Florida has a tropical climate so naturally, there are a lot of annoying little bugs here in the Sunshine State. Luckily, we aren’t talking about pesky insects; we are talking about the spiny lobster. The locals refer to these lobsters as “bugs”, so the lobster hunters are considered “Bug Hunters”. The lobster season starts annually on August 6th and lasts through March 31st, giving the folks of Florida 8 long months of “bug season”.
Rules and Regulations
During the 8-month long season, beginning in early August and lasting until the end of March, individuals can catch up to 6 bugs per harvester per day. Just like with most saltwater species fishing, harvesters must have a current Florida license with a lobster stamp to catch these delicious creatures. All lobsters caught in federal waters should remain whole at all times until the hunter gets them on shore. Separating the tail from the head while in, on or below water is prohibited at all times.
While hunting for lobsters, individuals will need to have an up-to-date fishing license, dive down flag and a lobster gauge to measure the lobsters to make sure they fall within the acceptable guidelines. Spears, wire snares, hooks and any other tools that can puncture the lobsters’ shells are prohibited. The dive down flag, if on a boat, must be 20 inches x 24 inches with a stiffener and must be at the highest point and visible at all angles. If you are diving with one attached to you, it must be 12 inches x 12 inches.
With the lobster gauge, it is crucial to measure the bug in the water to ascertain if it is acceptable to be caught. The carapace must be at least 3 inches long, and when the tail is separated from the head (on land only), it must be greater than 5.5 inches. Female lobsters that are carrying eggs below their tales must be released back into the water.
Necessary Catching Gear for Florida Spiny Lobsters
If you are new to lobster hunting, don’t worry, it doesn’t cost an arm and a leg to get into the hobby. A simple lobster kit comes with the essentials: gloves (because lobsters are spiny and can scrape you), a tickle stick (to stick into the holes instead of your hands) and a net (to scoop them up without hurting yourself). A 12-inch x 12-inch dive flag, a lobster gauge and a mesh bag to place the lobsters in are also must haves for an inshore beginner.
If you are like most people and can’t hold your breath indefinitely or aren’t an Olympic swimmer, using snorkeling or diving gear can greatly increase your chance of staying under long enough to catch the daily bag limit. If diving off a boat, it is required to have a 20-inch x 24-inch dive flag that can be seen in all directions and stays within 100-300 feet of the vessel at all times. A tail snare is an advanced tool that is great for helping to wrangle the spiny creatures. Loop the snare around the tail, then tighten it, tug and boom, you’ve caught your yummy little friend.
There are other cool additional tools that can be used as well, such as Sea Doo Scooters. They are on the pricier side, but they get hunters from one place to another, faster than swimming alone will do. Marker buoys come in handy when the lobster has escaped; hunters can mark the hole in order to track the lobster and come back later to try again. A submergible flashlight also comes in handy when the little guys won’t come out of their holes. The light allows visualization of the lobsters even when they are hiding deep in their habitats.
Florida Waters That Have the Most Lobsters
Remember, lobsters are nocturnal, meaning they are out and about during the night and resting during the day. If you enjoy fishing and are brave enough to go out deep enough to find them, you should have no trouble at night; however, most hunters are fishing during the day when the bugs are hiding in holes, under rocks, reefs, and around pilings to get out of the sun and to relax before their nightly feast. The southeast coast of Florida and the Keys are the most popular spots to find your very own spiny lobster. They tend to get larger the further north one travels due to the fact that they don’t have as many captures as you move up the coast.
Gulf of Mexico (West Coast)
The Northwest Coast is home to more shovelnose lobsters than their spiny counterparts; however, if you do happen to catch a spiny lobster in the northern Gulf, they are larger than the average lobster, due to less fishing pressure. The Florida Panhandle is littered with artificial reefs, more so than the rest of Florida. The catch? To catch these, hunters must go off shore into close to 100 feet of water. In the north, going 10+ miles off shore is not out of the norm to catch bugs. Shovelnose lobsters are not regulated (as long as they aren’t harboring eggs), so there is no bag limit and they are safe to catch barehanded.
For the Tampa locals, you will be happy to know the spiny lobsters found off the central gulf shore are upwards of 15 pounds. Due to the lack of fishing pressure, lobsters get large in Tampa and are often found on accident by those looking for different saltwater creatures. If you love lobsters, take advantage of the lack of sport fisherman in this area and spend the next 8 months catching your limits of the yummy crustacean.
The Southwest Gulf Coast is not the ideal location for catching lobsters of any kind. The sandy ocean floor and the few and far between reefs makes it an undesirable habitat for the creatures. To find any bugs in this area, one must travel 50+ miles offshore and into 100+ feet of water.
The Florida Keys
The Florida Keys are the most popular spot for bug hunters to capture spiny lobster because of the year-round warm waters and the numerous ship wrecks and reefs off shore that harbor the perfect climate for bugs. As a result of over fishing, lobsters tend to be smaller in the Keys; the average weight for a lobster in the area is about 1 pound. Even though they are on the smaller side, believe us, they still taste unbelievable and each harvester can catch up to 6 per day.
The middle Keys are the most popular spots for lobster-ing. There happens to be less no-take areas and hunters can catch their spiny friends on the Atlantic or Bay sides of the islands. On the other hand, the upper Keys have many no-take areas and almost the entire bay side is one giant no-take zone. If you wish to catch some lobsters in the upper Keys, its best to go about 3 miles out, into federal waters. The lower Keys, however, have endless reefs and wrecks that are breeding grounds.
Atlantic Ocean (East Coast)
The Northeast Atlantic harbors some giant bugs! We are talking upwards of 5 to 15 pounds. Reefs are generally farther offshore up north, but if you take the time to get there, you could leave with a 15 pounder to cook up and enjoy. It’s not often that a bug hunter gets to eat such a large lobster, caught by hand…or net.
As you move down towards the center of Florida, the lobsters are still large but not quite as abundant as they are in the South. The central Atlantic waters offer inshore and off shore reefs, as well as shore diving opportunities. You are more likely to catch some bugs in central waters rather than the north and they can still be upwards of 5 pounds.
The southern Atlantic waters are where the most spiny lobsters will be found. They will be closer to 1-2 pounds but since the daily bag limit is 6 lobsters, it almost cancels out the fact that they aren’t as large. Due to the large harvest amount from the south, the lobsters stay a bit smaller, but taste just as good and are just as fun to search for and catch. Reefs and wrecks are even more common in the south versus the central Florida waters. Shore diving is also an option in the south. Keep in mind, the lobsters like to back themselves into holes and the endless reefs provide the perfect habitat for them to nap during the day. If you dive just 50 yards off the beach, you should be able to find all the spiny and shovelnose lobsters you want.