Regional Angling Advice
How to Catch Spiny Lobster on Florida's East Coast
By Bob Sweeney, Last updated 1/27/2018
Spiny Lobster and Lionfish haul!
To most people, the last Wednesday and Thursday of July are just days on a calendar, but to some of us on the East Coast of Florida, it might as well be a national holiday. That is because every year in Florida a major event occurs on those days; that event is Spiny Lobster Mini Season. Mini Season is a two-day recreational-only harvest of the delicious Spiny Lobster before the commercial harvest is allowed. People will plan their year's vacation, traveling from all across the globe to participate during Mini Season. Being born and raised in South Florida I have spent many hours and logged many dives in search of these tasty "bugs", as they are commonly referred to.
I am frequently asked around this time about the what, where, when and how's of catching Spiny Lobster from customers in my Fort Pierce West Marine store. I tell everyone from first-timers to experienced divers the same information: dive smart, you don't have to travel too far to find them, take multiple gear options, keep an eye on the fish you see as they are a good indicators as to where the bug's lair is and most importantly get out on the water.
Once in the water, look for spots where the sand meets the edge of the ledge and maybe you will see the antenna sticking out, which is always a good sign.
Diving smart means many things to different people depending on their experience; but to me, it means safety, regulations, knowing your limits and being efficient. The state of Florida requires all harvesters of Spiny Lobster to have a valid Salt Water Fishing License and a lobster stamp. These can be purchased very easily from any state tax collector's office, online, over the phone or my favorite way, with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) smart phone app. The FWC smart phone app saves your license on your phone in case you ever forget your paper copy. A few other Florida requirements are that all harvesters must have a measuring device and use it prior to removing lobsters from the water. No spearing, snagging or puncturing the shell allowed. Most importantly, you must release all egg bearing lobster. All of this information is available in greater detail at the FWC website.
It doesn't matter if you are snorkeling or scuba diving, all divers should have a buddy with them while on the water. This increases your chances of recovering safely from injury or accident while in or on the water. Pick and understand predetermined signals as we humans cannot talk under water. Stay close to your buddy and never dive without a diver down flag. This flag is required by the state of Florida to be displayed at all times when someone is in the water. For the safety of others, the law requires boats to operate at idle if they cannot get more than 100 yards away from a displayed flag. The bottom line for safety is making sure you and your buddy stay close to the flag and if you are operating a vessel, to stay as far away from divers in the water as possible.
If you are not seeing any antenna another good sign is the presence of pork fish as they prefer the same environment as the lobster. If you see a school of them around an area of the reef keep your eyes open you may be right on top of one.
The east coast of Florida and my area of the Treasure Coast in particular, is littered with reefs just a few yards off the beach to tens of miles out. The good thing is you don’t have to travel far or into deep water to find these elusive crustaceans. In fact, some of the best lobster grounds in my area are 100 yards off the beach in eight to 13 feet of water. A few very productive spots that do not require a boat to access are Pepper Park in Fort Pierce, the reefs off Kimberly Bergalis Park and the reefs off the Fort Pierce Inlet State Park. All of these spots can be easily swam to with standard snorkel gear, but I recommend a kayak or paddle board to access them so you do not get tired too soon and have to cut your trip short. For scuba divers and experienced free divers, the natural reefs and ledges in 60 to 80 feet of water always produce a good number of bugs, but the water can be cold during mini season as a result of the annual cold water upwelling. Don't be fooled by surface temps as last year in 80 feet of water the bottom temp was 54 degrees!
The beach and shallow reefs are easy to spot and dive to especially if the sky is clear and you have a good pair of polarized sunglasses. Just pick a reef to swim to and have at it. Deeper reefs will require an echo sounder (fish finder) and GPS. Once you find a good spot on the bottom machine be sure to mark it with your GPS so you can turn back and dive on it. While big ledges are impressive on the machine and fun to dive, the small ledges, typically one to two feet tall, tend to hold more bugs. Once in the water look for spots where the sand meets the edge of the ledge and maybe you will see the antenna sticking out, which is always a good sign. If you are not seeing any antenna another good sign is the presence of pork fish as they prefer the same environment as the lobster. If you see a school of them around an area of the reef keep your eyes open you may be right on top of a Spiny Lobster.
I tell everyone from first timers to experienced divers the same information; dive smart, you don't have to travel far to find them, take multiple gear options, keep an eye on the fish you see as they are a good clue as to where the bug's lair is, and most importantly get on the water.
So you found the honey hole of monster lobsters, now what? Well, you need to use your tickle stick, catch net, gloves and catch bag correctly to corral all those tasty tails. Use a tickle stick to slide behind the tail while avoiding their sensitive antenna and gently “tickle” them out from under the ledge. Once they are clear of the ledge, slide your catch net between the tail and the ledge and close it down on them. Then use your gloved hand to control it so you can check for eggs and measure it. If it passes both tests place it in your bag and keep going. Sounds easy right? Well the best advice I can give if you are a first timer is to plan on missing a few, but don’t be discouraged; learn from what you did and how the lobster reacted so you can improve your skills.
Some of the biggest errors while trying to catch Spiny Lobsters are when people get fixated on one bug, rushing and pushing your limits. If that one lobster just won't co-operate and tickle out of the hole, try a lobster snare to grab the tail and pull it. If that does not work or you don't have a snare, move down the reef. Many divers, including myself, have spent entire tanks of air trying to catch "the one" instead of catching the six other lobsters lurking in the area.
This leads to my next point of taking your time and not rushing. Tickling lobster is about finesse, not brute strength; the more you try to force one out, the deeper it will dig in. Also, don't try to grab the antenna, it won't work; all you will get is a bag full of broken antenna. Now if you can grab it at the base by the horns then you may have a chance, but I still don't recommend it as it has low success rates and will potentially harm the lobster if you are unsuccessful. And finally, remember no lobster is worth your safety. You know your body and its limits, please do not push them as humans (obviously) cannot breathe by themselves underwater.
Some of the biggest errors while trying to catch Spiny Lobsters are getting fixated on one bug, rushing and pushing your limits. If that one lobster just won't co-operate and tickle out of the hole, try a lobster snare to grab the tail and pull it. If that does not work or you don't have a snare, move down the reef.
Unfortunately, Lionfish have become all too common on the reefs of Florida, but the bright side is they like lobster spots and they taste good! While looking for lobster you can carry a small Lionfish spear or better a combo spear tickle stick. They do have venomous spines so be very careful! If you see one and have a small spear with a paralyzer tip (multi prong) harvest them. In Florida, there are no limits or size restrictions for Lionfish. Make sure you have a Lionfish containment or bag, it can double as a lobster bag but you need something designed for them as their spines are like hypodermic needles and can puncture both standard bags and even your glove or wetsuit. Check www.myFWC.org for more information on Lionfish.
The Bottom Line
It does not take much to start catching Spiny Lobster; just some basic snorkel gear, a lobster catch kit and the drive to catch some tasty lobster tails. Make sure you get the required permits to harvest them, get your location selected, start looking and keep your eyes open. Once you find them take your time and learn from each miss. Once you have a few in the bag, remember if you can safely do so, Lionfish make a tasty addition to a lobster tail dinner. Remember, have fun, be safe and enjoy your life on the water! And if you catch a few, drop by the Fort Pierce West Marine store and share your success with me and the rest of the team.
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About the Author
Bob Sweeny is a Sales Associate at the West Marine Fort Pierce Store. He was born and raised in Fort Pierce, Florida, spending his younger years surfing, fishing, and diving from the beaches of Fort Pierce. Bob is a graduate of Florida State University. After moving back to Fort Pierce, he met his wife Tiffany. They have a 22' Center Console Boat and enjoy fishing, diving and just hanging out on the water. Bob and his wife recently welcomed their first child, a baby girl who most certainly will be on the water as soon as she can!
All photos are property of Bob Sweeney. All underwater photos were taken with a GoPro camera available at West Marine.