Several times a week during the warm weather I play a kind of nautical treasure hunt game. I hook a familiar yellow and orange buoy, pull up the line and hoist a metal cage onto the table attached to the starboard (right) side of my open skiff. Then I look inside to see what creatures have taken up temporary residence in my trap. This week alone, I’ve pulled up blue crabs, scup (porgy) fish, Tautog (blackfish), hermit crabs, mussels, Jonah crabs, conch (whelk) and a bunch of spider crabs. And lobsters, of course.
Everything in the ocean seems to like the fish racks (bodies and heads with fillets removed) that I put into the mesh bags inside the traps. Sometimes a variety of critters will pack into one trap rather than spread out among several nearby traps. A recent Taug (blackfish) in my trap was several inches shorter than it needed to be for me to harvest it, which is too bad because those ugly fish with big teeth are delicious. They feed primarily on lobsters and crab so they taste like… you guessed it… lobster and crab.
Often, the lobsters I catch are missing at least one claw. That could be a result of fighting off another lobster, blackfish, stripers, bluefish, or even large spider crabs. Last week I pulled up a pot where both of the short lobsters were culls (missing one claw). Twice this year, I pulled up lobsters missing both front claws. It took me a moment to even realize what was wrong with the first one when I couldn’t find anything to secure with rubber bands. Absent any real protection, I doubt either would have survived until their front claws grew back. They can only hide in rocks for so long. Besides, they were long enough for me to harvest and were delicious with sweet butter.
Another recent pot contained three lobster and two scup (porgy). I took a photo of the unusual nautical “full house” before letting both fish and the two smaller lobster back into the water. I hope to catch them after they’ve grown a bit. That fun trap netted just one legal lobster and an interesting picture.
At the beginning of this season I was pleased at first to see three lobsters in a single trap but then repulsed by the contents. The female with eggs and the slightly “short” lobster had eaten the tail meat from the remaining adult lobster. The head, carapace (body) and front claws were intact as was the tail shell. Underneath, all the shell meat and small legs were gone. It wasn’t until that time that I fully realized these ocean bugs will eat “anything.” Yuck. Couldn’t take a picture of that one… too disgusting. It hardened me a bit so I’m no longer squeamish about dropping them into the hot tub on the stove. I know the food in the trap had probably been gone for a day or two but they ate their roommate! Females aggressively protect their eggs. Unfortunately, less than 1% of the thousands of eggs on each female will grow into a full-sized legal-to-harvest lobster. I’ve found tiny lobsters in the stomachs of black sea bass and tautog.
Spider crabs are in almost every pot. Last year, I pulled up 27 in one and thought that was a lot. This year, my personal record is 46 spider crabs of various sizes in a single 3 foot-long lobster pot. Their competitive nature causes crabs and lobster to cram into a small space when it looks like someone else is enjoying a free meal. I always get a kick of the ones who are holding onto the outside of the pot when I pull them up. They haven’t made their way inside yet but are still thinking about it when I surprise them with an exciting ride. A few yoga poses on the top of the pot then they drop off or I pry them away. Once in a while their claws are so wrapped up in the netting or other parts of the trap that they lose an appendage which quickly grows back.
I save hermit crabs to use as bait for the short tautog (blackfish) season. Discounting the cost of gas to take the boat out to check the lobster pots, the hermit crabs are free bait. They work well because the taug really like ‘em. It is tricky to catch the elusive taug, but that’s a story for another day.
The first legal fluke (summer flounder) I ever caught was in one of my lobster traps. I had been unsuccessful line fishing for ‘em but at the beginning of fluke season, one of the pots had an 18” legal fish in it. I whooped a bit then took it out to measure and it was exactly the length I needed. The nimble thing had to curl up like a burrito to get into the kitchen (first section) of the pot and then again to get into the parlor section. He must have still been eating when I pulled him up. It made for an outstanding dinner and nice change of pace on a day when I caught no lobster. The first time I pulled up a skate, I was terrified to remove it from the pot because it looked so much like a stingray. Both creatures have stingers on their tails so I use heavy gloves to remove everything from the pot. It protects both me and the creatures I’m returning to the ocean. I never know what will be inside when pulling up each treasure chest, but always hope for lobster.