for inspections, and new paperwork. Collins said all played a role in decreasing profitability.
In addition, consumers have contributed to the issue. “Imported shrimp,” Collins said. “People are buying shrimp for the price alone. They have no idea what they are getting.”
Long-time residents will recognize names of many of the shrimpers and fishermen in the book. Capt. Stratty Pollitzer, Benny Hudson, the Toomer family – and their boats – are in the book.
Collins also tells his own story.
He first came to Hilton Head in the 1960s “on an old boat with Bobby Chapman.” They tied up at Hudson’s on Skull Creek, where Benny Hudson was moving oyster shells around with a tractor, creating the foundation for the restaurant to be built. “The story is in the book,” he said with a smile.
Collins tells how he later sold shrimp “right off the boat at the dock” at Palmetto Bay Marina, and later opened a little restaurant, Capt. Woody’s, in the marina. He continued to shrimp, and sold his catch in the restaurant.
At press time, “Where Have All of the Shrimp Boats Gone?” is in the editing process, and Collins expects publication to follow.
“Every one of those boats has a story,” he said. And he wrote his book to tell those stories.
“I’ve had the opportunity to write a history,” he said. “Not re-write history, and not make history, but write it.”