Break out the cracking devices, drawn butter and mustard sauce! Fresh stone crabs are on the menu and in the market in the Florida Keys– despite Hurricane Irma’s September onslaught. And …
Regular Lobster Season: It’s Not Just for Bugs Anymore
Scuba diving about 45 feet deep on a coral-dotted ledge off Pompano Beach, FL., my dive buddy and I were startled by a spreading cloud of sand in the near-distance. We kicked over to the source of the plume and were amazed and delighted to see a huge loggerhead sea turtle with its head stuck deep in the ledge. As we paused to watch, it fanned the water column frantically with its flippers, widening the cloud of sediment around it.
It was very obvious to us that the turtle was not trapped in the ledge; instead, it was bent on the same mission as we were that day: trying to pry stubborn spiny lobsters from their caves to eat for dinner.
The turtle thrashed around for another minute or so then withdrew its head from the ledge. Not at all happy to see us, it scowled. I gave it a little wave farewell and it swam off. No point in checking out the ledge any further. Either our reluctant new buddy had gulped whatever lay in there, or so terrified the inhabitants that they would never be pried out.
Now that Florida’s regular lobster season is open through March 31, bug hunters can relax, take deep breaths, get over the manic surface warfare known as mini-season, and enjoy the full harvest experience– such as encounters with other sea life.
The lengthy season allows for a slow, calm exploration of the reefs, solution holes, channels and grass flats where you may find the sought-after crustaceans– or not. The recreational bag limit is six per person per day statewide, so there’s no more frenzied two-day push to cram live wells and coolers full of more entrees than you’ll probably eat in a month.
Instead, you can achieve a fuller appreciation of the many exhilarating sights and sounds (and other ancillary benefits) that will accompany your hunt.
Besides an excellent chance of encountering sea turtles, you are almost guaranteed to come upon lionfish– those feisty, peppermint-striped exotics with the flaring mane from the Indo-Pacific. Lionfish love to lurk in coral caverns and beneath ledges– the same habitat as lobsters. Unlike the bugs, lionfish are legal to spear and there are no bag or size limits. Be wary of their venomous spines; you can’t carry them around in a standard mesh catch bag with your bugs. Your best bet is a container made of sturdy PVC such as the Zookeeper. And they are an excellent accompaniment to lobster on the grill or sauté pan.
Hogfish also are likely to be found milling around out in the open around the lobster grounds, and they can be fairly easy to nail with a pole spear or spear gun. But on Aug. 24, new regulations will take effect lowering the bag limit, increasing the size limit and shortening the harvest season. Know before you go by visiting myfwc.com/fishing/saltwater/recreational/hogfish/.
Other creatures you are sure to find on your bug hunts are nurse sharks and triggerfish. Both like to eat lobster so they’re never too far away. On many dives, I’ve seen nurse sharks slumbering in caves in the daytime– probably after enjoying a fresh lobster meal. But unless you molest the shark by grabbing or poking it, it generally will leave you alone.
Not so, the triggerfish. If these pesky reef-dwellers grew as big as sharks, no one would venture into the ocean. Aggressive and territorial, they will try to bite through your catch bag to steal your bugs and they will even bite you to get you to leave their area. I know several divers (myself included) who always wear a neoprene hood or beanie while lobster hunting because triggerfish are known to go for the earlobe. Even swordplay with your tickler stick often fails to ward them off. If you find yourself thrusting around like a knight in “Game of Thrones” to defend your ground, then it’s time to leave.
If you really want to eat lobsters and don’t want to a) get wet or b) go to Publix, then perhaps you should try bully netting. That’s the practice of idling around the shallows at night in a small boat equipped with underwater lights and carrying a long-handled net. Lobsters are known to depart their coral caves after dark to feed on smaller prey on adjacent grass flats in Biscayne Bay and Florida Bay. They are very easy to spot in two to four feet of water with proper lighting and you can just plop the net over them. It’s often quicker and easier than underwater hunting. In a bully netting trip a couple years ago, our party of three bagged a limit of 18 in just two hours.
Florida’s lobster regulations during regular season differ from those of mini-season, so be sure you are up-to-date– especially in the Keys. Go to www.myfwc.com/fishing/saltwater/recreational/lobster/ for the full rundown.
Now let’s go fetch some Lobster Thermidor.