To make the most of lobster season and the two-day Sport Season, remember these basic regulation points and easy techniques to nab some bugs.
- Lobster season runs from August 6 through March 31, with a two-day Sport Season—better known as mini-season—beginning at 12:01 a.m. on the last consecutive Wednesday and Thursday of July. Every diver must have a Recreational Saltwater Fishing License ($17) and a Lobster Permit ($5). Just about every tackle shop and Wal-Mart can issue these, taking just a few moments, or order it online here, or over the phone by calling 888-347-4356. When it comes to mini season, it's safe to assume you will be stopped by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, regardless if you catch anything, so be prepared.
- Divers and snorkelers must display a divers-down flag while in the water, both in the water and on the boat, and it must be stowed immediately upon exiting the water. Divers-down flags—which bear a red rectangle with a white diagonal stripe slashed across—must measure 20 inches by 24 inches minimum when displayed on a boat, while the flag must be 12 by 12 when attached to a float. Boaters: Stay a minimum of 300 feet away from a diver-down flag.
- While on the water, fishermen may not exceed the daily bag limit—12 per person per day during mini-season; six per day per person during regular season. During mini-season, the bag limit extends onto land, with just 12 allowed on Wednesday, doubling on Thursday (unless in the Florida Keys/Monroe County, which limits daily catches to just six).
- Every diver must carry a lobster guage while in the water. Either metal or plastic, with some tickle sticks having them incorporated into the handle, these little devices are used to measure the lobster's carapice, ensuring that each lobster that's pulled from the water is, in fact, of legal size.
Even if you’re out of the water, you're not out of woods yet. All lobster must be kept alive and intact while on the boat—FWC will fine you for dead and cleaned lobster before reaching the marina. Once at the docks, and before cleaning those lobsters, be sure to take one last measurement: the tail. Lobster tails must measure a minimum 5½ inches to be considered a keeper, even if the carapace was a staunch 3 inches (more often than not, if the carapace is 3 then the tail is over 6); after all, once the head is gone, there is no telling how large that keeper carapace was. And fishermen are still at the whim of the law, so a cooler of short tails will still nab you a hefty fine and possible jail time—especially in the Keys, they take poaching very seriously. Luckily, the lobster gauge is a convenient 5½ inches in overall length, so measure twice, clean once.
Here, we run through a few techniques on catching and measuring lobster:
How to Make the Catch
When catching lobster, for the most part, you aren’t just swimming up to bugs and putting a net on them—that would be too easy. Lobster hide during the day, foraging and migrating from rock pile to rock pile under the veil of night, so when diving during the day, you’ll need to scoot these little buggers out of hiding.
You will be hard-pressed to get lobster coordinates from a seasoned diver or online (if you find some online, they are probably bogus). Mapping these honey holes is a time-consuming and expensive endeavor, and they are often aggressively kept secret. So with that said, you'll need to get out and explore for yourself.
Lobsters prefer tight, dark spots that are large enough for them to maneuver in a pinch. Look for rock ledges, coral heads, rock piles, and manmade debris and structure. These spots can be as shallow as 10 feet to as deep as 150, with larger finds usually lurking in deeper water. When searching structure, keep an eye out for protruding antennae—it may be just a small portion, so eagle-eyes are needed. Once you spot a set, dive down and assess the situation. Antennae might not be visible from above, so if there is a dark alcove, it's best to investigate. And when there is lobster, there are usually more, so be vigilant—use a tickle stick, a piece of equipment for coaxing lobsters out of hiding spots. Spots with multiple exit points are also good to search—easily escapable shelters are key.
Once spotted, lobster need to be addressed properly so as not to scare them. Although lobster walk forward, face first, they are much quicker when swimming backwards. When spooked, a quick thrust of their powerful tail will easily rocket them 10 feet at a time, a significantly quicker clip than a diver can swim. So try not to spook it; you can waste a tank of air in no time chasing a lobster from spot to spot.
Once you’ve spotted the lobster and examined its position and hiding spot, using the tickle stick in a sweeping motion, gradually and delicately encouraging the lobster out of its spot. This is where that crook comes in handy—if you get behind the tail, you can essentially dictate the lobster’s movement. Be careful when thrusting your arm into nooks and crannies; lionfish are often hidden within, sometimes along the roof of the structure, and can ruin your day in a hurry.
Once dislodged and in the open, using your other hand, place the net behind the lobster, head flat and firm on the ground or rock. Once the lobster is lined up, tail facing the net opening, tap the tickle stick in front of the lobster’s face and get ready. If all goes to plan, it should rocket into the net opening—but it's not over yet. The lobster will continue to swim, trying to break free, so either grab the bugger or hold the opening flat to the ground, trapping it in the net until you can get a good hold. Lobsters are quick and surprisingly strong for their size, so it's best not to underestimate.
Once you’ve got the bug, measure to ensure it’s a keeper. FWC regulations require that lobster must be measured immediately after being caught, before being removed from the water. The carapace—the hard, non-segmented portion of the lobster that contains the head and vital organs—must be larger than three inches, ensuring that the lobster is at least two to three years old and sexually mature for at least one season.
To measure, remove the lobster from the net and hold firmly—it will try to kick away or scratch with its antennae. Place the measurement gauge between the eyestalks on the front of the carapace—there is a small ridge to butt up against—and extend it to the end of the carapace. If the carapace extends beyond the three-inch mark on the gauge, then it is a keeper and can be added to the catch. If the gauge extends past the carapace, release the short back to the wild.
On top of size, divers must check for egg-bearing females. These are strictly off limits, and if it’s on the boat and you get caught, you'll be fined $500. Let it go to proliferate the species.
Distinguishing an egg bearer is easy. Simply turn the lobster over, and pull the tail strait. If there is a cluster of eggs along the underside of the segmented tail—they come in a range for colors, starting orange and soft and growing darker as they solidify to a maroon/brown—let her go. Florida spiny lobsters are prolific breeders, with size determining their reproductive proclivity. According to Oceana, the largest international nonprofit dedicated to ocean conservation, a female as small as “8 cm [roughly 3 inches] may carry up to 230,000 eggs, while a 40 cm [about 15.75 inches] female can carry up to 2.6 million.” Like all marine life, reproduction is a numbers game, and the number of larva lobster that reach maturity is a mere pittance to these numbers.