He figured the novelty of it would wear off soon. But Kelly dove all in, working as hard as the boys, even teaching one of the young mates how to pick up a 60-pound-plus trap without hurting one’s back.
She got a crash course in navigating the boat in bad weather and high seas, lobster-catching strategy and boat maintenance. And while her dad could have helped guide her, he usually was many miles away on his own boat. Kelly was on her own, including the day the electrical wiring caused two fires on her boat, spewing smoke in the wheelhouse when she was 40 miles offshore hunting for stone crabs.
While it took some effort to earn the respect of her all-male crew, Kelly said the toughest critic was her father — who slowly but surely became impressed by what she could do.
“I remember the first year she came in with like 2,300 pounds of lobster, more than I had ever caught in a day,” Gary recalled.
With those big catches came some big paydays, including one check for around $6,000. “I think that’s what really hooked her,” Gary said.
Kelly stuck with it, even after the scary fire. And she didn’t let a little thing like pregnancy slow her down. She and her husband planned for their first child to be born in April, at the end of lobster season.
“We finally had to make her get off the boat when she was nine months,” Beth said.
“I guess it was a good thing,” Kelly added. “My belly was so big I could barely reach the steering wheel.”
She’s now a bit of a grizzled captain herself, starting her 10th season. During the first week of August, she and her crew did the backbreaking and monotonous job of loading the heavy lobster traps onto the boat and then dropping them at pre-selected locations in the shallow bay and deep ocean waters.
They began at midnight on Aug. 1, right after the Keys commercial fleet was blessed, and worked 20 hours straight. Nichols Seafood owns 7,000 commercial lobster trap certificates, the most held by a single entity in Florida. With good weather, they got them all baited with cowhide and dropped in just four days, over an area covering 50 miles.
The routine included several trips to the “Island from Hell,” where about 2,000 traps are kept. “It’s always hot and filled with mosquitoes,” Kelly said. “But I’m so glad that we are not baiting the traps with the fish heads this year. I would always end up smelling so bad.”
On Aug. 6, the first day lobsters can be commercially harvested, Kelly and her crew were out on the water at dawn. For the first few days, the main goal was to pull up the traps and make sure they were baited with a “barely legal” or “short,” a lobster smaller than the legal limit. The bait lobsters are collected from the traps, and when there are not enough little ones, bigger lobsters are used.
“It sucks when you have to put back a big one, but lobsters are social and attract their buddies,” Kelly said. “So when we come back, you hope there will be double or triple of them.”
Pulling up traps is like opening a box of Cracker Jacks. Kelly said you never know what will be inside. Nobody is more excited to discover what is pulled up than her son Jayden, now 5, who often goes out on the boat with his mom.
He laughed as the crew showed him crabs, fish and an octopus that had found their way into the wooden traps. But he was most interested in the box with the “baby lobster.”
“He gets so excited, just like I did when I was a kid,” Kelly said. “I still find it exciting. I guess that’s why I love it so much.”
Just as her dad did, Kelly showed Jayden how to drive the boat while sitting on her lap. “I’m captain Jayden,” he said over the loud speaker while telling the “missies” to get back to work.
Kelly said she and her dad have become very competitive, often betting $20, dinner or a 12-pack of beer on who will return to the dock with the biggest lobster or largest catch.
On Thursday, Kelly and her crew brought back about 500 pounds, a good catch so early in the season. It is all being shipped to China, at $7.50 per pound.
But who caught the most that day? “Me, the old man,” said Gary, who showed off his 800 pounds.
Said Kelly: “I have to let him win sometimes.”