Every summer, divers from all over the world descend into Florida’s productive lobster fields, which range from shallow seagrass and mangrove habitats to coral reefs to deep wrecks. Catching those quick and well-camouflaged crustaceans offers challenging sport in gorgeous marine settings. And, of course, the dinner rewards are delectable.
Florida’s legendary spiny lobster “mini-season” runs from the last consecutive Wednesday and Thursday of July each year. The regular season begins Aug. 6 every year and runs through March 31. Dive boats and hotels in the more popular areas tend to fill up pretty quickly, so make plans early. Also, the best conditions for diving -- clear, calm and warm water -- are most dependable in July and August all around the state. To check those dates, and detailed regulations, visit Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission site.
In late summer and early fall, divers find plenty of “bugs,” which is what Floridian's call this species of lobster, from Key West’s coral reefs all the way up to the ledges off Jacksonville Beach. The best “bugging” takes place in Atlantic waters, but divers catch their share of lobsters in the Gulf of Mexico from Naples to Pensacola Beach. The spiny lobster is king, but Gulf and Atlantic waters offer a variety of delicious lobster species.
Coral reefs from the Florida Keys up to Jupiter typically offer the clearest water and the most abundant bugs throughout the seasons. The shallow but high-relief reefs off the Hobe Sound National Wildlife Refuge and North Hutchinson Island produce some of each season’s biggest bugs. For beach divers, the reefs off North Hutchinson Island are within an easy swim.
Lobster diving off northeast Florida tends to be an early-season affair, in pretty deep water, and often with marginal visibility. There are plenty of bugs on those reefs, but hunting lobsters off the northeast part of the peninsula is for experienced divers.
Divers either descend by holding their breath, or depending upon SCUBA gear. Free-diving is a really challenging way to collect lobsters. Boaters often slowly tow their divers over shallow patch reefs, often with the diver holding onto a planer device such as the Sea Sled, which the diver can tilt downward to get closer to the reef for a closer look. The diver then lets go and descends alone once the quarry is recognized. You can cover a lot of reef and seagrass with this technique.
Most divers use SCUBA gear, which depending upon depth and choice of air mix, allows a diver much more “bottom time.” Whether you’re diving on normal air or Nitrox, make sure you hold the requisite certifications and understand the risks associated with breathing compressed air.
Divers depend on several tools to find and catch lobsters. A good waterproof flashlight is helpful in cavernous stretches of reef. Kevlar gloves are essential -- they don’t call them “spiny” lobsters for nothing, and urchin and lionfish quills pose other hazards.
Hunting for lobsters is like an underwater treasure hunt. In shallow water where limited bottom time isn’t an issue, divers hug the bottom and peer into every nook and cranny. In deeper water where bottom time is precious, good divers spend time hugging the bottom in the most productive areas, then rise up a bit to conserve air while hoping to lobster legs wiggling out of a hole.
Divers typically carry a “tickle stick” and/or a loop snare. A transparent tickle stick works well to tease lobsters out of holes and into grabbing range. The loop snare can be used to “tickle out” a bug until you have enough room to get the loop behind the tail. Usually, the lobster will walk backward into the loop and when it does you constrict the snare. Of course, you need a bag to hold the bugs, and the various “lobster inn” devices keep them from escaping.
What You Need
Get your dive gear serviced before you dive. You must display a dive flag while divers are in the water, and take down the flag once they’ve re-boarded.
Regulations require lobster hunters to have a saltwater fishing license and lobster stamp. You must carry a gauge to measure the carapace, which must be longer than three inches.
Butter and Lemon.