Do Your Own Lobster Fishing

Even if it's only to put a little extra meat on the table, lobster fishing season is an opportunity Atlantic coast residents shouldn't waste.
By Jon Plotkin
May/June 1979
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Successful lobster fishing begins with a few good traps.
PHOTO: JOHN PLOTKIN
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If you live near the Atlantic coast between Nova Scotia and New Jersey you'll be missing a good bet if you don't set out a few traps and try lobster fishing this summer.

The so-called "Maine Lobster" (Homarus americanus) is a great source of free, high-quality (and delicious!) protein, and it can also provide the enterprising boater with some additional income! A full-time commercial lobsterman or -woman can make up to $25,000 a year, and even a "summer sailor" can earn upward of $10,000 in a good season.

(The Pacific spiny lobster—Panulirus interruptus—and the smaller "spiny" of the southeast coast—P argus—are, of course, also delicious and potentially profitable. These species can often be taken by means of the same traps and techniques that are used for their northeastern cousins.)

The basic equipment necessary for this epicurean endeavor will include a boat, a motor (not absolutely essential if you're within rowin' range of your lobster grounds), and some lobster traps (usually referred to as "pots"). If you shop around, the total outfit—including new pots, a used boat and motor, and licenses—can cost less than $300. (I work from a 12-foot skiff with a three horsepower outboard and pull my pots by hand. Mechanical devices, like blocks and winches, are—of course—also helpful if you fish a large number of traps.)

Conservation Regulations

All U.S. coastal states (and Canada) now regulate lobster fishing, so be sure to check the local laws before you put your first pot in the water. You'll probably need to register your boat and motor. Here in Massachusetts that costs $5.00 per year. Then, there's the license to take lobster. In my state a commercial permit will run an even $100, and you must have one if you want to sell your catch. (These licenses aren't easy to come by, either, since Massachusetts recently froze the number of commercial permits issued.) However, any resident can obtain a $15 "sanction" to fish 10 traps provided any lobsters caught are used for personal consumption only

In addition to controls on the number of pots allowed, there are seasonal restrictions, lobster size limits, trap construction requirements, and other ordinances which vary from state to state. You'll undoubtedly be issued a synopsis of the regulations when you receive your license, and—though I'll discuss the more important ones below—I urge you to be thoroughly familiar with the rules that apply in your particular area.

The legal length of a lobster is defined by the distance from the rear of the eye socket to the end of the carapace (the body shell) and does not include the tail. A special gauge is available which allows a lobsterman or -woman to take a measurement with speed and accuracy. Massachusetts sets its minimum size limit at 3 3/16 inches, which is about the shell span of a one pound lobster. Since large numbers of undersized crustaceans ("shorts") are usually caught, it's important to learn how to use the gauge correctly.

Any female with eggs (roe) on the underside of her tail must be returned to the water. (More conservation-minded lobsterfolk will also notch the tail of any egg-bearing lobster so she can be identified as fertile—and, thus, a candidate for immediate release—even after the eggs are gone.) Also, since big lobsters generally produce more eggs than can smaller individuals, some states have special laws that pertain to large females, whether they carry roe or not.

When you're issued your lobster license, you'll be assigned a number (which must appear on all traps and buoys), and your personal buoy colors. In addition, there'll probably be a requirement that both number and colors appear prominently on the hull of your boat. These regulations are for the protection and identification of your property, and should be complied with fully.

The Lobster Pot

The basic lobster pot design hasn't changed for hundreds of years. The trap has either one or two entrances into a "kitchen" section that contains the bait. Once the lobster gets there, it will eat its fill and—you hope—crawl through the funneled net into the "parlor" section, where the critter will be trapped.

Wooden pots can be purchased fully built or unassembled. I've never found it worthwhile to construct my own, but most old-timers did just that. So, if you're interested in doin' it yourself, find a retired lobsterman or -woman, and—with a little encouragement—he or she may pass on some construction tips.

Though wooden traps are the most common, there are in some areas marine organisms that destroy wood (and lobsters will avoid traps treated with preservatives). Therefore, you might find it profitable to invest a little extra money in wire traps. Though I've never used them myself, I've heard good reports about such cages; metal "catchers" would certainly have a longer life expectancy than do wooden devices.

Setting the Traps

Let's assume you've got a boat, a motor, a supply of 1/4- or 3/8-inch rope, pots, buoys of molded styrofoam, a lobster fishing license, and a lot of hungry friends. Here's how to go about catchin' a lobster dinner:

First, a hook should be inserted through a hole drilled in the center of the pot's crossbeam and baited. (A small mesh bag can also be hung from the beam to enclose the lures. The "pouches" take more time to prepare, but will keep one hungry lobster from finishing off all your bait.)

Many lobstermen and -women make great claims about the kinds of bait they use, but I believe other factors—such as the location in which the pots are set—have a lot more to do with the size of a person's catch. In fact, I've found that most any kind of fresh sea critter will make an adequate bait, and I regularly use mackerel, menhaden, cod, flounder, and crabs.

If the acquisition of bait becomes a problem, it's best to "follow the lead" of commercial lobsterfolk and buy gurry (the remains of filleted fish) at any seafood processing company.

Once the pots are baited, attach your ropes (make 'em long enough to span between the ocean-bottom-set traps and their properly marked floating buoys—usually somewhere between 30 and 100 feet).

New wooden traps won't sink, so several large rocks should be placed inside 'em to insure that the pots will rest securely on the bottom while they "soak." Within a few days, the wood will become waterlogged and the weights can be discarded.

Scatter the traps in various locations (and be sure to note these areas accurately, as buoys can sometimes be danged difficult to spot). The pots should always be left overnight, since lobsters feed primarily in the dark hours. Some fishermen leave their rigs in place for two nights, but I've always found it worthwhile to pull mine every day, if possible. This makes it easier for me to keep track of the lobsters' movements and cash in on any "hot spots".

Where to Find 'Em

Lobsters follow an inshore-offshore seasonal migration pattern that brings them into shoal waters to shed their shells in early summer, then back offshore by fall. The time of the molt varies, but it generally occurs during June in the more northern waters. At this time, the "soft-shells" are vulnerable to attack and don't feed for the month or so it takes for their new sheaths to harden.

"Fishing" is usually excellent just before the molt, then it will pick up again afterward and remain "hot" for the rest of the summer. I put my pots in place at the end of June and wait for the hungry Homarus americanus to come out of their hiding places. They'll stay around rocky bottoms for a few weeks, then move onto sandy areas close to shore. As the fall approaches, the clawed crustaceans slowly begin to move into deeper water. By October the best of the inshore fishing will be over.

Since these seabed strollers do, on occasion, break all the rules, it's best to keep a few pots scattered in "unlikely" locations. And don't pay any attention to where others put their traps, because chances are those people don't know any more than you do. In fact, I've had my best luck where there were no other pots, so I make it a point to stay away from other fisherfolk as much as possible—especially to avoid the "commercials." Some of those pros can be ornery people who resent fish-for-the-table "rag-pickers." But I suppose that's to be expected of men and women who have to earn a tough living from the sea. Anyway, there's plenty of room for everyone, and it's quite a thrill to find your very own hot spot.

Unexpected Bonuses

Even the saltiest "down-easters" get excited when they pull up a trap, because until the crate breaks the surface of the water, there's no way for anyone to guess what the "surprise package" might contain! Crabs are a common catch, and—aside from being excellent bait—these crustaceans are delicious (though it can be a bit of a chore to get the meat out of smaller species). Frequently, a large "eating size" cunner (a species of saltwater perch that's notorious for stealing bait from lobster pots) will be caught, along with the occasional cod, flounder, sea bass (all delectable table fare), or sand shark (which is generally considered a nuisance, but actually makes a very tasty meal).

When your pots are set in sandy-bottomed areas, you may also catch a number of sea snails, and these are—when properly prepared—better than the finest French restaurant's escargots! The gastropods should be soaked in seawater for several hours (to allow them to expel the bait they've eaten), then boiled for at least 30 minutes and served (mmmm!) with a butter-and-garlic sauce.

Handle With Care!

Rubber work gloves are a must for hauling pots and handling lobsters. When a "keeper" is taken out of the trap, its pinchers should be rendered immobile as soon as possible, either by banding (wrapping the claw shut with an elastic band or tape) or by pegging (pushing a small wooden or plastic peg through the soft membrane at the base of the pincher). Always be careful when performing either of these operations on any lobster, as a "pinch" can be painful!

You'll also need some way to keep your catch alive until the time comes to prepare or freeze 'em. Lobsters survive nicely in a barrel of seawater, or in a box of wet seaweed with bags of ice packed around them.

Eat 'Em Up!

Now that I've told you how to catch your lobster, let me conclude with a few words about how to cook it. Though fancy restaurants often feature the king of crustaceans baked and broiled, it's generally agreed (by those of us who eat a lot of this fine fare) that it's a sacrilege to prepare a lobster in any way other than by boiling or steaming it in salt water. Furthermore, I'm convinced that the following is the best—nay, the only—way to cook this gourmet's dish:

Get out the smallest pot the clawed creature will fit into, and fill the container half full of seawater. Bring the water to a boil, drop the lobster in, cover the pot, and start timing (never mind what the cookbooks say).

When the water begins to boil again (after about two minutes), reduce the heat until the liquid barely bubbles. (This has nothing to do with cooking the lobster, but it'll save some energy since water boils—fast or slow—at 212°F.) Cook a 1-pound lobster for eight minutes, a 1 1/4 pounder for nine minutes, and larger ones a little longer. If you must boil several crustaceans in the same pot, add a minute for each one and expect a slightly less than perfect meal.

When your lobster is done, remove it from the pot, immediately plunge it into cold water to stop the cooking, and eat the shellfish at once. You'll find there's much to learn about consuming lobster too, but I'll let you figure out how to extract all those yummy tidbits by trial and error.

Good fishin'—and good eatin'—to ya!


Lobstering: The Business Aspect

If you'd like your lobsterin' to do more than just fill the family pot, you'll need a commercial license ... which will entitle you to sell wholesale only. And—since the wholesale price is set at auctions in the major ports—the business end of this kind of fishin' is straightforward and simple.

The per-pound payment that you'll receive may change a good bit from one season to another—or even from day to day—but every dealer in a given area will stick pretty close to auction-established price. Therefore, it makes sense to sell your catch as close to home as possible, in order to save time and transportation expenses.

On occasions, the market may be glutted and some wholesale dealers (especially the smaller ones) may not be buying. Obviously, your best bet is to try to find a steady customer, someone who'll take your whole catch all the time. In return, of course, you'll be expected to bring him or her all your lobsters, particularly when the critters are scarce.

Some I fisherfolk hustle around for an extra dime per pound, but I don't think it's worth it. When fishing is good, the price may drop a little, but as an old-timer once said to me: "I'd rather have a lot of nickles than a few dimes."

The initial investment in this business includes a boat and motor, traps, buoys, and a vehicle to transport lobsters and bait. (Any old car will do, but a pickup truck is best.) The continuing costs include upkeep on all equipment, bait, a lobster license, boat registration, plus gas and oil I for the outboard motor and truck. And don't forget to keep all of your receipts, both sales and expenses! You'll need them come tax time.

You'll be required to file tax schedule 1040-C, plus schedule 1040-SE if your total self-employed Income exceeds $600. Don't forget to claim depreciation on your gear, as well as all other expenses related to lobstering.

If you have a particularly good year, you might want to consider income averaging (schedule G), And there're two tax credits which apply to lobster fishers: An investment credit of up to 10% is applicable to all new and used equipment purchased (this can amount to quite a saving!). In addition, a credit for non-highway use of gas and oil is available. File form 4368 for the investment credit and form 3436 for the fuel credit.

Finally, if you think you'll owe a substantial amount of tax at the end of the year (remember, nothing is withheld from your "paychecks"), you should file an estimated tax form (1040-ES).

But don't let all this paper work worry you. Simply obtain the forms and follow the instructions. You'll have little difficulty, provided you've kept accurate records.

Here's an example of what you might expect to spend and earn in a part-time lobster business.

Initial Investment:
- used boat and motor         $500
- 40 new traps, ropes, buoys   700
- used pickup truck            400
 
Ongoing Expenses:
- equipment upkeep             300
- license                      100
- gas, oil, bait               200
                            ------
Total expense               $2,200

Annual Income              $3,500
 
Net Income                  $2,900

After you pay off your initial investment, Net Income = Annual Income - Ongoing Expenses
Assuming it take three hours to pull traps and half an hour to transport you catch to market, your take home pay will be about $10.36/hr.
Annual income figure assumes you pull your traps on 80 different days, with an average catch of 25 pounds per "pull" and an average price per pound of $1.75.

It seems almost sinful to be paid that well for goin' fishin', doesn't it?


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