New Jersey Scuba Diving
This is what it's all about. Well, for some folks anyway. Yet, I have seen many beginners totally frustrated in their attempts to catch their first bug. Perhaps these pointers will help:
Lobsters haven't evolved much in the last twenty years, but lobstering sure has. For one thing, bugs are a lot fewer and a lot smaller, unless you go way out deep. For another, the regulators took away our trophies with a maximum size limit, and they've also added seasonal closures. Not that I won't grab a nice bug if I can, but lobsters are not the same game they used to be, and not my motivation in diving.
Know Your Foe
Lobsters, like most invertebrates, have a much slower nervous system than our own. In tiny creatures, such as insects, this is no great disadvantage, since their "wire runs" ( or nerves ) are so short. However, in bigger invertebrates, this translates into very long reaction times. Therefore, big lobsters have slow reflexes, much slower than even humans. Another common invertebrate trait is a lack of stamina, at least compared to us. In other words, they tire quickly in a chase. This is not to say that they lack tenacity - once they get a good grip on you, they can hold on forever, and even breaking the claw off may not cause it to release.
Lobsters live in perpetual fear, even big ones, and their first instinct is to retreat from any threat. Their eyesight is poor, and their hearing does not seem to be very good either, although they are sensitive to vibrations. For this reason, swim up to them rather than crawl, and try to use a light only when absolutely necessary. The slightest touch to the sensitive antennae will cause the critter to back quickly into its hole with a flick of its tail. Shining a bright light in their eyes will have the same effect, so be careful where you point your dive light, and try not to use it if you can.
Lobsters like holes and dark places. During the day you will seldom find one out in the open. They are master excavators, and sometimes dig deep tunnels under structure. These holes are often easy to find, since there will be a mound or fan of excavated sediment around the opening that is a different color than the rest of the bottom. They will also hide inside any confined place - a crevice, a bucket, a hollow wall. At night, after several hours of darkness, they come out to feed. At this time they are so easy to catch that most states forbid divers from lobstering at night.
This little guy will be safe from divers for a while. Notice how the
tailings of his excavation are a different color than the surrounding bottom.
Lobstering tails-off in October-November through spring. The bigger males wander out to deep water, leaving behind many small males and egg-bearing females, none of which are legal catches. Perhaps one-in-five lobsters you catch at this time will be keepers. At this stage, the females are especially prone to shuck-off claws in self-defense, so it is important to be gentle when catching them, to avoid doing unnecessary harm. Also, once you have caught a short or pregnant lobster, do not put it back in its hole. This will only result in it being molested all over again by the next diver in your group; I have seen some poor females get groped until they have no claws left. Instead, release it in the sand and chase it away - it will find its way home eventually, after all the divers are gone.
See Marine Biology for more detail on lobsters and many other creatures.
A Word on Poaching
Catching lobsters is great sport, but one should not forget that that is exactly what it is - a sport. Using gaffs, gigs, hooks, spears, mechanical grippers, and noxious chemicals to get the beasties out of their holes is not only illegal, it is immoral, unethical, and unsporting. Remember - if you lose, you can always go buy one at the store; if it loses, it's dead.
It is illegal to possess more than two claws per tail. In other words - no parts. The minimum size for a lobster is listed in the regulations section of this website; it will be changing annually for the next few years. Any lobster that is smaller than the legal limit must be released unharmed.
However, the worst offense of all is the taking of female lobsters with eggs. Even when the eggs are stripped off in the water by the poacher, it is fairly obvious what has been done and will neither fool anybody nor make it alright. There is simply no excuse for this reprehensible act, which destroys not only a breeding adult lobster, but generations of offspring as well.
Female lobster with egg mass
New Jersey is the last state in the northeast that allows recreational lobstering without a permit, a daytime-only rule, or a season. Abuse of this privilege, in the long run, can only result in new restrictions and regulations that will ruin the sport for all of us. Observe the regulations for lobstering, and if you see illegal poaching, don't turn a blind eye, do something about it.
That's it, I'll get off the soapbox now, except for one more thing: As you put that prized 20 pound bug in your cooler for its final trip to the boiling pot, remember that it may have been around longer than you have. I'll admit I've never had this dilemma, but if I did, I think I would rather have a picture, and then release the old giant where no one else will find it, so that it could go on producing baby lobsters for years to come. This is really not hard to do - simply drop it overboard in the middle of nowhere on the way back to port.
The first thing about catching a lobster is don't be too afraid of it. Small lobsters - restaurant-sized 1-2 pounders - are not strong enough to really hurt you. Wear a good heavy pair of gloves, and their pinch may be painful, but not damaging. Larger lobsters deserve more respect, because they certainly can hurt you. Really big ones could even break bones. I had a big one once bite me so hard it gave me nerve damage in my thumb. I boiled him personally, and the numbness and swelling went away after a few weeks.
If you find a lobster out in the open, grab it by the body behind the head from behind. They can't reach all the way back with their claws. For a small lobster, you can also grab both claws and the face all at once from in front. This gives you a secure grip on the whole thing, and he can't pinch you. With bigger lobsters, you may want to subdue the crusher claw first, since of the two that is by far the stronger. In any case, stuff it tail first into your bag, and be careful of the claws - he may still grab at you. The worst hurt I ever got from a lobster came after I had already won the battle ! Make sure you close the bag up securely - I have had to catch a number of bugs twice.
Most lobsters are not this easy, and you will have to work for them. Remember, in any confrontation with a bug, you outnumber him - don't forget you have two hands. Generally, you will find your adversary facing you from inside a hole. If it's a small one, ignore the claws and grab it by the body. Speed is essential here. As soon as the lobster senses your attack, it will retreat into its hole. If you grab a claw first, a small lobster will simply shuck it off and get away. A favorite tactic on their part is to wedge the point between their eyes into the ceiling, making them impossible to extract. Push down and twist 90 degrees to either side, and you can pull it right out. If possible, the "both claws and face" grab described above works well.
The best attack is a fast one. Take a few moments to set yourself up. Align your hand, arm, and shoulder with the opening of the hole. This usually means you will not be able to see inside any more, and so you will be working blind. Grasp something solid with your other hand, and then lunge with all your might. There are three possible outcomes to this strategy:
- You get him, preferably by the big dangerous crusher claw or the tail. You win.
- He gets you. Ouch, but you can still win if you are determined.
- Nobody gets anybody - lobster wins. He is playing for his life, after all.
Big bugs are much less likely to shuck off a claw, since they have so much more invested in them. In fact, I'm not sure, but they may not even be able to. If a lobster looks big enough that he might actually hurt you, grab for the crusher claw and pin it shut ( keep in mind that you will probably have to do this all by feel. ) At this point, your adversary will do two things. First, he'll wedge his head into the ceiling, and second, he'll attack you with his other claw. Try to ignore the ripper claw, it's usually not very strong. Extend a finger over the lobster's head, and push back and down if he has successfully wedged himself. Once you've extracted your dinner-to-be, hold both claws in one hand and bag him.
If a big lobster does get a hold of your hand or finger, there are several ways to get him to let go. Relax your grip, or even release it - the bug will probably do the same when it senses its chance to escape. If you are quick, you can grab at it again. An alternative that sometimes works is to shake the lobster as hard as you can, which seems to momentarily discombobulate it. If you have the bug out of his hole, put him in your bag, where he might feel safe and let go. If none of these things works, get a big rock and bash him.
It is often useful to have some sort of a stick or "tickler" when lobstering. Some people use car radio antennas copper tubing ( which can be coiled-up, ) or purpose-built telescoping ticklers. I prefer a length of 1/2 " ID PVC pipe, with a brass snap at one end. This is stiff enough to use as a pry bar when necessary, and is useful for many other things as well. A stick can be used against a lobster in a number of ways. If his hole is too deep for your arm, but you can still reach him with a stick, get him to grab it. Then give a lightning quick jerk, and before he can let go, you can pull him within range of your other hand. ( They have bad reflexes, remember? ) Alternatively, if there is a back door or other opening to his hole, you can use the stick to drive him out into the open. Finally, with a stiff stick, if you can get it behind him you can just push him out.
Some other ways of coaxing a lobster out of its hole include:
- Catch a smaller lobster and put it in. The surprise will drive the big lobster out.
- Push a bunch of sand into the hole, to raise a big choking cloud of sediment inside. This will eventually drive the lobster out of the hole to breathe.
I don't believe that either of these methods actually works. Sometimes you can draw one out from the back of its hole by shining your light on the sand in front of it. However, if you shine your light right on it, the bug will lose its curiosity and retreat even deeper.
Another way to bring a coy lobster within reach is to bait it. Kill a small fish like a cunner, slash it open, and leave it in the entrance of the critter's hole. Leave the area for a while - at least ten minutes - then sneak back up to the hole ( without your light ! ) and see if the bug has come out within reach. You may just be able to snatch it. Of course, this method requires patience and bottom time, which you may not have. It also depends on no other diver blundering by in the interim and scaring the bug away for good.
Finally, the essential thing to catching lobsters, and something a beginner could not possibly have, is knowing where they are. If you wonder why the boat crew consistently cleans up the lobsters while no one else can, it's not simply because they got in the water first. At most, only one or two crew got in before you did. They get them because they dive a lot, they're familiar with the wrecks, and know where the best holes are at each location. This is something you can learn. Make friends, go in with them, ask. You may not get their super-best spots, but most will be happy to help you out.
Finally, I would like to mention that it is very poor form to pull the claws off a lobster as you try to catch it. Although they are capable of regrowing lost limbs, claws represent a huge energy investment to the animal, energy that would be better spent growing bigger than growing new claws if it turns out that for some reason your quarry is not a keeper. My guess is that most lobsters do not survive losing both claws - they are defenseless, and their ability to dig or feed is severely reduced. So be sporting and considerate, and try to catch them intact. When you do catch a lobster that turns out not to be a keeper, don't put it back in its hole. Instead, place it down out in the open, so that the next diver of your party that comes along won't start abusing it all over again. The lobster will eventually find it's way home, but for the moment it will be safer in plain view.
Once the water temperature drops below 50°F, lobsters start to disappear. Most of the males walk off to deep water, while the egg-carrying females dig in to wait out the winter. At these times, almost all of the lobsters you will find will be pregnant females, so it is especially important to be gentle and not harm the animal while capturing it, since you will most likely have to set it free after a quick inspection for eggs. In compensation, lobsters seem to slow down greatly at temperatures below 50f, so the few that you do find will be easier to catch.
Put your catch in a cold cooler to keep it alive. Melt water from ice will kill a lobster if it reaches its gills, so drain the cooler regularly or use freezer blocks. Frozen bottled-water bottles work very well. Lobsters spoil quickly after death, so cook any dead ones immediately when you get home. Otherwise, they will keep alive in the refrigerator for several days in a dry bowl under a damp towel.
Lobster spoils very quickly after death. A freshly dead lobster may still be cooked and eaten, especially if it was refrigerated, but a dead warm lobster should be discarded. Lobsters may be frozen live and cooked later, but this makes the meat stick to the shell. For long-term storage it is better to cook the lobsters partially and then freeze the tails and claws. Reheating should be enough to finish the cooking process.
See Regulations for catch limits.
How to Cook Lobster
The number of lobsters to be boiled determines the minimum kettle size. The water should fill the pot one-half to not more than two-thirds full. Bring water to a rolling boil over high heat. Place lobsters head first into the pot, completely submerging them.
Cover the pot tightly and return to a boil as quickly as possible. When water boils, begin counting the time. Regulate the heat to prevent water from boiling over, but be sure to keep the liquid boiling throughout the cooking time.
Boil a lobster for 10 minutes per pound, for the first pound. Add 3 minutes per pound for each additional pound thereafter. For example, a 2 pound lobster should boil for 13 minutes and a 1 1/2 pound lobster should boil for 11 1/2 minutes.
Pour 2 inches of seawater into a pot large enough to comfortably hold the lobsters. Some cooks also place a steaming rack large enough to hold the lobsters above the water, in the bottom. Bring water to a rolling boil over high heat. Place lobsters in the pot, cover tightly, return to a boil as quickly as possible and start counting the time.
Steam a lobster for 13 minutes per pound, for the first pound. Add 3 minutes per pound for each additional pound thereafter. For example, a 2 pound lobster should steam for 16 minutes and a 1 1/2 pound lobster should steam for 14 1/2 minutes.
Note: these times are for hard-shelled lobsters; if cooking new-shell lobsters, reduce boiling or steaming time by three minutes. When the antennae pull out easily, the lobsters are done.
Split the lobsters in half lengthwise: place each lobster on its back and insert the point of a large French knife into the head just below the eyes. Bring the knife down through the tail, making sure to cut just through the meat and to leave the shell connected. Lay the lobster open, leaving the two halves slightly attached.
Pull off the claws and legs from the lobsters and crack them slightly with the knife handle. You just want to fracture the shell a bit here. Place the claws and legs on the grill over medium-low heat and cover with a pie pan. Cook them for 5 to 7 minutes per side.
Sprinkle the lobster bodies with salt and pepper to taste and place them flesh-side down on the grill over medium heat. Grill for 8 to 10 minutes. You don't need to turn them. Check to see if they are done by removing the tail from the shell of one of the lobsters. The exposed meat should be completely opaque.
In my opinion, grilling is the best way to prepare lobster. The meat comes out somewhat drier and more flavorful than if boiled or steamed, and there are far more possibilities in seasoning, stuffing, and other recipes. After splitting, try filling the cleaned body cavity and tail with crabmeat stuffing, or whatever you like.
Serve with melted butter, lemon halves, and nut-crackers if you have them. If not, use a hammer for the claws. For boiled or steamed lobsters, break the flippers off the tail and push the meat out with a fork. In Maine, it is common to eat the green stuff ( "tomalley" - the liver or hepatopancreas ) but with New Jersey lobsters it is safer not to, since that organ tends to accumulate toxic pollutants. Make sure you have paper towels handy - lobsters are a messy meal. Lobster meat may be frozen after cooking, but freezing uncooked lobster parts causes the meat to stick to the shell.
But Should You Eat It ?
See Health Advisories for information on mercury and other pollutants in seafood.
An old-style wooden lobster trap. You don't see these any more.
I make no claim as to the accuracy, validity, or appropriateness of any information found in this website. I will not be responsible for the consequences of any action that is based upon information found here. Scuba diving is an adventure sport, and as always, you alone are responsible for your own safety and well being.
Copyright © 1996-2016 Rich Galiano
unless otherwise noted