An In-Depth Guide To Lobster Fishing in South Florida
We all know Florida is a fishing paradise all year-round, renowned for a wide variety of marine life, from highflying sailfish to heavyweight largemouth bass. But as July approaches, seasoned locals and eager tourists turn their attention to another sea dweller – the spiny lobster.
South Florida offers a plethora of prime locations teeming with spiny lobsters. Hotspots include the Florida Keys, Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach, each hosting many coral reefs and rocky areas that provide ideal lobster habitats.
Harvesting spiny lobsters isn’t just about taking a casual dive and grabbing the first crustacean you see. The sport requires preparation, understanding of regulations, technique and respect for marine life. This guide aims to dive into what you need to know to prepare you for a lobster adventure in South Florida.
There are two times lobsters can be harvested. The first is called mini-season and is always the last Wednesday and Thursday of July. This is a delightful appetizer before the regular season. Thousands flock to the Keys and other Florida hotspots for a chance to bag their legal limit of Florida spiny lobsters, savored locally for their table fare. It’s called mini-season because the short stretch comes ahead of the regular commercial and recreational spiny lobster season that runs Aug. 6-March 31. Even though mini-season stretches across the state, Keys waters are particularly popular with bug hunters.
Every year, the mini-season begins at 12:01 a.m. on the last Wednesday of July and ends at midnight on Thursday. That start time is essential. If caught lobstering at 11:59 p.m. Tuesday, you might end up in county jail. The mini-season was approved in 1974 by the Florida Legislature as a way to ease the conflict between recreational anglers and commercial trappers before the regular season started to give recreational individuals the opportunity to harvest their fair share before commercial traps are deployed.
As for bag limits, Monroe County and Biscayne National Park allow six lobsters per person, while the rest of Florida doubles this limit. Remember that possession limits match the daily bag limit on the water and double off the water on the second day.
Size does matter when it comes to your catch. The carapace (or head) must exceed 3 inches, measured from the forward edge between the rostral horns to the rear edge. A legal measuring device is a must-have. Night diving might sound intriguing, but it’s off-limits in Monroe County during the short mini-season. Areas that prohibit lobster harvesting include John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, Everglades National Park, Dry Tortugas National Park, no-take zones in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, the Biscayne Bay/Card Sound Lobster Sanctuary and Biscayne National Park’s Coral Reef Protection Areas (via FWC). In specific municipalities in the Florida Keys, diving or snorkeling within 300 feet of a residential shoreline, in any artificial or private canal, or in any public or private marina is prohibited.
Unless exempt, you’ll need a recreational saltwater fishing license with a lobster permit. Lobsters must be landed whole — no separating the tail from the body in state waters while catching. Harvesting egg-bearing lobsters or species from the families Palinuridae (spiny lobsters), Scyllaridae (slipper lobsters) or Synaxidae (furry lobsters) is prohibited. Also, using any device that could harm the lobster’s shell or flesh is illegal, as is recreational trapping. Bag limits are non-transferable, even if someone isn’t actively fishing.
These rules and regulations are implemented to ensure we will have access to this fun Florida tradition for years to come. When armed with the right gear, knowledge and respect for rules and marine life, you’ll indeed have an unforgettable lobster adventure.
The first step to a successful lobster trip is gathering the necessary gear. While there are many methods of diving for them, including free diving, tank diving or using a hookah diving system, the gear for catching lobsters remains the same. Essential equipment includes a set of fins and a mask, a legal 3-inch lobster gauge for size measurement, a tickle stick for coaxing the lobster out of its hiding place, a lobster net, a dive flag and a catch bag for storing your harvest. A floating dive flag is also a must-have to signal your presence to nearby boats while diving and, if you’re on a boat, there should be a dive flag visible. Ensure your gear is easily secure to your body while swimming or within easy reach before diving.
Suppose you do not have an arsenal of lobster spots in your GPS. In that case, the “dragging” method is a great way to discover some productive areas and cover much ground over traditional drifts or just swimming. Dragging involves one or a group of divers being towed behind a slow-moving boat while snorkeling with all their gear. They’ll look for lobsters or good-looking spots as they’re pulled over grassy ledges, hard bottoms, near coral reefs or limestone holes. Once they spot a lobster or an area worth checking out, they must release the tow rope and dive down to catch it. Having a spotter on the boat as a lookout to communicate what the divers are doing to the captain is essential so the boat can circle back to pick up divers after they let go of the rope and catch their lobsters. As the captain, it is helpful to drag your divers past color changes in the bottom or along the sand edges of grass flats. To boost your chances of a bountiful harvest, search for crevices, ledges and other potential hideouts where lobsters are likely to take refuge.
Catching lobsters in Florida requires a strategic approach. The most popular meth – od involves using a tickle stick and a wide, short-handled net. Once a lobster is located within a crevice or hole, position your net near the hole’s exit, slide the tickle stick behind the lobster, and gently tap its tail. The lobster will instinctively crawl forward out of the hole. Once out, position the tip of your net near its tail and then lay it flat over the entire lobster. This technique may require a bit of practice, but it tends to become second nature with experience.
If you’re fortunate enough to catch a lobster, avoid grabbing it by the antennae. Lobsters can self-amputate these and their legs, often leaving you with a bunch of body parts and a defenseless lobster that might not survive. Instead, grab the carapace (the back shell) for a secure grip that causes minimal harm before stowing them in your catch bag.
Tail snares offer seasoned lobster hunters a more advanced approach. This tool allows you to coax the lobster out and snag it by looping the snare around its tail. Although this method can be more challenging than using a net, it has the advantage of freeing up one hand, allowing you to carry and manage other gear. It might be more suited for experienced lobster hunters, but beginners shouldn’t shy away from giving it a try. Some snares out there are manual. The user must pull the line to tighten the loop around the lobster. Others come with a spring-loaded button system where the loop is automatically closed around the animal just with the touch of a button.
If getting in the water isn’t your thing, bully netting might be the best option for you. Lobsters are nocturnal and, at night, they venture out and away from their daytime dens to hunt and scavenge for food up on the shallow grass flats. This creates a unique opportunity for harvesters to get their limit without ending up in the water.
All you need is a shallow drafting flats or bay boat, some bright lights and a bully net. A bully net is a circular frame attached to the end of long pole at a right angle with bag of webbing. The webbing is usually held up by a cord that is released when the net is dropped over a lobster. Once the lobster is in the net, it can be scooped up and measured to be released or harvested. The main key to success is a well-lit boat so you can see the lobsters crawling in the shallows. Once you spot a lobster, plunge the net directly over the top of them and be patient until they spook and dart right into the net. Grass flats adjacent to channels are a lobster favorite at night.
Whether it’s bully netting at night or diving for them during the day, once you’ve got a limit of these tasty creatures, it’s time to get them back to clean them properly. On the boat, the best way to store them is alive, in your livewell. When you get back to the ramp or your house, the lobsters can be placed in a cooler and covered in ice. The lobster must never be sitting in thawed water to maintain its freshness and taste. This is especially important if you plan on freezing any of the tails. Elevate the opposite side of the cooler to the drain plug and remove the plug. This will ensure the water from the melting ice will drain while keeping your catch nice and cold, and fresh.
To clean the lobsters, separate the tail from the body by holding each in one hand and gently twisting and pulling. Rinse away any residual membrane or liquid. Every lobster comes with two lobster cleaning devices, antennas. Snap off an antenna and use it to clean the tail’s “waste track,” similar to de-veining a shrimp. Make sure the meat outside of the tail is completely dry after rinsing. Lobster tails can be refrigerated for about 72 hours before they lose freshness. For longer storage, tightly wrap the meat exposed on the outer end of the tail with plastic wrap and package in a freezer-safe ziplock bag. Freeze immediately to retain freshness until you’re ready to cook.
Navigating the waters lobstering in Florida can be a thrilling new adventure steeped in rich experiences and the potential for delicious rewards. As you venture into the depths, armed with the knowledge of fishing regulations, prime lobster locations and the most effective catching techniques, remember that safety — yours and of marine life — is the most important thing. Treat each catch with care to maintain freshness, ensuring that your lobster is not just a testament to a successful hunt but a culinary delight as well. Always respect the ecosystem that has generously allowed you to partake in this cherished tradition. After all, lobstering in Florida is more than just a pursuit — it’s a dance with nature that encourages us to celebrate and protect our spectacular coastal heritage.