Spiny lobsters are the crustacean that get most of the hype in Florida, and they deserve it. I think of diving for lobsters as an underwater Easter egg hunt. But there's another, arguably more succulent crustacean for divers to pluck from reefs and other structures, or for recreational trappers to harvest literally by the gallon bucketful. We're talking stone crabs – the sweetest meat that comes from the sea. And you're allowed one gallon bucketful per day, or two per boat, whichever is less. Click here for full regulations.
For divers, there's a bit of peril to spice up the hunt that you don't have to deal with tickling lobsters out of their holes. The claws you're after are incredibly strong. You do not want to your fingers caught in their vice-like grips. Make sure you where thick gloves – I wear a thick pair of neoprene gloves that I use for surfing in really cold water.
You can also find stone crabs in the same shallow, rocky locations where you'd hunt bugs. They live in depths ranging from knee-deep seagrass meadows to reefs in 200 feet, but I've had the most luck finding them inshore of inlets around docks, rocks, bridges and seawalls.
Stone crabs occur throughout Florida waters, but most of the harvest comes from Southeast Florida, the Florida Keys and Southwest Florida. You might find both lobsters and stone crabs in the same rocks and reefs. But when you're in stone crab mode, look for holes the rocks and reefs with broken shells in front of them and you'll probably find a stone crab burrow. You can tickle them out of the reef with a piece of coat hanger bent no more than 90 degrees.
Stone crabs don't move very quickly, so you can usually grab them over the top of the claws, by the body, keeping the claws pointed down or away. Claws must be a minumum of 2.75 inches, and they tear off easily, so make sure you've got a legal one before grabbing the claws. You should only remove one claw so that the crab can continue to feed and defend itself. They will regenerate the claw within a year.
If diving for stone crabs sounds dicey to you, you can also buy traps in most bait & tackle stores. You can deploy up to five traps, and you're best setting them in sand near rocky structures, and using fishheads for bait.
If you'd rather let someone else catch your stone crabs, idle up to to your favorite waterfront restaurant. Or check out the Paradise Coast Stone Crab Festival Oct. 25-27 in Naples. The Key Largo Stonecrab and Seafood Festival is Jan. 25-26, in Key Largo.