PORT LAVACA - The sky is inky black when Danny Harborth steps from the waterlogged wooden dock of Poor Boy Bait onto his boat, the Yuma.
He slides the thick rope deftly through his wide calloused fingers as he unties it from the dock, bringing the engines to life with a roar, shattering the stillness of the early morning.
As the engines settle into a steady putter, he sits in the captain's chair, moving the vessel away from the dock with a few brisk turns of the wheel.
Harborth is a bait shrimper. He spends his days moving through the bays studying the water and looking for the best place to bring in live shrimp for fishing.
He's a tough-looking man, barrel-chested with shaggy rust-colored hair and a bristly mustache that makes him look like a messy Teddy Roosevelt when he smiles.
"I don't think it's so much shrimping being in my blood as it is being on the water. It's ... I don't know, it's just the way it is. I'm comfortable out there. It's like a second home," Harborth said.
The boat moves across the dark water past Alcoa and the other industrial plants that line the shore, radiating copper-colored light.
Harborth grimaces a little as the Yuma goes by the industrial plants. Shrimping and the sea may be in his blood, but he also has worked at almost every plant that lines the coast near Port Lavaca.
Soon he's out in the darkness again and, slowly, the sun begins to peek over the horizon. For a few moments, the light is perfectly balanced and the sky and sea are both bathed in pale orange.
Shrimping is an art as much as it is a learned trade. Harborth grew up on the water, but after years in the Navy and then time spent jumping from job to job at the various industrial plants, he came back to shrimping 10 years ago. He had to put in a lot of effort to learn how to shrimp on his own.
To shrimp, you have to know how shrimp work. You have to know that good shrimping happens when the water is murky and the shrimp can't see the nets. You need a map of the bays and estuaries printed on your mind, to know where the shrimp tend to go, where the water is deep and where a boat is likely to get snagged because the water is too shallow. The moon, the tides, the weather, the seasons - all of this plays a part in the art of shrimping. It's not something just anybody can do.
"Shrimpers are a dying breed," Harborth said, standing at the wheel of his boat. "It doesn't matter, though. I'll keep on shrimping."
Just after 6 a.m., Harborth lowers his nets into the Matagorda Bay Ship Channel. The boat begins turning in wide, stately circles like some fading dowager queen.
Most shrimpers have help, but Harborth prefers to work alone. He used to take on deckhands, but the men were unreliable.
Some didn't like the work, standing on deck in all weather, sorting shrimp from the rest of the catch hauled in by the nets. Shrimp, octopus and croakers are culled from piles of gleaming ribbon fish, and the occasional shark and crab that get dredged up from the water.
The main thing a bait shrimper has to do is keep the bait alive. One unfortunate deckhand was fired with a verbal dressing down worthy of a retired Navy man after he let the motors on the tanks run out of gas, killing most of the live bait for the day's catch.
"I may have lost my temper a little, but that was a whole day's work, gone," Harborth said, shaking his head.
Another hand worked through a week without any problems, seemed to be getting along all right. Then he called one morning, said he was having car trouble, but he'd be there soon. Harborth waited for him at the dock, but he never showed. He's worked on his own since then.
Harborth grew up in a shrimping family. He started shrimping at the age of 4, a barefoot kid on the boat of his grandfather Fred Weber, standing alongside him after the shrimp were pulled in and dumped on the deck, watching intently as the old man sorted his catch. Weber was an old-school shrimper from Seadrift. When Harborth's younger brother, Myron Harborth, was old enough, they both went out on the water, learning from their grandfather.
"I thought it was the greatest thing in the world," he says.
A lot has changed in the trade since those days. Shrimpers used wooden boats back then, the kind that needed to have their nooks and crannies stuffed with cotton to stop the leaks. They didn't have sonar, GPS or any of the modern-day gadgetry that Harborth employs. They were just beginning to deal with government regulations.
"He always said if you do something, do it right the first time. I'm kind of the same way, I guess," Harborth says, laughing.
The day everything changed
That all ended, or seemed to, on June 18, 1970. Harborth was working as a hand on another boat that day, but he was within eyeshot of his grandfather's boat.
The radio exploded with chatter that someone on the boat was in trouble. His brother had fallen overboard and was drowning.
By the time help came, it was too late. His brother had been knocked overboard by the rough seas, someone told him. His grandfather jumped in, trying to save the boy, and both drowned.
Their bodies were pulled from the water, and Harborth took the helm of his grandfather's boat to bring them back in.
"I can't even tell you what that moment was like," he said.
He stopped shrimping after that and left to serve in the Navy.
"I guess you could say I was running away, but it was even harder being away from home and dealing with that. It was a hard time in my life."
He spent almost 30 years in the Navy, traveling the globe and living on ships. Those were his wild years. He moved through two marriages and a distinguished number of women, drank and developed a natural talent for trouble. Finally, he retired and brought his third wife home to Port Lavaca. He took jobs at Formosa and Invista, but it was never a good fit. He found himself craving the water.
His stepfather, the owner of Poor Boy Bait, asked if he wanted to learn to bait shrimp and he said yes, he was aching to get back to the sea.
He asked his mother for a small oval picture. It showed a captain at the wheel of a boat on stormy seas, with the image of Jesus looking down with his hand touching the sailor's shoulder, a shelter in the storm. The picture was his grandfather's. Harborth bolted it to the wall in the wheel house of the Yuma, and he was ready to shrimp.
Cowboys of the sea
Shrimpers are a dying breed. Once the cowboys of the sea, their way of life is becoming a thing of the past. They used to be able to support large families with the catch they pulled out of the Gulf and the bays. Now, they can barely keep the business running well enough to pay for the gas to get them out there.
"Sometimes you go out and you get nothing," Harborth said. "Some of these guys don't get anything, and it's rough on them with gas so high."
Harborth works all the time. He's usually on the boat heading out to sea by about 4 a.m., earlier if he's going farther out. When he gets back to the dock in the afternoon, he'll spend an hour or two cleaning the boat before calling it a day.
He takes his days off sporadically in the middle of the week, whenever business is slow. He bides some time in a little good-natured bickering with his wife. The father of a son and daughter, he spends time with his grandchildren or doing a little work on the restaurant building his daughter is planning to open in Port Lavaca.
His grandfather made a living because gas was cheap and shrimp were $3 a pound. Today's shrimpers wouldn't know what to do if they got $3 a pound, Harborth said. Gas prices have skyrocketed, but shrimp prices have not increased to match it. The creation of government regulations has been a problem, too.
There aren't many boats out on the water today. The radio crackles every once in awhile as shrimpers exchange greetings and some good natured ribbing with each other. It used to be going nonstop.
An hour passes, and the sun is beating down on the moss-green water.
"All right, let's see what we've got," Harborth says, hitting the wench to pull the net in.
It appears, half full with wriggling creatures. He swings the net over one of the tanks on deck and everything drops into the tank water with a splash. Goggled-eyed shrimp swim in circles with gold and silver skinned croaker fish, dagger-toothed ribbon fish, baby octopi, a few stingrays and even a shark or two.
With a net, he pulls the shrimp out, dropping them, the croakers and the octopus into separate holding containers.
He plucks a shrimp from the tank. Feelers moving frantically, legs wheeling, the shrimp springs from his hand to the deck.
"Now, that's what you call fresh shrimp," Harborth says, laughing.
He goes back to his catch, his smile fading. The tank is chock full of ribbon fish, a "junk fish" not much good to anyone except seagulls, pelicans and dolphins that follow the boat.
"Pathetic, pathetic, pathetic," he mutters, his frown deepening.
He tosses ribbon fish over the port side of the boat. Seagulls and pelicans swoop wildly at the gleaming silver fish, tearing their slick bodies to pieces and gobbling the flesh in greedy gulps. Anything the birds miss are pounced on by sleek brown dolphins in the water below.
"Let's see what we've got here," he says, walking over and shaking out the turtle excluder device that dangles from the nets. A few crabs and some larger fish flop back into the water, where seagulls, pelicans and dolphins fight to get at them.
Once, Harborth found a sea turtle in the nets. He tugged the creature loose and set it on the deck for a moment. The turtle was still breathing so he threw it back into the water.
"I think he was still alive," he said.
With a sigh, he brings the engines clattering to life again and walks back to the wheel house to find more shrimp.
Static fuzz comes over the radio. Another shrimp boat captain's voice bursts into the cabin.
"I'm out here getting two pounds of nothing worth catching. I'm thinking of heading back in and saving my fuel, and it looks like Danny is heading my way."
Harborth radios back, "Nah, Jesse, you keep all your two pounds to yourself. I'm thinking of trying the flats."
The boat moves out, and Harborth goes through the process again, dragging and sorting, dragging and sorting, with deeper lines digging into his face as each drag brings up fewer and fewer shrimp he can use.
His ears prick up when someone calls out on the radio that a ship is coming up the channel. He starts up the engines and moves in, waiting for a purple steel barge from a local plant to lumber through. The blue-green water turns muddy in the ship's wake, and Harborth is smiling again, a gleam in his eye.
"This is my last try for the day, but it might be good," he says, suddenly giddy.
He pulls up the nets the way kids open Christmas presents, so excited by what he might find when he dumps them in the tanks.
A small catfish slices his finger open, and he looks down and laughs.
"Ah that's nothing. If I leave here on a day without bleeding, that's a rare day," he says.
Soon the smile sags a bit, the catch isn't quite what he was dreaming of. He packs the nets in and starts for shore, ready to try again another day. It isn't much, it isn't the thousands of pounds that used to show up on deck in his grandfather's time, but it's enough. He'll go out again tomorrow, and when he opens the net, he'll have the same thrill, the same giddy expectation that this time his bet will pay off and he'll get something good.
"There have been days I've come in whining like a dog, didn't catch anything. But the next day, you go back out and you maybe do better. You never know. Nothing is ever the same. That's what I love about it."