The Thrill of the Hunt: A Diver’s Guide to Lobster

Who says we don’t have seasons in California? We most certainly do! There is lobster season and everything else.

We’ll keep this simple: California spiny lobsters (“bugs”) are very tasty. They’re also hard to find at local seafood specialty stores and restaurants — and are often outrageously expensive when you can find them. Finally, they are a lot of fun to catch while diving! If you have not already done so, perhaps it is time for you to try lobster hunting.
Is it easy? Well, sort of — if you know the correct techniques and right places. Is it safe? It certainly can and should be, when you are well prepared and adhere to safe diving practices that we all should employ on every dive. We are here to help you in getting your first catch, maximizing your take while adhering to fish and game limits, and do so safely.
We’re not marine scientists, but based on our personal experience lobsters appear to be remarkably unintelligent creatures, while at the same time they are highly reactive. And quite nimble. Techniques for catching lobster are generally simple and direct, although not always easy. Legally, divers may only catch lobster by hand — with no hooks, prods, or spears involved. That’s okay, because the challenge of the hunt is part of the fun. You’ve got to be fast, and a bit sneaky, too. 
Locating Lobsters
Just about any reef structure in Southern California including wrecks and artificial reefs could harbor bugs. During the day they hide. Only at night do they venture forth in the open but they typically stay close to their reef holes. Lobsters inhabit depth ranges from as shallow as just a few feet to well over 100 feet. They also move about along the reef during the night which means what might be a great spot one week could be empty later. 
Hot Spots
Old time divers have an adage about “secret” lobster spots. It goes like this: First, keep secret spots secret. Second, there are no secret spots. 
With that in mind, below are some general locations that are consistent producers:
Front side of Catalina Island: Commercial trapping is prohibited here, which means less competition. Stay out of preserves.
Point Loma kelp beds, San Diego: Looks promising for the 2014 season.
San Clemente Island: Always lots of lobster here but this has become known as “the land of the shorts” for the large percentage of undersized lobster.
Cortez Bank: Far offshore it is difficult to reach but when the weather is good it is superb, both in number and size of the bugs.
Reefs off Webster Point, Santa Barbara Island: The shallows of these “boilers” are a consistent producer of larger than legal-sized bugs. This is a challenging dive in the shallow surge. Not recommended for novice hunters.
Palos Verdes Peninsula: The west side is especially good, particularly in shallow eelgrass, but expect a lot of surge in the shallows.
Breakwaters: Lots of great holes and caves but do not dive inside of the harbors, as this is usually illegal.
Talcott Shoal, Santa Rosa Island: An expansive reef area with many ridges in a variety of depths. 
Keep diving, looking and covering a lot of ground. When you find one bug, odds are there are several others nearby, usually in the same hole. Birds of a feather, they are. 
A Lobster Anatomy Lesson
Knowing a bit about a lobster’s anatomy and behaviors will definitely help in the pursuit of your quarry. 
Antennae – The key sensory organ of the lobster is their long, paired antennae. They take in a great deal of information through their antennae chiefly being recognition of the threat of a predator — you! Touch the antennae and they flee, usually with a quick flip of their powerful tail.
You can tell a lot about where a lobster’s attention is focused by the direction their antennae are pointed. If both are pointed away from you, odds are your stealth had paid off and you have them by surprise. 
If the bug is backed into a hole or crevice and one antenna is pointed forward and the other backward not only is that bug paying attention to you but also a neighbor, perhaps a moray eel. This is important information to consider and verify before thrusting your hand into a hole in pursuit.
If both antennae are pointed toward you, as they usually are, the lobster is aware of you. With this in consideration, you may need to adjust your approach. One effective strategy is that of distraction. With help of your buddy or using your other hand you can get the lobster to focus elsewhere while you move in for the grab.
Antennae are fragile. If you get a hold of only the antennae, odds are they will simply break off in your hands, which is no good for you or the lobster. Get a grip on the base of the antennae or body of the lobster instead.
Tail – With the perception of a threat, a few tail flips and it speeds off tail first, meaning “backward.” This is important to know in your pursuit. If the lobster is out in the open, try to approach it from the rear and always aim for the main part of the body, or carapace.
On the underside of the tail are a number of large spines that close and pinch as it flips its tail. When holding a lobster by its tail and you run the risk of being injured by the spines. It’s best to hold the lobster by the carapace.
Eyes – The eyes of the lobster are much like an insect’s and as such are highly reactive to motion. At the same time they are adjusted more for low light situations. Bright light disorients them, so your dive light can be useful to momentarily “stun” the lobster while you position yourself to grab it.
Legs, Mouth, and Spines – Nothing goes to waste in benefiting the lobster’s defensive stand against predators. 
While the legs are sharp and powerful they generally don’t hurt but can hinder (but sometimes help) in your pursuit. More often than not you’ll be grabbing a bug backed into a crevice. If you get a good grip on the base of its antennae the lobster will “lock-up” on you by using its powerful legs to push its back up against the top of the crevice effectively making it almost impossible to remove. The trick to pulling it free is to give the lobster a good shake. This will likely free up its grip. 
Lobsters can and will bite. Their jaws are powerful, so avoid putting your fingers close to a lobster’s mouth or you could get a very strong pinch. 
The lobster’s carapace is covered in spines, which is why you’ll want to select a sturdy pair of dive gloves for use when lobster hunting.
Gearing Up
Equipping for lobster hunting is essentially the same as preparing for any other type of dive, with a few additions. Beyond a good solid pair of gloves, you’ll need a game bag and a measuring tool. Just about any full size dive light will work, but try to select one that’s bright and has a very broad beam. In addition to your primary dive light, secondary back-up light, and diver locator light, you might want to consider a small but bright headlight rig. This will leave your hands free for measuring and bagging your catch.
Night and Day
Because they are nocturnal creatures, the best time to find lobsters out in the open is to dive at night. It’s important to become generally comfortable diving at night before you attempt hunting in the dark. Taking a night diving class and an underwater hunter specialty are recommended. You’ll feel more comfortable in the water and you’ll also become a more successful hunter in the process.
In your search for lobster at night, use broad sweeps of your light. Hang several feet off the bottom (visibility permitting). This will allow you to cover more ground and lessen the chance of spooking the bugs. One key to a successful hunt is to cover as large an area as possible. 
Once you spot a lobster out in the open, don’t hesitate. If possible, approach from the rear, and go for the “pin” rather than a grab, meaning you should apply downward pressure to pin the lobster to the bottom first. If you simply try to grab a lobster off the bottom you’re practically guaranteed to come away empty-handed. They’re fast, remember? 
During daylight hours you’ll almost always find lobsters wedged in cracks and crevices along the reef. Look for antennae peaking out. Learn to quickly access a situation for two things: First, are the lobsters too far back to even bother with a reach? And second, estimate the size. It makes no sense to spend time and air fighting for a lobster that will ultimately be too small or out of reach. 
Even on a day dive your light is an invaluable tool to look into dark corners and also perhaps temporarily blind the bug. Sometimes a lobster will actually become curious about you and may move out from its hole to gain a closer look. If this happens, be quick about it!
Bagging the Bug
Measuring the lobster for legal size by law must be done before you ever bag them. Because you generally catch them from the top, and this is where you measure them, you’ll need to swap hands gripping them instead from the bottom. This is actually pretty easy as lobsters have a tendency to latch on with its legs to anything it can. Even so, keep a strong grip. Carefully measure the bug with a thin metal gauge (available at most dive stores) from the arch between the prominent spines on the head between the eyes to the where the thorax meets the tail. Be precise and don’t fudge.
The best lobster bags are those that can be operated with one hand while the other hand is occupied with a firm grip on the lobster. Bag the lobster tail first as it will swim backwards right into the bag!
Stay Safe and Stay Legal
No lobster is worth risking your life, yet every season we see diving accidents attributed to overzealous lobster hunting. Be careful not to dive outside your personal limits of depth or sea conditions. Always monitor your gauges carefully and keep an eye out for your buddy, not just for the bugs. Use common sense and don’t let the thrill of the hunt make you a careless diver.
The current season runs through March 18, 2015. There is a daily limit of seven, and a limit of seven in your possession. It’s important to note that while on a multi-day trip you can obtain a multi-day permit that allows you to have more lobster in your possession during that trip. Most dive charter boats will have this permit on file for multi-day trips but check with them first. 
All regulations for lobster take are strictly enforced including minimum size, season, quantity and Marine Protected Areas. Fines are heavy and involve confiscation of your catch and even the possibility of the forfeit of your dive gear and fishing privileges for many years. 
You must have a gauge with you at all times while hunting lobster and any undersized lobster may not be retained, even underwater in a game bag. Take of lobster requires a valid California fishing license. You are required to carry a lobster “card” to record your catches (or non-catches) and hunting location. Visit the California Fish and Wildlife website www.wildlife.ca.gov for complete, detailed, and up-to-date regulations. 
While other parts of the country are hunkering down in preparation for winter, us California divers are just beginning to enjoy the season — Lobster Season! 
You Say Lobster,  I Say Lobsters
Technically, the plural form of lobster is lobster (especially collectively), and when referring to two or more kinds or species, the plural form is lobsters. However, it’s generally acceptable to use either lobster or lobsters. 
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