Shrimp and Sawdust: A Family Tradition


Shrimp and Sawdust: A Family Tradition

Gary Williams gets ready to put live shrimp inside a brown bag filled with sawdust. (VBR)
Gary Williams gets ready to put live shrimp inside a brown bag filled with sawdust. (VBR)

Gordon’s Bait & Tackle in Brownsville has gone through one expansion after another over the years, following a family tradition that has converted the business into more than just a place for anglers to buy supplies before they head on fishing trips to the bay, area canals and the beach.

The family owned and operated business on Highway 48, also known as Padre Island Highway, is a one-stop shop selling groceries, frozen seafood and cooked meals from breakfast tacos to fried shrimp and fish plates every Friday. It is also an informal meeting place where people gather in the morning to talk and tell stories.

It’s also the bait shop that came up with the idea of selling live shrimp packed in sawdust – yes, sawdust!

Gary Williams, who along with his two sisters, Amanda Burres and Sheila Montes, and about eight other family members are behind Gordon’s operation, said selling shrimp in sawdust has become something of a trademark for them. “We started selling it decades ago,” he said. “Our uncle came up with the idea when he had a shop called Walker’s in Port Isabel.”

Williams said Chinese seafarers told his uncle that in their country people put a big block of ice in the center of a container, then added sawdust and live shrimp around it. The crustaceans would stay alive in the sawdust for hours.

“He tried it at the store and it worked,” he said. Gordon’s sells the live shrimp in brown paper bags filled with sawdust. “The shrimp that people buy for bait stays alive for several hours and longer if you put a little ice in the sawdust.”

Williams said his father, the late Gordon Williams, bought the store in 1972 and it has been in his family’s hands ever since.

“The shop wasn’t even half the size of what it is today,” he said. “We kept adding and adding to the point of becoming a pretty good size business.”

In addition to the family members, Gordon’s employs about 30 people. Some of them have been there for more than 30 years, like 63-year-old Tony “Scarface” Juarez.

Williams said Gordon’s started with a couple of gas pumps, compared to the four diesel and six gas pumps today. Even though the shop sells a variety of merchandise, live and frozen bait and fishing supplies makes up the biggest chunk of its business.

Friday is fried seafood day and a day when scores of consumers can be seen lining up at the food counter waiting for a plate to go. Faithful customers like Carol Vasquez have been enjoying the fish plates for years.

The shop has an extensive inventory of fishing supplies, including tackle boxes, leaders, hooks, fishing lines, reels, sand sticks, lures and many other gadgets.

Once Gordon Williams and his wife, Jacquelyn, bought the store they began to expand, something that became sort of a family tradition along the way. Amanda Burres, William’s sister, said their father’s business philosophy on growth has paid off.

“We added the food serving section about 10 years ago, but the bait and tackle shop has been out livelihood,” she said. In addition to the tackle and bait shop, they also own bait boats and a store that sells all kinds of spirits next door.

Luis Mateo Perez, an avid fisherman, said he has been buying fishing supplies at Gordon’s for the last five years.

“I stop here about once a week,” he said. “This is my favorite place to shop for my fishing trips, and I fish whenever I can.”

Freelance journalist Tony Vindell has more than 30 years experience as a newspaper reporter. Born in Nicaragua, he studied journalism and political science at the University of Missouri-Columbia and at Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Mo. He began his career working for The Pecos Enterprise in West Texas. Vindell also worked for The Laredo News, The Brownsville Herald, Valley Morning Star, Port Isabel News Press and the Raymondville Chronicle/News. Vindell, who lives in Brownsville with his wife Sharon, enjoys hunting, fishing and traveling.