Ten tips that will improve your odds this lobster season.
There are many sports that can be pursued while diving; photography, spearfishing, exploration and observation, and collecting tropicals are just a few. Lobstering must be included near the top of the list as the staggering popularity of the “sportsman season” testifies. Sighting a ledge from under which many pairs of antennae protrude or glimpsing a nearly hidden giant in the shadowy depths of a recess always imparts a quickening of the pulse and a special surge of excitement. Underwater sounds also accompany the sport. The creatures creak out rusty protests when hands clamp firmly on their carapaces and often slap their tails repeatedly when placed in the bag.
Florida lobsters or spiny crawfish, whichever name you prefer, abound in the waters around our state. Commercial lobstermen catch them in traps or “pots,” but the Florida sportsman secures them by hand with no aid from spears or hooks. Snares can be utilized. These consist of a loop that can be tightened at the end of a handle. The loop is positioned behind the lobster and worked over the tail and then tightened either by hand or some devices have a spring. Nets are also allowed. The mouth of the net is placed at one end of a ledge or opening in the reef and the lobster gently herded into it with a tickle stick. The traditional and probably most common method is to use the tickle stick to block the rearward retreat of the lobster and to grab it with a gloved hand. Capturing one this way is an accomplishment as special and enjoyable in itself as the broiled tail will later be!
In any group of lobster divers there seems to be one who regularly succeeds in capturing more and bigger crawfish than the others. I asked a couple such divers for some helpful suggestions for other sportsmen, from beginners to accomplished lobsterers and compiled the following ten tips from the ideas they related. Maybe not that surprisingly, although interviewed separately, their suggestions were very similar.
1. The first step toward filling your limit is finding the lobsters.
Preseason scouting is important to locate productive areas, but equally important is finding them during a dive. Obviously, the more bottom covered the greater the chance of encountering crawfish, but distinct clues may indicate the possibility of their presence and make it worthwhile to slow down and take a closer look. For example, bare spots on rock ledges or a certain species of fish may give a crawfish hideout away. Where I dive porkfish are great lobster portents. Where margates mill under ledges, lobsters may or may not be present, but when schools of porkfish are found, it’s a reasonable bet that lobsters are nearby. Apparently the same habitat attracts them both. Cubbyus are fair indicators as well, not as reliable as porkfish, but consistent enough to bear investigating. Look for recurring patterns in the places you dive. That way you can spend more of your bottom time where your chances are greatest.
Part of covering more territory for lobsters involves not being distracted by other things and one of the divers I questioned said to leave spearguns and collecting gear at the dock. I had the same thought and tried it years ago, but personally gave it up because it seemed like every time I was without my spear or net, I would come upon something out of the ordinary and be saddled with regrets. Now I lobster dive with all sorts of other gear.
2. Learn to judge crawfish size underwater.
By simply not expending time and energy capturing undersized lobsters, more of your dive can be dedicated to finding and catching keepers (the exception is undersized lobsters in groups of larger lobsters as discussed in Tip #9).
3. The stiff variety of PVC tubing with an outside diameter just over three quarters of an inch makes an excellent tickle stick.
Heating a small portion of it with a hair blow-dryer allows a bend to be fashioned for the last ten to twelve inches. A 45-degree angle functions well. Be sure to make the stick long enough to scoot bugs out of deep ledges, at least five feet. Longer can be useful in certain situations, but becomes awkward and difficult to manage in others so the exact length will vary by the conditions where you dive. PVC will not float away, nor is it heavy enough to sink readily under the sand. The material is soft enough not to damage the reef. In fact, after a season or two, wear will show on the tickle stick.
4. To catch a lobster, do not grab at it or even reach for it.
Lobster eyes are compound and do not perceive a precise image, but they easily discern movement and this can spook the bug. In addition, they can react quickly. Place your hand near the edge of the crawfish’s cranny and gently nudge the crustacean toward it by placing the tickle stick on the opposite side and behind him. With light pressure ease the bug toward your hand or net so that he backs slowly against it and then close the hand firmly on his carapace. Before the capture contact with the lobster’s antennae can alarm him. However, small movements of your head may distract him enough to keep his “feelers” pointed away from your stationary hand.
Sometimes lobsters, especially big ones, back into the depths of the ledges immediately and cannot be herded toward an edge. These, after being blocked from further retreat with the tickle stick, must be grabbed from the front. If the antennae are pulled they will likely break so once your hand is over them continue to work the hand along them all the way to the horny bases. The spines on the antennae are directed forward so the glovemay catch and snag as the hand is extended toward the head necessitating a loose grip. The bases themselves can be grabbed firmly with no fear of breakage and the lobster can be extracted. Often the lobster wedges himself into the crevice so strongly that no amount of force seems sufficient to pull him free. Shaking the antennae bases violently somehow disorients the lobster and causes him to loosen his hold. The same holds true if once out of his hole, the lobster is fighting to escape. Shaking the bases vigorously usually subdues the lobster and makes it easier to place in the bag.
5. Upon finding a lobster or group of lobsters, scout the layout of their hideaway before attempting to catch any.
Decide which side of their crevice (and thereby which of your hands) is best suited for the capture. Look for back entrances and exits and deep caverns. Decide how to best scoot each lobster away from deep recesses and to the side you have chosen.
6. If the lobster is a loner in a fairly small hole, look closely for eggs on its underside.
A high percentage of solitary lobsters are egg-bearing females. Not only does a good look for the orange egg mass save you the time of catching a lobster only to release her, it saves the female and her eggs from stress and inadvertent trauma.
7. When a group of lobsters is discovered, count them as you scout the extent of their lair.
After you have bagged a few, knowing the count saves you poking and looking for ones that were never there and also keeps you trying to locate the ones you know were. They may have gotten to hidden recesses or nearby ledges, but chances are good they are not far away. It is usually better to spend a little time looking for ones you know are nearby than finning off to search for groups unknown. (Of course this depends on the circumstances and if you are in an area abounding with lobsters, it may behoove you to move on rather than to linger looking for strays.)
8. If you encounter a group of lobsters, it is best to overcome temptation and not go after the biggest one immediately.
Big lobsters typically keep to the rear of smaller ones. As mentioned earlier, scout the set up to determine which side to use and then ease the crawfish closest to that side to your waiting hand. Work slowly so as not to disturb that lobster or the others. Then return and work the next one over. In this fashion, many lobsters can be taken from a crowded cranny. In the regions I dive, the lobsters are scattered enough that only a few groups are generally found per dive so it is quite beneficial to squander none of the opportunities a ledge offers. Working slowly and methodically helps in another way as well. Less mud or sediment is kicked up and therefore it is easier to keep track of and capture successive lobsters.
9. In any group there is a possibility of catching an undersized specimen. If you do so, swim it a good distance away and place it in a different ledge offering it protection.
In that way, you won’t waste time accidentally catching it again and you can eliminate it from your count. Of course, lobsters have a tendency to return to their group hideout, but this is usually overcome when you place one in a spot with cover, particularly if an open area separates this new location from the old.
Like the divers I interviewed, I embrace this strategy and can relate an occasion when it proved beneficial. I had counted two shorts and as I worked the ledge, I swam two small crawfish away. After catching the rest, I saw a little pair of antennae timidly checking the area near a rear exit at the back of the ledge. My first thought was that there must have been a third short, but I decided to try for it and discovered that an additional chamber joined the main portion through a narrow hole and a large lobster had inserted both antennae through the tiny aperture to check out the commotion. I chased him to another ledge entrance by placing the tickle stick in the small orifice and managed to catch him. If a couple other little crawfish had been left in the cavern, I doubt I would have noticed or investigated those antennae tips.
10. Keep track of where you have searched and try not to circle around and cover the same territory again.
This sounds obvious, but where the bottom is broken and scattered rather than a continuous ledge, it is an easy mistake to make. I have one more tip, a cooking tip. Where I dive, large lobsters are not uncommon. Specimens over six pounds are caught as often as every other trip and over nine pounds usually once a season. Each once in a while a giant over ten pounds shows up! These big crawfish have a reputation of being tough and tasting metallic. The trouble is that to get the innermost meat cooked, the rest is overdone. For years I overcame this obstacle by cutting the meat into thinner strips. However, myfriend John Heisel gave me a recipe he devised that solves the problem in the most delicious manner and I would put a big bug cooked his way up against any barely legal lobster in a taste test.
• Split large lobster down center and wash out all entrails and vein. Pat dry.
• Set oven to 205 degrees and bake for four hours.
• Remove and fill carapace with stuffing mixture.
• Set oven to 335 and when temperature is achieved place lobster back in for 25 minutes. Baste frequently with a mixture of melted butter and wine. Be sure to curtail cooking while tail meat still looks moist.
• Sprinkle with Parmesan cheese and baste with wine and butter.
• Place under broiler and cook until a golden brown hue is visible.
• Mix Italian bread crumbs, non-salted powdered garlic, and parmesan cheese.
• Add olive oil until consistency is like wet beach sand – wet, but not soggy.
As with all harvest of fish and game, familiarize yourself with the FWC regulations. Crawfish need to have carapaces greater than 3 inches long measured from between the horns to the back edge of the carapace. Possession of a measuring device is required when pursuing lobsters. Harvest of egg bearing females is prohibited. The daily bag limit is six per person for the regular season and also for the sport season in Monroe County and Biscayne National Park. For the rest of Florida the sport season bag limit is twelve per person. A saltwater fishing license and a lobster permit is required. There are areas closed to crawfish harvest.
Lobstering techniques vary from person to person and with changes in terrain. Hopefully, some of these suggestions will make your diving more productive. FS
First Published Florida Sportsman Magazine July 2017