Chuck Van Buskirk and Jim ’Chiefy’ Mathie show off their catch of lobsters following Hurricane Nicole. The lobsters were clustered in a coral reef in 35 feet of water just south of the Boca Inlet. Photo provided by Jim Mathie
By Steve Waters
Hurricane Nicole pounded our shore with intense waves and 24 hours of heavy rain and blustery winds. Intracoastal flooding made a mess of some roads and plenty of backyards. It also affected the lobster diving around the county’s coral reefs.
The rough seas created by Nicole’s winds resulted in silt-laden water off the region’s beaches, which prompted lobsters to move to deeper, cleaner water. After a storm, the crustaceans, which also are known as “bugs,” return to South Florida’s three coral reefs, where they gather in clusters as they look for new homes.
One of the coolest sights a lobster hunter will ever see is when the crustaceans walk in a line in the sand. No one knows the reason for a lobster walk, where dozens of bugs walk north in single file in 8 to 20 feet of water.
After Hurricane Ian, which made landfall on Florida’s Gulf Coast in late September, lobsters walked for two weeks, according to Jim “Chiefy” Mathie, a retired Deerfield Beach Fire-Rescue division chief.
The author of Catching the BUG: The Comprehensive Guide to Catching the Spiny Lobster, which is available at South Florida dive shops and at chiefy.net, Mathie waits for the waters around the Boca Raton Inlet to clear after a storm so he and his dive buddies can see the lobsters walking.
On his first trip a couple of days after Nicole’s passage through South Florida last month, Mathie said the visibility in shallow water was poor. So, he and his friends went to the third reef in 65 feet, where the visibility was better and they could see lobsters huddled together.
Five days after the storm, Mathie and his buddies found the bugs gathered together in the second reef in 35 feet just south of the Boca Inlet, and they quickly caught their daily limit of six lobsters apiece.
“One and done,” Mathie said of his and his crew’s needing only one dive to catch 24 lobsters. “We found them clustered with some big boys.”
It was the same story the following day. The lobsters were clustered together, but not walking.
Catching lobsters is easy when they are walking. When the bugs are shallow, snorkelers can swim from the beach and use a net or snare to capture their limit.
Mathie said that during the walk after Hurricane Ian, commercial lobster scuba divers whom he knows sat on the bottom in the sand and waited for the lobsters to walk to them. Those divers easily caught their commercial daily limit of 250 bugs.
Before heading in his boat to the reefs, Mathie looks for lobsters walking off the beach, usually by having one of his divers jump in the water with a mask, fins and snorkel. If the lobsters are there, his crew members will don their scuba gear, go to the bottom and pick out the six biggest bugs that they see.
“After Ian, we saw as many as 100 lobsters walking in a line,” Mathie said. “When we’d take one or two, the line would break up a little, and then there’d be like 20 walking in a line.”
The walk was so good, Mathie said, anglers on local fishing piers caught some lobsters — hooking them with their rods and reels, which is illegal.
As word of a lobster walk spreads, it brings out people who don’t dive, but like the idea of catching a delicious dinner. Anyone catching lobsters must have a saltwater fishing license, which costs $17 for Florida residents, and a $5 spiny lobster permit.
Snorkelers and divers who head out from the beach must have a floating dive flag so boaters can see them. They also must have a measuring device with them. Lobsters must have a minimum carapace length of more than 3 inches and must be measured in the water.
For all lobster regulations, visit https://myfwc.com/fishing/saltwater/recreational/lobster.
Editor’s note: Willie Howard has retired from The Coastal Star to focus on his charter business and his family. We welcome Steve Waters as an occasional columnist. Many of you may remember him from his days as the outdoors writer at the Sun Sentinel.
Steve Waters is a freelance outdoors and golf writer. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.