Pulling a Shrimp Trawl

Three generations of the Graddick family come together to fish, shrimp and enjoy life on the water.

Photos by Elizabeth Gelineau // Right Shrimp photo by Matthew Coughlin

There’s a lot of jockeying, hustling and issuing of commands. Pulling a shrimp trawl is no easy business and people can get hurt. Nets can get hung. Props and lines can tangle. But the Graddicks just about have it down to a science.

As Corinne Graddick eases the family’s center console into neutral, her brother, Charlie Jr., gently drops a buoy over the port stern of the boat and a rough green net follows it out into the waters of the Mississippi Sound. His son, Charlie III, guides the net and lines into the water without tangling as Corinne ever so slightly shifts into forward gear. Charlie Jr. comments on his sister’s choice of speed, and she rolls her eyes, signifying that this is how it goes. Everyone tells everyone else how to do a job they’ve been doing pretty well since they were kids. 

Corinne Whiting Graddick, also known as Mimi, perches in the bow, content to stay out of the way and watch her children and grandchildren continue a love of the water that, for her, started about age 6. That’s the age she was when her parents moved the family to Venetia Road on Dog River. It was a wild place back then, considerably less developed, but a handful of families called that part of the river home. She and her older brothers lived their days inside
of — or being pulled behind — boats with the neighborhood kids. They fished, they drug a sein net, squishing their toes in the sand and mud to heave their catch to shore. They left home after breakfast and only came back when they were hungry again.

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Daughter Corinne Graddick and the family golden retriever, Fisher, enjoy the ride from the dock on Dog River towards the shrimping grounds. Charlie Graddick Jr. and Charlie III ease the net into the water for a first pass.

When the family finally left the river for a change of scenery, they went to their beach house on Little Lagoon in Gulf Shores. Swapping brackish water for salt, alligators for horseshoe crabs, the Whitings lived a life immersed in the water no matter where they went.

It’s no surprise, then, that she and her husband Charlie, former attorney general for the state of Alabama, instilled this love of the water in their children. Although his work took them to Montgomery for a good number of years beginning in 1979, as soon as their children graduated high school, they beelined it back to the coast, building a house on the site where the Whitings had grown up, with Mimi’s brother next door. “My son Charlie is across the street,” she says proudly, “and his son Charlie is living with us right now. We’re all here, and it’s wonderful.”

Even during those Montgomery days, daughter Corinne remembers spending every spare holiday back on the Bay, the river or the lagoon. “We worked and went to school in Montgomery, but our whole lives were here on the water.”

Charlie Graddick Sr. handed over the shrimping duties to the younger generations a while ago on account of the back-breaking work,and so the two younger Charlies brace themselves, each with a leg propped against the side of the boat as they heave the lines and draw the nets closer to the stern. Corinne is back behind the wheel, propellers in neutral, after making a long slow circle just off the shores of Dauphin Island’s backside. The nets finally reach the boat, and somebody carefully brings the heavy spreader boards over the sides of the boat, trying not to bang too much, while the chains clatter in a pile on the floor. When the net reaches the boat, baitfish jump wildly ahead of it, trying to escape. The birds noticed what was happening a long time ago, and they circle overhead or paddle next to the boat in anticipation of the feast to come. Little Charlie shakes the contents of the net down to the bottom of the bag as he goes, then gives it one last heave and the net is on the floor of the boat, full of life. Corinne places a big plastic tub in just the right spot, and somebody unties the cord, letting the contents spill out. 

Right The Graddick family eases the net into the water. Left Pelicans know a shrimp net means bycatch. Photo by Kathy Hicks

“My job is to quickly get all the dangerous things out of the way,” says little Charlie with confidence. He puts angry and aggressive crabs aside in a bucket if they are boiling-sized, and chucks sting rays and catfish out of the bin and overboard with a quick maneuver only an expert would attempt. Charlie Jr. ties the net again and carefully puts it back overboard while Corinne shifts into gear, and the whole process begins again. 

“This is when the kids really have fun,” says Corinne. Anyone on board who had wisely stayed out of the way during the hardest work can now play. It’s as if Davy Jones’ locker spilled its marvelous contents into one tub for your marine science education and enrichment. The entire bin is vibrating with the sounds of tiny croakers. The shrimpers begin to spout off the many weird and unusual things they’ve caught in past hauls, like puffer fish, ribbon fish, squid, horseshoe crabs and eels, in addition to the countless baby flounder and croaker that are usually part and parcel. But the Graddicks are true lovers of wildlife, and anything that is not going to be consumed or used as bait immediately goes overboard for a second-chance swim. It’s true, the seagulls, terns and pelicans make quick work of whatever minnows they can, but most make it back into the depths to live another day.

Early morning shrimping with a view of the Dauphin Island bridge. Photo by Kathy Hicks. Daughter Corinne brings boiled shrimp to the table. Charlie Graddick Jr. and Charlie III heave the loaded nets into the boat. 

The largest white shrimp, the ones with green and black spotted tails, are piled into plastic zip-top bags and put on ice for safekeeping. Smaller fellas go into the live bait well, where air bubbles keep Bay water churning fresh. 

Once all the work is done and the contents of the net are sorted, the Graddicks go fishing. “We love to shrimp early in the morning before the Alabama Deep Sea Fishing Rodeo,” Corinne explains. “I don’t really even love eating shrimp, but it’s what comes next that I get excited about.” Don’t let the pink shirt fool you… she’s as skilled as any of the Graddick men behind the wheel of the boat or with a rod and reel.

Back on land again, and there’s still work to be done. 

The net must be hosed off and laid to dry. The boat is rinsed and the gear is stored away. But pretty quickly, Charlie Jr. lights the fire to get a large pot of water boiling. Everyone agrees he is the main boiler and the family’s expert crab picker. “I don’t let anyone help pick because I don’t want shells in my West Indies,” he teases. “I boil them, and pick them all in one day, but I take my time.”

Mimi says she loves to boil her shrimp with nothing fancy. No corn or potatoes. But Corinne quickly snags some Conecuh out of the pile of boiled shrimp with pleasure, and the family begins to debate for the millionth time whether the sausage is pre-cooked (being smoked and all) or not. It depends on who you ask around here, but right out of the boiling pot, no one is worried. Mimi says she likes her shrimp served over an iceberg salad with egg-and-caper dressing. “Do you know that old Mobile recipe?” she asks. “It’s the best with some fresh peeled shrimp on top.”

Like the pelicans and seagulls who knew a feast was imminent when the shrimp trawl was first dipping in the water, extended family members appear out of the azalea bushes and cattails along Dog River to help enjoy the bounty. With them, a tussle of dogs come bounding down the dock ready to put their noses in whatever fishy bucket or platter of seafood was left a little too low. It’s a happy scene, and one that has been repeated along these shores for generations, and probably will for many more.


Mimi’s favorite Egg-and-Caper Salad Dressing

Makes 3 cups

2 cups mayonnaise
4-6 hardboiled eggs, chopped
3-ounce bottle of capers with juice
Salt and pepper to taste
Small squeeze of lemon juice

1. Mix all ingredients together in a small bowl until combined. Refrigerate until serving.

* This dressing is typically served over iceberg lettuce. Top it with peeled, boiled shrimp for a fresh, coastal lunch. Corinne says dressing is also delicious over steamed asparagus. 

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