Thursday, May 24, 2018

Gulf waters offer lobster-hunting opportunities

You could head south to the Florida Keys on Tuesday for the opening day of lobster season, but if you don't mind deep water and diving in the dark, you can stay in the Tampa Bay area and go "bug" hunting in the Gulf of Mexico. The Caribbean spiny lobster ranges from North Carolina to Brazil. Crawfish, as they are commonly called, are found in most tropical and subtropical waters, but the patch reefs that range from Miami to Key West are the most productive grounds in Florida.

In fact, 90 percent of all the lobsters harvested statewide are taken in Monroe County. The rest are found primarily south of Martin County on the state's east coast. But the gulf waters off of our bay area have larger lobsters for scuba divers willing to put in the time and effort.

To find lobsters in local waters, you need to travel to depth of about 50 to 80 feet of water, which is about 12 to 20 miles offshore. There was a time when divers could find lobsters around local bridges, as they do in the Florida Keys, but those days are long gone. In more than 30 years of diving local waters, this bug hunter as seen only one inshore, and it was undersized.

Our local lobsters tend to hunt for food at night. They often can be found walking along rocky outcroppings. But during the day, lobsters hunker down as they seek shelter in rocky outcrops and coral reefs. And that is where divers should look.

These "holes" often provide homes to other creatures as well. One of the most common residents is the "shoveled nose" or "slipper" lobster.

Unlike the spiny lobster, the slipper lobster has no season or size or bag limits. They frequently are overlooked by many sport divers because they cling to the roofs of the same rock dens as spiny lobsters. They are not as heavily pursued as the spiny lobster. But they are tasty. Most people will agree that they make a better meal than the spiny lobster.

Nurse sharks like spiny lobsters, too, and you'll often find them hiding in the same caverns as the tasty crustaceans. This can be problematic for the unwitting diver who reaches for a lobster and grabs a shark instead.

Another advantage to lobstering local waters is that you get more bang for the buck. The local lobsters can weigh 8 to 12 pounds, compared to the Keys variety, which typically average less than a pound.

The local lobsters are also much slower than those in South Florida, which ricochet around like bullets when confronted with a diver armed with a net and a tickle stick, two indispensable tools for any lobster diver. The trick is to slide the tickle stick in behind the lobster, tap it a few times so it scurries out of the hole and into your net.

Florida lobsters don't have large claws for hunting and defense like their cousins from Maine. The spiny lobster's chief defense is speed. All it takes is one flip of the tail and they are gone. So don't be surprised if you miss a few when you first get started.

Another option is to head to the Atlantic side of the state. The waters off Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale are also great for lobster hunting. The water quality on these reefs, which lie about a mile or two offshore, rivals that of the Keys. On a typical August day you can snorkel along the surface and clearly see the reef 70 feet below. But because the reefs are deeper than those usually worked in the Keys, lobster hunters need to be well-trained and experienced divers to avoid the perils of diving at depth.

Lobster season runs from Tuesday through March 31. The bag limit is six lobsters per person per day. A legal spiny lobster must have a carapace that is at least 3 inches long (lobsters smaller than this are too "short" to take legally), and the lobster must be measured in the water. You must have a measuring device in your possession at all times.

A diver must also know how to identify an egg-bearing female. Female lobsters carry eggs (you will see them directly under the tail) for about a month anytime between April and August, although eggs have been found as early as February and as late as November. An egg-bearing female is said to be "berried," and under the regulations they must be released unharmed. A recreational saltwater license and a crawfish permit is also required.

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