If you’ve been diving mostly north of the Keys for lobster lately, you probably have worked pretty hard to gather a limit of six per person. While the late-July mini-season and the first few weeks after the start of regular season on Aug. 6 proved bountiful for many bug hunters, these days the pickings are pretty slim.
But that all could change in the next couple of weeks.
Deerfield Beach lobster guru Jim “Chiefy” Mathie, whose book, Catching the BUG, is must-reading for beginning and intermediate underwater hunters in southeast Florida, believes a lobster “walk” soon could be in our future.
The “walk” is more like a march, when long lines of crustaceans move single-file, head-to-tail — usually heading north — on open, sandy bottom as shallow as five feet deep along the Broward County coastline. Their slow movement and seeming disorientation makes them very easy to catch. The walk usually happens a few days after tropical storms or hurricanes have passed to the south of the region and can last anywhere from a day to several weeks. After Hurricane Katrina’s passage in 2005, the event went on for nearly a month.
But Mathie, 60, a retired division chief with Deerfield Beach Fire Rescue who’s been bugging successfully in local waters for more than 30 years, says there’s typically an annual walk that has nothing to do with tropical weather disturbances. He said it usually coincides with postseason baseball (and his birthday) in mid- to late-October. It hasn’t happened yet this season.
“Typically, sometime in October, we’ll see a migratory walk,” Mathie said. “This time of year, I’ve seen it where it’s just because it’s this time of year. They’ll be in 10 feet of water sometimes. I’ll know there will be a walk because they’re acting stupid. After the walk, they disperse.”
By “acting stupid,” Mathie means the animals — which usually hide in caverns and crevices on the reef by day — can be found out in the open on top of the reefs in “pre-walk” groups before heading out to the sand.
Of course the only way to check for a pre-walk or walk is to be out on the water scouting.
Last Monday, Mathie, dive buddies Chad Carney and Ken Udell, and I each made two dives north and south of Hillsboro Inlet from Mathie’s 29-foot SeaVee at a depth range of 30 to 70 feet. Exploring scattered patch reefs and other fertile bottom, we bagged a total of eight lobsters, and Carney and Udell speared some nice hogfish. Clearly the lobsters were not in pre-walk mode because the few we found were partially concealed beneath dark coral ledges.
Mathie caught two from one 35-foot-deep ledge that I had passed without seeing anything. Using his custom-made snare first as a tickle stick to gently prod them out and then as a noose to encircle their mid-sections, he quickly measured them with his gauge and secured them in his zippered mesh catch bag.
Back on the boat, I asked him how he managed to spot them in the jumble of coral, sea fans and schooling fish.
“The sand was white in front of the hole where they dug it out to get in there,” Mathie replied.
On our second dive, I was proud of myself for spotting a bug that I thought Mathie hadn’t seen. I shook him and pointed to the ledge where the animal sat with its antennae sticking out.
Mathie put his index finger and thumb together and tapped them several times, indicating the lobster was too small. But I wanted to catch it anyway and measure it for myself.
Using a bent aluminum tickler stick, I tried to place the tip behind the lobster’s tail, but accidentally poked it in the legs. It immediately shot backward deep into its hole. No matter how hard I tried to prod it out, it wouldn’t budge.
Finally, Mathie reached in with his gloved hand — something he doesn’t recommend due to the likely presence of lionfish (toxic spines), moray eels (big teeth) and sea urchins (more spines) — and pulled the reluctant quarry from its lair. Placing the gauge between its horns, he measured it — maybe 1/16th of an inch too short. He put it back in its hole.
And had the good graces not to say, “I told you so,” later on the boat.
While Mathie freely shares his knowledge of lobster hunting in his book and at dive club meetings and seminars, do not expect a tip-off when the “walk” begins.
Said Mathie: “I’ll tell you the week after it happens.”
Mathie’s book, Catching the BUG, and his newest, Catching the Spear-It!, are available at South Florida dive shops or at www.chiefy.net.