Catching Lobster With an Old-Fashioned Lobster Trap

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Lobstering is a noble tradition of the Northeast United States.

The lobster is the regent of seafood. Before his ferocious, spiked and clawed visage, his sweet, white flesh, all other creatures are gastronomically subservient. The lobster was once so cheap and plentiful along the New England coast that windrows of wave-stranded lobsters were pitchforked into draycarts and ploughed under cornfields as fertilizer. Times, as your grandpa will doubtless tell you, have changed.

Today, the lobster is worth its weight in negotiable securities, and is the object of a jealous, regulated, difficult search. Its price fluctuate through the year, and the unadorned crustacean can command over $2.50 a pound. Automated lobster boats at the edge of the continental shelf haul great catches, but inshore the single lobsterman still plies his strenuous, chancy trade with long hours, simple tools, and old skills.

Our native lobster, Homarus Americanus , is seldom seen below Long Island (a clawless variety inhabits warmer waters). It thrives in cold, oxygenated water, making a home of rocky bottoms where it can back into crevices to defend itself. In its adolescence it is a white fingerling, soft and vulnerable. It must grow five years to attain market size, forming a hard exoskeleton and shedding as it is outgrown. Lapses in lobster catch are periodically due to the shedding cycle, since the pale, soft “shedders” hide beneath rocks or in crevices until their shells are prepared to defend them. Young lobsters shed several time a year, older lobsters about once a year.

There are three lobster licenses: the home license allows up to 10 pots (lobstertraps) for family use only, the cost about $20.00; the commercial license allows an unlimited number of pots, permits commercial sale, and costs considerable more; some states issue a permit which allows divers to catch lobsters by hand. The licenses are issued by the state department of fisheries or wildlife, and most states have a length-of-residency requirement. A special note of warning: you would do better to mess with a lobster man’s woman than to mess with his gear. This is an unquestioned wisdom afloat.

Lobstermen wish to set their pots or string of pots on a cold, big-rocked bottom, out of navigation channels, heavily oxygenated and little disturbed. To find good grounds, he can consult the charts, looking for the asterisks of rocks, and for the bottom notations “rocky” and “boulders.” He can locate ledges and outcroppings, wrecks, and the riprap surrounding navigation lights. Sounding by leadline or by fathometer (which can distinguish between sandy, rocky and bouldered bottoms) can be useful. In clear water a water glass or scouting by a diver might be helpful. Intimate knowledge of the bottom and its currents is the lobsterman’s most useful tool. Local knowledge is essential. As in most fishing–indeed, in any seawork–the newcomer needs the help of the old guys, the old men and the experience fishermen.

Pulling pots from a small sailboat has been successful for a century. This lobsterman coasts toward a pot, luffing his sails. He releases mainsheet and jibsheet and picks up by the buoy by the line under it with a boathook. For this wet, abrasive work he wears neoprene gloves, boots and a bib-front rubber overall. He will pull the pot onto the brass cap on the rail (which, with the lath strips, protects boat and gear) – rowing and powerboats can use a snatchblock on a davit. He will heave the pot onto a sorting board secured athwarthships, open the pot and discard the obvious shorts conches, spider crabs and other intruders. He will check every “keeper” for eggs and size it to the gauge. He will then rebait the pot from the bait barrel behind him and drop the pot again. He will band or peg legal lobsters and put them in his keeping cooler. He will tighten his sheets, fill his sails and make way to the next pots.

The lobster pot is the primetool. Although pots of wire, plastic, twine and metal have been used with some success, the wooden pot is still most popular and most prevalent. It is usually made of white oak (ash, cedar, larch, or another available sea wood can suffice) sawn in lath strips about 3/8″ x 1 3/4″, fastened with copper or bronze nails. It has two “heads”, or nets, and a bent wire bait-holder within. (This bait can be flounder backs from filet houses at about $20/barrel, fish heads and backs from fish markets, or small fish caught by the lobsterman and his family.) Many Maine pots have rounded backs to roll upright on rocky bottoms, but are harder to build. Each pot is weighted with bricks to submerge it (as the pot become more waterlogged, one or more bricks may be removed.) It opens all along the top on hinges cut from old tires, and it latches with turning blocks bolted to the frame or by the main rib of the cover which snaps under one of the top laths. A stout synthetic line is anchor-hitched securely to a main strutural piece in a length that will allow the buoy to ride at the surface at maximum high tide (3/16″ to 5/16″ propylene or dacron will do, but line can be so formidable an investment that your choice may be dependant on fishing depth, number of pots, and the price you can make for line). Each buoy is branded with the fisherman’s name or initials and each fisherman has an identifying color pattern for his buoys rgistered with his license.

A market lobster is not measured by weight, but by the length of carapace from eye-socket to the rear extremity. A bronze gauge is used as reference (Massachusetts minimum size is 3 3/16″, other states differ slightly). If the gauge fits over the carapace when fitted (harmlessly) into the eye socket, the lobster is a “short”. Any lobster carrying eggs around the swimmerets under the tail is an “egger” or “berry lobster”, and is also illegal. Both standards are attempts to insure lobster survival and are rigidly enfored with spot checks afloat and careful checking at shellfish dealers; the fine and penalties are heavy.

A lobster is correctly approached and picked up from behind. Held at the knuckles of the claws, the furious crustacean cannot pinch you and his claws may then be pegged or rubber-banded (as much to protect lobsters from one another as to protect fishermen and gourmands).

The lobster is gill-breather, but it will perish more quickly in oxygen-depleted water than in open air, and lobsters in a bucket of sea water will suffocate quickly. There are two solutions: ciculating sea water, pumped into and out of a tank (old lobster boats had tanks built into their hulls with holes drilled to water outside); the second solution is to keep them cool in the air, where they can survive for many hours–this plastic ice chest with ice or dry ice under a plywood plate (notes holes drilled in lid) will keep lobsters healthy while the lobsterman is pulling pots. The catch can be kept lively for weeks in a “pound” or “car”, a floating box moored in a quiet cove. Lobster will keep well in the refrigerator overnight, and they can be transported to market in fish baskets covered with soaked burlap or seaweed.