Lobstering 101: What You Need to Know for Your First DIY Keys Lobster Trip

Free lobster dinner time, of a sort: Florida’s two-day paroxysm of u-pick-em lobstering, the spiny lobster sport season a.k.a. mini season, runs the last Wednesday and Thursday of July. This year, that’s July 27-28. The regular season, as it does annually, runs August 6 to March 31. Here are some tools, tips, and do’s and don’ts for baggin’ your bugs.

Lobstering Tools

The basic tools of the daytime snorkeling or diving recreational lobsterer are a tickle stick, a net, a mesh bag and a measuring gauge.

Last item first, because you are required to have one: Possession and use of a measuring device is required at all times. Lobsters must be measured in the water and released if undersized (or are egg-bearing).

A tickle stick — homemade or store-bought, three to five feet long with an angled tip — helps ease the bug out of its daytime hidey hole and into the net. A tickle stick can be used to herd a lobster into a net, or to gently get the bug turned around so it can be grabbed by the carapace from the back.

Snares are popular, the best way to catch lobsters according to some. Just carefully slide the snare over the lobster from the tail end and tighten. A snare doubles as a tickle stick when needed.

"These guys are called spiny lobsters for a reason. Gloves are useful for getting a hold of one and keeping a hold on it. "

The no-tools, just-grab-em approach is the minimalist way to harvest lobsters. Gloves are not strictly necessary, whether you are catching them by hand or otherwise, but these guys are called spiny lobsters for a reason. Gloves are useful for getting a hold of one and keeping a hold on it. Your gloves don’t have to be dive gloves; just make sure they are made for use in the water, adequate for protecting your hands while still giving good dexterity.

The drawstring mesh bag is where the keepers go. Put them in the bag tail first. 

Lobsters are nocturnal and tend to spend the day tucked in some dark crevice. A dive light — even if snorkeling but especially if diving — is helpful for peeking into dark spots for telltale lobster antennae.

Bully nets are a tool of the nighttime bug chaser. After dark, lobsters like to move into shallower waters like seagrass flats in search of food. Move quietly along in a boat with a light on or over the bow until a lobster is encountered. Lower the net stealthily above the lobster, then quickly down to the bottom. The lobster will probably escape deeper into the net — a sideways swipe of the net ensures the lobster is netted and brings the bug home.

Lobstering Trip Checklist

Planning your first trip to the Keys for mini-season? Here’s a handy rundown of what you’ll need:

Staying Legal

  • Lobster gauges for everybody who will be lobstering
  • Florida recreational saltwater fishing license plus $5 lobster permit
  • Dive flag — Know the requirements and follow them.
  • All required boating safety equipment and emergency signals

Finding Lobsters in the Florida Keys

  • Detailed paper and/or electronic charts — Getting around is challenging in many parts of the Keys, especially on the Gulf side, where a lot of good lobstering areas are found.
  • Good fishfinder and/or shaded relief imagery — Shaded relief imagery like CMOR Mapping can be a huge advantage in finding the right structure. So can a good fishfinder with a skilled operator. Brush up ahead of time with your electronics.
  • Tow rope — A common way to search for lobsters is to tow one or more snorkelers behind the boat at idle speed, then stop when they see bugs or good bottom. Wake sports tow ropes work well, or make your own with rope and a dowel.

Catching Lobster

  • Good quality, properly fitted mask, snorkel and fins — You’ll be in them all day so go to your local dive shop, not Amazon.
  • Lobster nets — Basically a small freshwater-type landing net with a short handle
  • Tickle sticks
  • Gloves
  • Mesh bags
  • Small dive light (optional)
  • Snares (optional)

Boat Gear

  • Anchor — It’s easy to get your anchor hung in the kind of bottom that lobsters favor. Consider using a grapnel-style anchor or rigging your current anchor breakaway style.
  • Good swim ladder — You’ll be in and out of the boat a lot. Climbing a rope ladder or clambering up your outboard loses its charm quickly.
  • Extra dock lines and fenders — If you’ll be keeping your boat in the water at a resort or rental, throw in extra mooring gear. You never know exactly what the setup will be.
  • Spare parts and tools — The Keys is crazy during mini-season. If something breaks, you’re going to have to fix it yourself. Bring the tools and parts you need to address common problems like blown fuses, wiring issues, failed bilge and bait pumps, bad bulbs, dinged props, leaking hoses, etc.

Miscellaneous

  • Rash guard or other swim top to protect your back from the sun
  • Sunscreen, and lots of it, for everywhere else
  • Basic ingredients to cook your catch
  • PATIENCE AND COMMON SENSE — Almost every year, there are multiple arrests and injuries and one or more deaths during mini-season. Often the deaths are divers who are struck by boat propellers. It’s crazy out there. Keep your wits about you and don’t succumb to “bug fever.”

Florida Keys Lobster Tips

The antennae poking out of something and giving them away is what you are looking for. Your eyes may need some training before the antennae start popping out for you, but it shouldn’t take too long before you can pick them out readily.

"Never say never, sure, but you’re not going to grab them from the front if they have any escape route going backward. "

Solo lobsters are more likely to be egg-bearing. It’s also useful to develop an eye for judging size, so you are not expending effort catching lobsters that have to be released.

Lobsters swim backwards. Never say never, sure, but you’re not going to grab them from the front if they have any escape route going backward. Grab them from behind or induce them to escape backward into your net.

Florida Keys Lobstering Rules

The sport season runs for the last consecutive Wednesday and Thursday of July each year: July 27-28, 2022. The regular lobster season runs August 6 to March 31, annually.

A recreational saltwater fishing license and a $5 lobster permit are required to harvest spiny lobster, unless you are exempt.

A lobster gauge measures the horizontal length of the lobster’s hard body shell called the carapace. The carapace must be larger than 3". The distance to measure is from the back of the eye socket to the end of the shell.

Egg-bearing lobsters of any size must be released.

During the sport season, the daily bag limit is 6 per person for Monroe County and Biscayne National Park, and 12 per person for the rest of Florida. During the regular season, the daily bag limit is 6 lobsters statewide.

Possession limits are enforced on and off the water. The possession limit on the water is the same as the daily bag limit. During the sport season, the possession limit off the water is the daily bag limit on the first day of the season, and double the daily bag limit on the second day.

"A recreational saltwater fishing license and a $5 lobster permit are required to harvest spiny lobster, "

During the sport season, all night diving is prohibited in Monroe County. Note that diving is defined as swimming at or below the surface of the water.

John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park is closed to harvesting lobsters during the sport season. These areas are closed to harvesting lobsters in both the sport and regular seasons: 

  • Everglades National Park
  • Dry Tortugas National Park
  • Biscayne Bay/Card Sound Lobster Sanctuary
  • No-take areas within the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary
  • Coral Reef Protection Areas within Biscayne National Park

You can’t trap them. You can’t injure them in the process of catching them — no spearing or gigging, careful with the snares — since they must be measured before being kept.

Lobsters must be kept in whole condition on the water. Separating the tail from the body is prohibited in Florida waters.

Mind the coral while chasing lobsters — don’t damage it.

More Interesting Things to Know

The Caribbean Spiny Lobster found in Florida waters is not very closely related to the clawed, coldwater true lobsters of the north Atlantic.

Spiny lobsters on Florida’s west coast tend toward the larger side, and they range throughout the Gulf of Mexico, and as far north as the Carolinas on the Atlantic coast. However, outside the Florida Keys and their Caribbean range they tend to inhabit much deeper water where there is less seasonal temperature fluctuation.

"They are delicious grilled and basted with butter and garlic, as well as any other way you can prepare them. "

Spiny lobsters begin life with a free-swimming larval stage, then settle into seagrass beds or mangrove roots after about a year. They molt as they grow, and are vulnerable and especially shy in the soft-shelled, freshly molted state. After molting a few times, they migrate to coral reefs, where they take up primary residence in nooks and crannies, or dwell in burrows. They feed on mollusks and forage opportunistically on vegetable matter, dead things, and other detritus on bottom. 

They are delicious grilled and basted with butter and garlic, as well as any other way you can prepare them. See your local Internet for an infinite number of recipe ideas.

lobster hiding in rockslobster hiding in rocks

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