By TERRY TOMALIN
© St. Petersburg Times,
GULF OF MEXICO -- Steve Bryan doesn't like crowds.
"I've been to the Keys for the miniseason and it can get kind of crazy," the lobster hunter said. "The place is a zoo."
Like many people, Bryan looks forward to the end of July when the state opens the sport diver lobster season for two days before the regular season opens on Aug. 6.
The miniseason was created to give recreational divers a chance to get a few of the tasty crustaceans in the bag before thousands of commercial traps hit the water. The only problem with the Keys is there are about 10 times as many sport divers as there are commercial traps.
So when lobster season rolls around, Bryan sticks close to home.
"You get your share of spiny lobster in the Tampa Bay area," said Dave Eaken, a biologist with the Florida Marine Research Institute's lobster team in Marathon. "They aren't as plentiful, but they got a lot larger than they do down here in the Keys."
Two years ago, Bryan and a buddy snagged more than a dozen "bugs" off the Pinellas coast on the opening day of lobster season.
"The ones you do find, tend to be big," Bryan said. "You can get some 8- or 10-pounders. It is like grabbing a cat. ... they are that thick."
West coast lobster divers have to travel to deep water, 80 feet or more, to find their prey, unlike their Keys counterparts, who can find the crustaceans in water as shallow as 10 feet.
On this Wednesday morning, Bryan headed for a spot in 90 feet of water, 25 miles west of John's Pass. Three days of stormy weather made for a rough ride and poor visibility once Bryan and his crew got where they were going. As it is, spiny lobsters can be difficult to spot. You need a sharp eye and a powerful light to find them as they hide in the rock crevasses of the limestone ledges that parallel the coastline in the gulf.
"This spot is called nurse shark ledge," Bryan said. "We have never been out here and not see at least one nurse shark."
Nurse sharks like spiny lobsters, too, and you'll often find them hiding in the same caverns as the tasty crustaceans. This can be problematic for the unwitting diver who reaches for a lobster and grabs a shark instead.
And that is precisely what happened to Bryan as he scoured the rock ledge for bugs. He found a nurse shark in the first hole and shooed it out of his way. But it swam into a second hole, so Bryan had to move it again. The third time, the shark got mad and bolted, right between this reporter's legs.
"I think it got tired of being messed with," Bryan said afterward. "What could I do? It was in my way."
The hole in question held no spiny lobster, but it did produce several "shoveled nose" or "slipper" lobster. Unlike their antenna cousins, the slipper lobster has no season or size or bag limits.
They frequently are overlooked by many sport divers because they cling to the roofs of the same rock dens as spiny lobsters.
"They are not as heavily pursued as the spiny lobster," said Eaken of the state's lobster research team. "But they are tasty. Most people will agree that they make a better meal than the spiny lobster."
Bryan hit another site, gathering a half-dozen fat shoveled nose lobsters in two dives. By now the seas were getting rough and the veteran bug hunter knew he had one more chance to find a cat-sized spiny lobster before heading for home.
This time, he brought a speargun, in case he saw some grouper. The patch of hard bottom had no lobster, but it did produce its share of fish.
"I couldn't come back empty-handed," Bryan said as he slapped the fish on the deck. "This is more than enough for dinner."
And after a hard day on the water, that is all that really matters.
Regular spiny lobster season begins Aug. 6 and runs through March 31.
The bag limit is 24 per vessel or six per person per day, whichever is greater. The vessel limit applies only in state waters and does not apply in federal waters. State waters extend to 9 nautical miles on the Gulf of Mexico and 3 nautical miles on the Atlantic Ocean.
Legal spiny lobster must be measured in the water and have a carapace 3-inches long or larger. A reminder that possession and use of a measuring device is required.
A recreational saltwater license and a crawfish permit is needed for harvest. There is no season, size or bag limit for shovelnose or slipper lobster.
For a complete list of regulations, contact the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, or visit www.floridaconservation.org.
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