Key Tips to Catch Spiny Lobster in the Florida Keys
Want to catch yourself a gourmet meal? To help you do just that, we’re covering everything you need to know to find and catch spiny lobster in the Florida Keys.
The most abundant variety of lobster in Florida's waters, the spiny lobster, can be found in the nooks and crannies in the reefs, shipwrecks, and rocky-bottomed areas in the warm waters along the Florida Keys. And unlike other types of lobster, spiny lobsters have no claws and can be caught by hand with minimal gear. Plus, there's a very generous daily bag limit so you can load up on one of the sea's most delicious offerings.
With warm, tropical water year-round and coral reefs and shipwrecks in every direction, there are many places to catch spiny lobster in the Keys. But, before you plan your trip and choose your lobster hunting grounds, it's important to note that spiny lobsters are highly protected throughout Florida and aren't available for harvest everywhere.
The Upper Keys is one such place where spiny lobster harvest has more limitations than the other parts of the Keys. John Pennekamp Park in the Upper Keys is home to healthy populations of spiny lobster and there are some areas where harvest is allowed, but many areas are "no-take" zones and the entire Bay side of the park is closed to lobstering.
The Middle Keys are where most of the spiny lobster action takes place. Lobstering can be done on both the Atlantic side and the Bay side, giving lobster hunters plenty of places to bag their limit. This area can get very crowded, especially during the two-day mini season. But fear not: there's plenty of lobster to go around.
Another great area to catch spiny lobster is in the Lower Keys, where expansive reefs and many permitted shipwrecks hold high numbers of lobster. Reefs such as Pelican Shoal and Western Dry Rocks are great places to check out. These areas even have mooring buoys to secure your boat while hunting in the depths.
The general spiny lobster season lasts from around August 6th to March 31st. But before the main season kicks off, there is a two-day Mini Sport Season that happens the last consecutive Wednesday and Thursday of July. The Mini Sport Season draws huge crowds and gets the most attention, but great lobstering can be had all season long.
The 8-month general season and Mini Sport Season have slightly different regulations, but for the most part are the same. Also, regulations for spiny lobster in the Keys are slightly different than the rest of the state. Fines for violating any of the spiny lobster regulations in Florida can be very steep, so the best advice is to get the proper information first hand from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Here's a quick overview of spiny lobster regulations in the Florida Keys:
Saltwater fishing license with a lobster stamp is required.
6 lobster limit per person, per day. (12 in other parts of the state)
A spiny lobster's carapace must be greater than 3 inches to keep. Lobster must be measured in the water with a measuring gauge before being stowed in a lobster bag or brought to the surface.
All female lobsters with eggs under the tail must be released unharmed.
No spears or any devices that crack, crush, or break the lobster's shell can be used to catch lobster.
Spiny lobster must be caught and landed in one piece. Removing the lobster's tail in the water is illegal in Florida.
Trapping is not allowed.
Spiny lobster must be caught during daylight hours. No night time harvesting of lobster.
As with any fishing pursuit, you've got to have the right gear to be successful, and catching spiny lobster is no different. Here's a breakdown of the gear you need.
Boat. While it’s possible to wade out to a reef from shore and catch spiny lobster, having a boat to access spots that are further out is a huge asset. If you don't have a boat, it's highly recommended that you go out with a local charter or guide to have the best spiny lobster catching experience possible. Typical guided spiny lobster day trips range from $400 to $600 for groups of up to 6 people.
Snorkeling mask and tube. Some people use scuba gear to go down and hunt lobster, but the majority of lobster fanatics use snorkel gear. Low-profile masks are beneficial as they trap less air on your face which helps you to stay down with less effort. Standard J snorkel tubes are ideal.
Fins. To get down to where the lobsters are, a good set of free-dive fins are essential. For lobstering in the Keys, longer fins are best as they can help you deal with currents that can sneak up on you.
Socks. Fins can cause blisters and ruin your time in the water. Wear a pair of socks to drastically reduce the risk of blisters.
Tickle stick. These devices are a lobster hunter’s best friend. Tickle sticks are essentially 3-foot long (or more) sticks with the tip bent 45 degrees. They are used to coax lobsters out of their hiding places.
Net. Spiny lobsters can move very fast and you need a net to catch them. Look for a deep net with a squared opening. The squared opening allows you to place the net flush with the sea floor. If your net is rounded, it will be easier for a lobster to dart around the edge and escape.
Measuring gauge. This is a mandatory piece of equipment and must be in your possession to legally catch spiny lobster. The gauge gives you the 3-inch minimum measurement to quickly measure a lobster underwater before stowing it in your bag.
Lobster bag. After you net and measure a lobster, if it's a keeper, you'll need somewhere to stow it. A good bag that closes tight is essential.
Gloves. Spiny lobsters get their name from the spines all over their bodies that can cut up your hands. Good thick rubber gloves are a necessity.
Spare Air. While not necessary, many lobster hunters have started using Spare Air to help them stay underwater longer and to catch more spiny lobsters. Spare Air is a small, refillable backup air tank used as a safety device by scuba divers, but can be used for quick jaunts underwater without a full scuba setup.
Underwater flashlight. Some lobster hunters like to carry an underwater flashlight when catching spiny lobster. They shine the flashlight at the lobster, temporarily blinding the lobster which makes it easier to get it in the net.
Sun protection. Much of your time will be spent snorkeling looking for lobster spots with your back exposed to the sun. If you don't want to worry about sunscreen washing off, get a sun protection shirt that's made for use in the water.
Once you've navigated to a good spiny lobster location, it's time to dive down and get catching. During the day, spiny lobsters like to stay hidden, so look for places that have lots of hiding spots such as coral reefs, underwater shelves, and places with rocky bottoms and outcroppings.
With your snorkel, mask, gloves, and fins on, and your tickle stick, net, lobster bag, and measuring gauge in hand, you're ready to dive. Dive down and start looking for the lobster's antennae sticking out of holes and crevices in the reef or rocks. Spiny lobsters are very well camouflaged and can be difficult to find at first, but with practice, you'll be spotting them in no time.
With your tickle stick in one hand and net in the other, sneak up on a spiny lobster and get ready for the catch. If the lobster is in a little nook with no way out the back, stick your tickle stick in the hole and start prodding the lobster to get it to come out. Be ready to catch the lobster with your net at any moment. Spiny lobsters move forward relatively slowly, but if they turn around, they can dart away extremely fast using their tail to propel them.
If a lobster is under a coral reef with an escape route out the back, start by positioning your net behind the lobster. Then, tap the lobster on the head with your tickle stick. If all goes well, the lobster will escape backward and go straight into your net.
Sometimes when trying to net a spiny lobster it will escape. If you can, try to go after it and scoop it up.
While there certainly are many important regulations you must follow when harvesting spiny lobster, there's no "right way" to go about catching them. Get creative, have fun with it, and don't worry if a few escape.
After you've successfully netted a lobster, it's imperative that you check it's size before stowing in your lobster bag. Take your measuring gauge and hold it up to the lobster's carapace — the upper shell of the lobster above the tail. The carapace must measure 3 inches in order to keep it.
You also need to check if the lobster is an egg-bearing female. Simply turn the lobster on it's back and look at the underside of the tail. Female lobsters carry their eggs under their tails until the eggs hatch. You'll see a large clump of tiny orange or red colored eggs. If it has eggs, release it right away. If not, and it's the right size, put it in your bag and keep catching!
That's pretty much it! Learning how to catch spiny lobster in the Florida Keys is incredibly fun and very rewarding when dinner time rolls around. So if you're looking for a new adventure in the water, round up a group of friends, hitch up the boat and head down to the Keys. Don't forget your tickle stick!