Every summer, thousands of saltwater enthusiasts head to the Florida Keys to take part in the beginning of spiny lobster season. Some come for the two-day sport season during the last week in July, also known as mini season, and others come for the regular season, which started Wednesday and remains open until March 31.
The main reason the two-day sport season is so popular is that it allows recreational divers a chance to catch two days limits of lobster before the more than 400,000 commercial lobster traps are placed in the water in Monroe County. This allows divers access to the fishery before the traps have a chance to impact the population.
Quite simply, there is no easier time to find lobster all year.
While some of the more popular spots can become crowded during the two-day mini season, there usually are enough lobsters for everyone.
Florida allows commercial traps to be put into the water Aug. 1, and they may be pulled beginning Wednesday when the regular season opens. There is greater competition for the coveted creatures at this time, but there are no limits on the amount of days for catching lobsters once the season opens.
How to catch them
Lobsters like to hide under or inside things. During the day, they generally remain hidden in holes or under ledges. At night, they roam the area eating fish, mollusks, plants and just about anything else. This means that unless you are a night diver, you will need to locate their daytime holes.
There are a wide variety of ways to look for these areas, some very simple and others that require specialized equipment or skills. One of the most popular is simply dragging behind a slow-moving boat while wearing a mask and snorkel. When the person being pulled sees something interesting, they release the rope and dive down for a closer inspection.
Some dive shops carry a planer board that is made up of a flat piece of plastic with handles. It is tied to the end of the tow rope, allowing you to dive and rise through the water column simply by aiming the board up or down. Last year, we discovered our best spot using one such device.
Once you spot the tell-tale antennas protruding from beneath an overhang or ledge, it starts to get a little tricky . Using a net and short piece of fiberglass rod known as a tickle stick, you must tap the lobster behind its tail to try to get him to walk into the open. Sometimes this is easy; other times it requires substantial coaxing and multiple breaths for the diver.
Once out in the open, the lobsters' best direction of escape is backward. Their strong fan-like tails can propel them rapidly to the rear, and for a long distance. Unless you are a very strong swimmer, most of those that dart away will never be seen again.
The idea is to close the escape route by placing the net behind the lobster, then pulling it down flat to the bottom once it is in place. This leaves only one option for the lobster: to escape into the net. It can be helpful to work as a team, with one person doing the tickling and the other working the net.
Some divers look for lobsters using scuba gear, and others prefer to snorkel the shallows for them. Both can produce great catches some days and slow ones on others. It all depends on finding the right spot.
Regardless of the type of diving you do, the basic lobster-catching gear is pretty much the same. You will need a tickle stick, a net, gloves and a measuring gauge (required to be in a diver's possession when in the water). For those who chose to snorkel, some weight may be needed to help keep them neutral under the water.
Due to the popularity of lobsters, there are strict rules in place for those who harvest them. To be a keeper, a lobster must measure 3 inches from the back of the carapace to the top between the eyes. All must be measured in the water.
During the regular season in the Keys, divers may retain six lobsters per licensed capable diver onboard per day. Making additional trips once a daily bag limit has been reached and landed is illegal.
Dive flags must be displayed at all times when divers are in the water. No tails may be wrung before reaching the dock.
More information on regulations can be found at www.myfwc.com.