It's the last Wednesday & Thursday of July in the Florida Keys and the midnight madness of the 2005 mini spiny lobster season is within minutes from opening. We keep looking down at our GPS waiting for that magic hour of 12:01 am. We can't stop talking about that succulent white meat that will soon be gracing our BBQ grills.
The Caribbean spiny lobster, Panulirus argus (Latreille, 1804), aka Florida spiny lobster, grows to about 15 inches in length. Like the other 20 members of the genus Panulirus such as the Australian, California, and Chinese spiny lobsters, it lacks the large pinching claws of their Maine lobster relatives. Its only defense is the spines that cover its shell, which help protect the lobster from predators. The Caribbean spiny lobster uses a second pair of antennae in sensory perception, which are found folded along side the body when not in use. These lobsters have a striped body, brown-gray in color with yellow spots on the segmented tail. They have compound eyes and can detect orientation, form, light, and color. If startled, lobsters will kick their large abdominal tails rapidly to swim away backwards to safety.
The Florida spiny lobster inhabits tropical and subtropical waters of the Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean Sea, and Gulf of Mexico. This nocturnal species inhabits coral reefs where it hides during the day in crevices under ledges.
As the alarm on our GPS rings out across the flat, I flip the switch on the six underwater shrimp lights encircling the boat. The lights do their job and illuminate the flat in all directions. Bruce & Jenna then turn their head lamps on and step out onto the front deck. By the end of the night their necks will be sore and cramping from swinging their heads back and forth looking for those elusive red/orange eyes. It's not long before Jenna starts pointing to the portside of the boat yelling, "There's one, there's one dad."
I bump the engine forward in an attempt to bow into the bug. Bruce raises his bully net as the boat drifts closer and closer to our prey. Just before the current begins to take control, Bruce plunges the net down into the shallow water, trapping the lobster to the grassy flat three feet below. With a perfect stroke reminiscent of Tiger Woods at the Masters, Bruce swings the bug up and into the rear cockpit of the boat. I carefully reach down with my gloved hand and pick up the prehistoric looking creature, being careful not to get stabbed by the two horns protruding from its head. Using a metal measuring device, I carefully place one end between its eyes. I lower it along its carapace and watch as the gauge drops over the edge and touches the tail.
With a splash, back into the water he goes. As I watch the langoustino dart away into the darkness, I yell out, "Go grow up, we'll see you next year."
The spiney lobster sport season will fall on July 26th and 27th for 2006. The bag limits are 6 per person per day for Monroe County and Biscayne National Park, and 12 per person per day for the rest of Florida. The possession limit on the water is equal to the daily bag limit, and off the water is equal to the daily bag limit on the first day, and double the daily bag limit on the second day. Possession limits are enforced on and off the water. Spiny lobster has a minimum size limit that must be larger than 3" carapace, measured in the water. A reminder that possession and use of a measuring device is required at all times, and night diving is prohibited in Monroe County (only during the sport season). A recreational saltwater license and a crawfish permit are needed for harvest. Regular spiny lobster season is August 6 through March 31. The bag limit is 6 per person per day. Harvest of lobster is prohibited in John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park during the sport season. Harvest is also prohibited during both the 2-day sport season and regular season in Everglades National Park, Dry Tortugas National Park, and no take areas in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Call (305) 743-2437 or visit www.fknms.nos.noaa.gov for information about no take areas in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Please call the Marathon Law Enforcement office at (305) 289-2320 for lobster harvesting regulations for Monroe County. Recreational trapping of lobster is prohibited (www.myfwc.com).
LOBSTER BAG LIMITS
Monroe County - 6 per person per day (2 Day Sport Season--July 26 - 27--and Regular Season--August 6 - March 31)
Biscayne National Park - 6 per person per day (2 Day Sport Season--July 26 - 27--and Regular Season--August 6 - March 31)
Elsewhere -- 12 per person per day (2 Day Sport Season--July 26 - 27) and 6 per person per day (Regular Season--August 6 - March 31).
As we continue to drift through the narrow, shallow channel, Bruce spots a pair of bugs unknowingly making their way into the gauntlet of awaiting boats) As we reach our quarry, Bruce again slams the net to the channel floor and shimmies it back and forth, forcing the lobster to entangle itself. Bruce swings the net backwards and quickly scoops the bug up and into the boat. As the lobster lands at my feet, I retrieve it and place my gauge along its back. The gauge is nowhere near falling over this time.
Into the livewell it goes. Only seventeen more to go as the "bug hunt" continues into the night.
Spiny Lobster must have a minimum carapace length of greater than 3-inches and the measurement must take place in the water. The carapace is measured beginning at the forward edge between the rostral horns, excluding any soft tissue, and proceeding along the middle to the rear edge of the carapace. (www.myfwc.com)
As with any activity, to be a successful "bully netter", one must make a small investment in the necessary gear. First and foremost is the bully net itself. A bully net is normally a two-foot diameter hoop net attached to a pole not less than eight feet long. The hoop of the net is bent at a ninety-degree angle to the pole. Basically, it is a shrimp dipping net with a right angle bend in it.
Depending on where you're at in the Keys, you may or may not need a boat. But it definitely improves your odds. I have seen successful bully netters in ten foot Jon-boats and all the way and up to twenty-eight foot pontoon boats. Bully netting is definitely a social event, but after years of chasing our prey, we have found that a flat bottom, maneuverable boat with a maximum of four people works the best. That gives you one boat operator, one spotter and two netters.
Next is a good hand held spotlight of not less than (1,000,000) one million candlepower. Not only do we utilize the hand held lights, but we also press into service the head lamps that we use during alligator season. Last but not least, we have fabricated a customized framework of PVC piping with shrimp dipping lights attached at the ends. The lights rest just below the waterline but not below the lower chine of the boat. This way the lights will not blow out by popping in and out of the water and if you're forced to run up on a grass flat, you won't break them off. We use six of them, but the most important are the two lights on the bow. The remaining four are located off the stern and off each side. Yes, we look like a UFO running through the water, but we find the bugs.
Since many smaller engines just have an alternator big enough to operate the running lights and several pieces of instrumentation, a pair of trolling motor batteries will be needed to run your lighting system.
And finally, a lobster-measuring gauge made out of metal, not plastic. We have found over the years that the cheap, plastic gauges can shrink or expand from lobster to lobster, depending on if its been left on the deck, in the cooler or in the water attached to the end of your tickle stick. In the past we have had legal bugs just after sunset and by midnight the gauge has shrunk by almost a 1/8th of an inch.
Early in our adventures, we always kept several of the plastic type gauges on the boat. We didn't realize there was a problem till "the man" came along side and checked out our catch with his metal gauge. We were suddenly in possession of three short lobster. After being schooled on the difference between metal vs. plastic gauges and a pleasant verbal warning, back over and into the water the short bugs went. My advice is to spend the extra couple of bucks up front. They may save you several hundred dollars on the other end when the marine patrol officer breaks out his "metal gauge."
We look down at our watches and its 2:45am. With three limits on the boat and the livewell bursting at the seams, we shut down the arena of lights and head back to the dock. As I push the throttle forward and come up onto plane, the still, humid air turns into a cool, refreshing breeze. As we approach the dock with smiles and thumbs up, the ladies are waiting to indulge us in a well-deserved cerveza and one of those good island cigars.
After cleaning and bagging our catch, I peel off my gloves and look down at several dozen deep paper cuts on my fingers and palms. I look up at Bruce and say, "yea, it's worth it." As I drag myself upstairs and to the bed, I think about how we just beat the "morning madness" and get to sleep in. Tomorrow night at sunset, we get to do it all over again, with nary another boat in site. Ah, paradise!!!
"See you on the Boat or in the Blind"