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lobster tales

A pair of antennae sticking out from beneath the rock ledge betrayed the lobster's presence.

Patience is the key when trapping these crafty crustaceans, so I moved ever so slowly. With my net in one hand, I blocked the animal's escape. Then with my "tickle stick," a long aluminum rod, I gently coaxed it out of its hiding space.

The lobster moved a quarter-inch every few seconds, so after a few minutes, its body was almost exposed. I couldn't wait; I had to make my move. So I dropped the tickle stick and grabbed for the shell.

Too late. All I caught was a handful of sand as the lobster escaped.

While every diver knows sound is amplified underwater, it's a safe bet few have ever heard a lobster laugh. I certainly never had.

Then I turned and spotted the culprit: Bob Grindey.

Over the years, the 62-year-old ex-Marine has taught thousands of University of South Florida students to scuba dive and has taught even more to swim. For one semester, I was a student in Grindey's Water Safety Instructor class so I could one day torture, excuse me, I meant "teach," students of my own.

"Tomalin, get your face out of the water," he would yell as I did my 10-millionth lap of sidestroke. "I hope I never have to be saved by you."

Eventually, I passed the class. It made me a better swimmer, lifeguard and scuba diver, but it did nothing to hone my lobster gathering skills.

"Lobster hunter?" I could hear Grindey thinking. "More like lobster annoyer "

As I kneeled in the sand daydreaming, I saw my old tormenter motioning me to follow. Probably going to get me to stick my hand in the lair of some moray eel, I thought, just to see if I remembered not to panic.

Then I saw another set of antennae. This one was mine. Thirty seconds later, lobster in hand, I checked it for eggs, then measured its carapace. Legal.

Grindey gave me a nod, then disappeared down the reef.

This is kind of fun, I thought. Laid-back lobstering.

I had been to the Florida Keys several times for the two-day "sportsman" season held each July. It gives recreational divers a chance to get a few lobsters in the bag before thousands of commercial traps hit the water.

But this miniseason has proved incredibly popular, especially in the Keys where thousands of divers come barreling in like a waterspout off the Gulf Stream. It gets so crowded, they say, on opening day you can anchor your boat at one end of the Seven Mile Bridge and run across the decks of other boats to the opposite end without getting your feet wet.

But the water quality on the East Coast reefs, about a mile or two offshore, rivals that of the Keys. And because the reefs are deeper than those in the Keys, fewer divers go there looking for lobster.

Of course, divers must be well trained and familiar with diving at depths, but the techniques used in shallow water also will work here.

The first involves a long stick with a retractable loop at one end that works almost like a snare. The diver carefully slips the noose around the lobster's tail, tightens the cord, then quickly measures and bags the prey.

In the second method, the diver uses a tickle stick to coax the lobster out of its hole and into a net. Both methods are effective at capturing the lobster without injury, which is essential since egg-bearing females and undersized animals must be released.

While this might sound easy, it is not. Before you can catch a lobster, you have to find it, and these animals are adept at camouflage.

That's why it is good to have somebody like Bob Grindey along. He will dive right along side you and point out every crustacean within 100 feet.

But there's a catch. First you have to swim 10-million laps of sidestroke and sing "From the halls of Montezuma "

And with lobster tails only $9 a pound at the local seafood store, is it worth it?

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The daily recreational limit for spiny lobster is 24 per vessel or six per person, whichever is greater. The carapace must be 3 inches.

credit only for small lobster photo

Bob Grindey, a swimming and dive instructor at USF, knows well the patience needed to capture lobsters.