Friday, June 9, 2023
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Perfect Prawning

As I look out the office window in February, all my salmon has been smoked and candied, and there aren’t many fillets left in the freezer. We finally have a high-pressure system building, and it makes me think it’s time to dig out my prawn traps and go out after some tasty spot prawns—bugs, as we call them. Before pulling out all the gear, first things first—I need to take a look at the DFO website to check and see that my favorite area is open to harvesting. Once I know my favorite spot is open, it’s time to get the gear ready. But before I get into that, let’s take a quick look at the quarry.

About Shrimp & Prawns

Click the above image to download the IFMP

There are seven species of shrimp harvested in BC in commercial, recreational, and First Nations fisheries: spot prawn, humpback shrimp, coonstripe or dock shrimp, smooth pink shrimp, northern or spiny pink shrimp, flexed shrimp, and sidestripe shrimp. All are members of the family Pandalidae. The trap fishery primarily targets spot prawns, or Pandalus platyceros, with limited effort directed towards humpback and coonstripe shrimp. Spot prawns are the largest of the Pacific coast shrimp species and are generally found on rocky or hard bottom. The global distribution of spot prawn ranges from Unalaska Island off Alaska down to San Diego.

Commercial Prawning

Most commercial fishing in BC occurs in depths of 130′ to 330′ in near-shore waters. All pandalid shrimp species undergo a change of sex in midlife. They mature first as males and mate, then their sexual characteristics change during a transition phase and they become females in the final year or two of their lives. The biological term for this sex change is protandric hermaphro- dism. Spawning typically occurs in late autumn or early winter, and the females externally carry the developing eggs until the they hatch in spring. Larvae then are released into the water column and are believed to have a 3-month pelagic phase where they drift in the water column prior to settlement. Spot prawns typically live to 4 years of age in BC. Following release of the larvae, spent female mortality is rapid, usually several weeks. Few if any prawns survive past the fourth year. Most prawns are harvested between ages 2 and 3.

Recreational Prawning

The recreational fishery is an open entry fishery with a daily limit, two-day possession limit, gear limits, and gear marking requirements. The main target species is prawns. As of April 2018, prawns with eggs cannot be retained. There is no size limit. Humpback shrimp and coonstripe (or dock) shrimp may also be caught in localized areas.

Spot Prawn


Pink shrimp may also be caught incidentally. The recreational fishery is open for most of the coast throughout the year. Sampling conducted in the fall prior to spawning helps to determine whether winter recreational harvest is permissible in selected areas where most recreational prawn effort occurs. Based on the Spawner Index Model, seasonal closures are implemented to protect egg-bearing female prawns from recreational fishing mortality during the critical winter spawning period (January 1 to March 31) through to the end of the larval hatching period (which normally occurs around the end of March). Special measures are in place in three high-use recreational fishing areas: Saanich Inlet, Stuart Channel, and Alberni Inlet. At these locations, additional management measures include higher spawner index targets, a one-week closure in May, and “pulse fishing” (two weeks closed, two weeks open) beginning in September. These measures were developed collaboratively by the commercial and recreational sectors and with agreement of local First Nations in an effort to leave more female prawns carrying eggs on the spawning grounds, with an anticipated benefit of more prawns for all harvest sectors beginning two years later.

Got all that? Let’s go prawning!

Preparing Your Prawning Gear

You’ll want to check your prawn puller is in good working order first—it’s no fun pulling in full traps by hand, especially with hundreds of feet of line. I favor the Brutus Puller with the hands-free adaptor. I prefer Bauer box traps, and I always do a quick inspection making sure they are all in good working order; even when the traps haven’t been used for a while, I usually find something in need of repair (i.e. a frayed knot or fussy clip). I always carry a few extra cable ties for any quick fixes that may come up during a day fishing the traps.

Ace Line Hauler Brutus with rope bag

Prawning Ropes

There are many ways to set up ropes for prawning. Some people expensively use all sink line, and some weight float line at intervals with weighted clips.

No matter what, it’s important that your trap’s rope is as straight up and down as possible—if it’s not, surface slack can wreak havoc on other boaters by getting caught in props. It’s a sure way to say goodbye to your gear, too.

I run 450′ total of line. The first 100′ from the float is sink line, which is connected to 350′ of floating rope terminating at the trap. The sink line is heavy enough to keep the float line down and out of the way of any passersby. The added bonus of float line at depth is that it will lessen the chance of the rope tangling on the bottom, or fouling the trap termination.

Floats For Prawn Traps

As of April 1, 2023, prawn traps must use a ‘scotchman’ style round float with a minimum 27 cm in diameter. The DFO also notes that, “Floats must be made of a durable material and designed for operation in marine waters. Avoid plastic jugs, bottles and foam blocks that may deteriorate or sink, or are hard to see or mark. This change supports improved enforcement, the removal of junk from marine waters, and supports cleaner oceans.”

Weighting Prawn Traps

I put 2 lbs of lead in the center of my traps and clip a 5-lb pyramid weight in front of the first trap on the main line (I typically fish 2 traps on one line).

The pyramid weight acts as an anchor and I prefer them as they won’t roll as a cannonball or flat weight will. This makes the trap hold its position on the floor, even over the tide exchanges. Prawns don’t like any kind of movement—they spook easily so ensure once your trap is on the bottom, it stays put. Bring duct tape and a permanent marker so you can put your name and phone number on each float as required by law.

Perfect Prawning

Prawn Bait

Scotty bait cups are easy to maintain and keep clean. Before and after every use, a good rinse will do the job. As a rule, I don’t want the chance of any leftover smell from a previous trip on any of my gear. Before heading out, I usually pour some fish oil in my day’s supply of prawn pellets to give them some additional time to absorb added scent, before they hit the water. Bait cups are placed in the fixed center location in the trap.

Taplow Commercial Prawn & Crab Bait – 55lb Bulk Bag

Fishing Multiple Prawn Traps

I typically run two traps 20′ apart on the rope, but if you would like to run four traps you’ll need to have two floats (one at each end) and enough rope to affix the traps between them. At the time of writing, we are allowed to fish four traps per person, with a daily limit of 125 prawns, of which none can be berried (always check your local regulations). I will usually set four to eight traps, depending on the area and how many people are on the boat.

2 prawn trap configuration
4 prawn trap configuration

Finding Prawns on a Map

Look for drop-offs, gullies, and sharp faces. Prawns will favour structure where there will be an abundance of nutrients. When young (under 1 cm) they feed on plankton but as they grow larger, they’ll eat worms, small shellfish and even small shrimp. They are also scavengers, eating dead fish, crab, etc. Gullies and sharp faces allows for more life accumulation than a muddy, flat area. Prawns will also often move to shallower depths at night, during their hunting cycle.

Soaking Prawn Traps

Your soak time, depending on the area you fish, should be 2 to 6 hrs. Plan your day in advance, and try to fish over the slack tide. I usually don’t stray too far away from my sets to ensure I can keep an eye on my gear. Unfortunately, theft of trap gear is a real problem. I’ll troll around to see if I can catch a fresh winter spring or two, which makes a wonderful table fish this time of year as an added bonus.

Prawn Trap Retrieval

When it’s time to pull the traps, approach the float into the current to hook the float. Once you have the rope, continue to steer your boat into the direction of the current while you retrieve and set in your prawn puller/ winch. This is called “backing down,” where you gather the slack between the trap and the float until you are directly over top of your trap and the line is vertical. As you continue to pull in line, your trap will ascend more vertically off the ocean floor rather than dragging, making for an easier ascent on all your equipment. You’ll still need someone at the helm to make throttle and steering corrections—especially if there is wind. This will greatly help to avoid tangles. While one person focuses on the rope’s vertical retrieve, the other can monitor the boat’s positioning and obstacles such as marine traffic, curious seals, and even debris—such as a nasty log.

Once the traps are at the boat, quickly sort through the prawns and throw back all berried females and any others too small to make the grade. The quicker they are returned to water, the better chance they have to survive. Take a quick count and put them in a bucket of water so they can clean themselves up, and when you have time, off with their heads! Then back to the dock.

Taking Home Prawns—a good day!

If you are going back out in the next few days, just rinse and repeat. If not, give all your gear a good bath of fresh water; then let it dry before putting it away for the next time you plan to go out.

I usually have a good feed of fresh prawns when I get home, and I freeze the balance in 1-litre cups with slightly salty water that I prepare myself.

This article appeared in Island Fisherman magazine. Never miss another issue—subscribe today!



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