Hey, lobster divers, it's time to start melting the butter

Starting at exactly 12:01 a.m. Wednesday (July 25), spiny lobsters that have crawled boldly out of their caves to mock divers since April will again risk the boiling pot.

During Florida's annual two-day sport diving miniseason, thousands across the state will skip work; don mask, snorkel, fins and scuba tanks; and wield tickler sticks, snares and nets to catch their limit of lobster before midnight Thursday.

The harvest outlook?

"They'll see a lot of lobsters," Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission biologist John Hunt said in Marathon. `Will it be more than last year? Probably not. This will not be a year when people come down here and say, `My God, lobsters are everywhere!' It's going to be one where people come down and say, `We had a good miniseason.'''

South Florida dive shops and operators are preparing for what they call "Christmas in July" by staying open late, and offering special equipment and dive packages.

Carolyn Windus of Scuba Emporium in Lauderhill, Fla., said her shop will run six lobster-diving trips during the two days, beginning with a midnight Wednesday dive off Dania Beach.

"We'll have a couple of different reefs that we'll take them to," Windus said.

She added that her preseason scouting trips have turned up some large lobsters about 30 feet deep.

"The ones I have seen are quite big," Windus said. "The last ones I saw were hanging out on the reef playing with each other's antennae."

Dave Earp, a part-time commercial lobster diver in Pompano Beach, said lobsters are all over the reef from 10-feet deep out to more than 40 feet. He uses a net and tickler stick to coax lobsters from their lairs.

"I hold the tickler in my right hand, the net in my left," Earp explained. "I position the net to where the lobster is going to go - usually off to the left at an angle. I'm using it like a baseball glove."

He said the key to success is to go slow.

"Take your time; they're not going anywhere," Earp said. "It's kind of like cattle - if you take your time, you can herd them."

Gary Hunt, co-owner of Underwater Unlimited, a Miami dive shop, said novices should work with a partner - one wielding the net, the other the tickler or looper, a smooth-coated snare.

"When you come to a coral head, swim around it to see if there's a back door he might swim out of," Hunt said.

One diver tickles the lobster out of the hole so that it shoots into the other diver's net when it tries to escape.

Earp and Hunt caution divers to check their quarry for eggs before grabbing them. Taking egg-bearing females is illegal; trying to scrape off the orange egg clusters from their bellies can earn increased penalties.

"I check them for eggs and gauge them immediately before they go in my bag," Earp said.

Nighttime lobster hunters who don't want to get wet ply the shallow grass flats in Biscayne Bay with bully nets. Idling along in shallow-draft boats in 4-6 feet of water, they use underwater lights to locate crustaceans walking out in the open, then nab them in long-handled nets.

Shortly after dawn, divers and snorkelers can pick up the escapees from the bully nets as they try to find their way back to limestone caves.

"If you go on the west side of the reef, you can find more than on the east side or the middle," said Omar Cartaya, the owner of Divers Paradise in Key Biscayne.

"That's because they go out to eat at night on the grass beds, and they just want to hide and get away as soon as they find a hole (at daylight)."

Some of the most productive miniseason hunting grounds are shallow patch reefs that dot the southeast coast. Patch reefs are small, isolated clusters of corals surrounded by sand. But divers have to get there before anybody else.

Said Dennis Dasinger, the manager of Austin's Dive Center in Kendall: "It comes down to luck most times. If you get on your first spot and get your limit, then you say it's a good season."