There is good reason lobster divers are called "bug hunters."
"The hardest part is finding them," veteran lobsterman Bill Hardman said. "They don't stay put. Lobsters love to move around."
When the special two-day spiny lobster sport season opens Wednesday, thousands of scuba divers and snorkelers will head to the Florida Keys hoping to bag their limit before the regular season opens Aug. 6.
Many will go back to the same spot they dived the year before, and the year before that, but they could be disappointed.
"The hot spots change from season to season," said Hardman, who owns Aquatic Obsessions dive shop in St. Petersburg. "Weather has a lot to do with it. You can never count on finding them in the same place you found them before."
In the next six weeks, Hardman will lead trips to the state's prime lobster grounds.
Gulf of Mexico
Divers do catch spiny lobster in the waters off Tampa Bay, but these bugs tend to be scattered and more difficult to find.
"We don't have as many," Hardman said. "But the ones we do have are big, some as large as 15 pounds."
Diving the deep water of the gulf can be challenging. Visibility can range from 80 feet on a good day to a few yards when the water is stirred up or full of algae. But if you are lucky enough to find lobsters, they taste just as good as those you get in the Keys.
The Caribbean spiny lobster, Panulirus argus, ranges from North Carolina to Brazil. Divers call these creatures "bugs" because these crustaceans and insects are both invertebrates and come from the same phylum, Arthropoda.
The common traits lobster and insects share are jointed appendages — legs, antennae and mouthparts — hence the bug reference. They also have a rigid external skeleton that they molt or shed as they grow.
A spiny lobster in Florida looks a little like a crawfish. It doesn't have the large claws for hunting and defense like its cousin from Maine. The spiny lobster's main defense is its speed. With one flip of the tail, these critters can take off in the blink of an eye, leaving a diver bewildered and empty-handed.
Most of the hotels in the Keys will be booked next week, so if you don't already have reservations you may want to consider an alternate location. A bonus: If you dive outside of Monroe County and Biscayne National Park this sport season you can keep twice as many lobsters (12) each day as your Keys counterparts.
Jupiter, Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale and Miami all have good lobstering grounds and a fraction of the divers. Another advantage: You can hunt after sundown.
"They tend to move around more at night," Hardman said. "You will see 10, 15, even 20 of them out walking in a line across the sand."
Lobsters are great travelers. Marine biologists have tracked lobsters equipped with sonar tags for weeks at a time. One specimen walked 78 miles over a 42-day period, and then ended up in the same place it started.
But contrary to legend, lobsters do not "migrate" or walk across large expanses of open ocean. In fact, these crustaceans seldom travel far from home for one simple reason: They like warm water, and the bottom of the sea floor is really cold.
Lobsters caught unprotected out on the open sand are not easy pickings. "They are faster than you think," Hardman said. "You haven't lived until you have been humiliated by a crustacean."
If you do head to Monroe County, you will need to know how to measure a lobster. The average bug has a carapace (the shell that covers its body) length of 3 inches and weighs about 1 pound. Lobsters smaller than this are too "short" to take legally.
These creatures do get much bigger. The largest one on record had a 10-inch carapace length and weighed more than 21 pounds. Researchers aren't sure how old a lobster that size would be, but they guess about 21 years old.
You will also need to 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. An egg-bearing female is said to be "berried," and under the regulations they must be released unharmed.
A typical female lobster can produce about 300,000 orange-colored eggs per clutch. Large females can produce as many as 2 million eggs per clutch. The "berries" start out orange but darken as the eggs mature.
You may keep six lobsters per person per day in Monroe County (the Florida Keys) and Biscayne National Park, and 12 per person per day in the rest of Florida.
The possession limit on the water is equal to the daily bag limit; off the water, it is equal to the daily bag limit on the first day and double the daily bag limit on the second day.
A legal spiny lobster must have a carapace that is at least 3 inches long, and the lobster must be measured in the water. You must have a measuring device in your possession at all times.
Night diving is prohibited in Monroe County during the sport season but is allowed in other areas of the state. A recreational saltwater license and a crawfish permit are needed for harvest. The harvest of lobster is prohibited in John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park during the sport season. Harvest is also prohibited during both the two-day sport season and regular season in Everglades National Park, Dry Tortugas National Park, and no-take areas in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.