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Taste for adventure

By TERRY TOMALIN, Times Outdoors Editor

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 26, 2002


MARATHON -- Jimmy Hasson calls his daughter the "king" of the lobsters.

MARATHON -- Jimmy Hasson calls his daughter the "king" of the lobsters.

"You mean queen," wife Anne interjected.

"No, you mean princess," 14-year-old Katie corrected.

The Hassons started traveling to the Florida Keys for lobster season long before their daughter was born, and her arrival didn't change their summer ritual.

"You can't let kids slow you down," Hasson said. "It is just one more person on the boat."

The Hassons started their daughter in swimming lessons when she was 6 months old. By the time Katie was 4, she was diving off the back of the boat.

"I had to keep my eye on her," Hasson said. "She has no fear."

Nobody knows for sure when Katie snagged her first "bug," but one thing is certain: The kid has a knack for catching the crustaceans.

"I remember seeing this lobster in 15 feet of water right underneath the boat," Hasson said. "I swam back up, told her about it and over the side she went. She couldn't have been much older than 7 or 8, but she came back up with it in her hand."

Lobstering in the shallow waters around the Florida Keys is much different than scuba diving for the creatures in the deep water off the Atlantic Coast or Gulf of Mexico.

Most people who lobster in the Keys do so with just a mask, snorkel and fins. The preferred method, practiced by the Hassons and scores of others who head south for the two-day miniseason, which concluded Thursday, is to drag behind a moving boat on a water-ski rope. When spotting a hole or ledge that looks like a good lobster habitat, let go of the rope and dive to investigate.

"It's real easy," Katie said. "You should try it."

I have collected my share of lobsters over the years, but it has usually been on the deep-water reefs off Palm Beach. Fewer divers go there looking for lobster, because you need to be well trained and familiar with diving at depth.

But the techniques used in shallow and deep water are virtually the same.

The first involves a long stick with a retractable loop at one end that works almost like an underwater snare. The diver or snorkeler carefully slips the noose around the lobster's tail, tightens the cord, then quickly measures and bags the prey.

In the second method, the one preferred and practiced by Katie Hasson, the lobster hunter uses a thin metal pole called a "tickle stick" to coax the crustacean out of its hole and into a net.

Both methods are effective at capturing the lobster without injury, which is essential because egg-bearing females and undersized animals must be released unharmed.

This is harder than many think because before you can catch a lobster you have to find it. They are adept at camouflage, and even experienced divers will swim past a crustacean well-concealed in its lair.

Dragging slowly behind the boat, scanning the murky water for a rock or clump of coral, the bottom looks the same to me. Suddenly, Katie holds up her hand, signaling a productive piece of hard bottom below.

I kick over against the current and join my partner, who has marked the spot.

"Lobsters," she said trying to catch her breath. "Lots of them."

I look down and can see nothing but a doormat-size patch of dark rock. So I swim down to investigate, but the heavy current caused by the full moon pushes me back. I surface, take another deep breath, then drop back down, right on top of them.

At first, all I can see is the antennae sticking up out of the hole. So I creep a little closer along the bottom to get a better look. And there they are, a dozen or more of my favorite crustaceans.

"Good eyes," I told Katie upon resurfacing. "You weren't kidding."

Together, we dropped back down and tried to coax a few out of the hole. I watched in disappointment as one of the bigger ones escaped as I wasted precious seconds trying to catch a lobster that was barely legal.

Again we resurfaced. Time for a change of strategy. We needed the heavy artillery. We needed the "huka rig."

This scuba regulator, mounted at the end of a long hose, allows a lobster hunter to breath compressed air without a cumbersome scuba tank on his back. Our huka rig had two hoses, which enabled Katie and I to work together.

But it soon became apparent that my heavy-handed technique was sending more lobster scurrying off across the bay bottom than into the net. So I sat back and watched the pro do it, time and time again.

Finesse over power wins every time.

"You not only have good eyes," I told her on the boat. "But you've got good hands."

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