If you haven’t dived for lobsters since last summer’s two-day miniseason and the early part of the regular season, you have no idea what you’ve been missing.
The good news is you still have two weeks to take advantage of what has been a terrific recreational lobster season and catch enough bugs for several delicious dinners.
“It’s the best season I can remember,” says Jim “Chiefy” Mathie. “Every time we’ve gone out we’ve gotten our limit or very close to our limit, and that’s really good.”
The regular season runs from Aug. 6 to March 31. Thousands of South Florida divers hit the water for miniseason at the end of July. Maybe half as many divers continue hunting for lobsters during the first month or two of the regular season, when lobsters are still fairly plentiful and relatively easy to catch.
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Mathie, a retired Deerfield Beach fire chief and author of the book, “Catching the BUG: The Comprehensive Guide to Catching the Spiny Lobster,” says that lobsters have been abundant the entire season.
He attributes some of that to Hurricane Irma in September of 2017, which, according to a Herald article this past December, destroyed or displaced 44 percent of the approximately 350,000 lobster traps in the Florida Keys. That resulted in a reduced commercial catch and, according to Mathie, more lobsters migrating north to Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties.
“In past seasons, it’s pretty strong in August, and September would be good, then it slacks off,” he says. “October always picks up. Little cool fronts stir them up around World Series time. Come December, things slow up. This year it didn’t.”
Diving from Jupiter to Hallandale Beach with friends on his boat or on their boats, as well as with dive charters such as Scuba Works in Jupiter and South Florida Diving Headquarters in Pompano Beach, Mathie and his buddies routinely caught their six-lobster daily limits throughout January.
They did the same on the relative handful of calm February days between cold fronts, which were accompanied by blustery winds that made the ocean too rough to go diving.
Diving conditions have been ideal this month, which has Mathie excited about the next two weeks.
“Even now, the water temperature is up to 77, 78 degrees. That’s not bad for the middle of March,” says Mathie, whose 5-millimeter wetsuit has kept him plenty warm this winter. “I want to say it got down to 74 earlier this winter, which was pretty much the coldest. The visibility hasn’t been bad. We had like 40-foot vis this past Monday.”
Most of his recent dives have been on the third reef. The top of the reef is about 50 feet below the surface and it drops to about 65 feet at the bottom.
Monday’s dive there yielded limits for four divers. Mathie says they even found some clusters of five to six bugs in a hole, although that has been the exception lately. They saw some that were too short to keep (lobsters must have a carapace larger than three inches) and a few were egg-bearing females, which also cannot be kept.
He adds that lobsters have been warier than usual the past few weeks. Instead of standing their ground, most bugs retreat into their hiding spots in coral reefs. Others are so far under ledges that divers can see only the tips of their antennae.
“They are smarter now,” says Chuck Van Buskirk, who dives often with Mathie. “They’ve been poked and prodded from the Keys all the way up here. Now when you just approach them, they start backing up.
“A lot of the lobsters that we’re seeing are well-hidden. You see only a piece of antenna. I’ve used my light more in the last three weeks than the whole rest of the lobster season combined.”
As Van Buskirk explains, a dive light helps him quickly spot lobsters deep in a hole or under a ledge. He also uses the light to see where the bug’s tail is so he can get the loop of his snare around it and catch the lobster.
Some bugs are so tucked into holes that Mathie hasn’t been able to get them with his snare. So he’ll use his hand to grab the bug by its knuckles at the base of its antennae.
As he details in “Catching the BUG,” which is available at many local dive shops as well as chiefy.net and other online retailers, squeezing the knuckles together with your fingers almost paralyzes the lobster. That makes it easier to pull the bug out of its hole. While doing that, he says to watch out for other species that could hurt you, such as a moray eel or stone crab.
“I hate putting my hand in holes. I’ve gotten stung by lionfish before,” Mathie says.
If you’d rather be safe than potentially sorry, leave those bugs alone and keep hunting. After all, chances are good that you’ll find what you’re looking for – six legal lobsters that are much easier to catch – and a satisfying ending to the season.