There’s a war out there, over bugs. More precisely, over California spiny lobsters. Today, the pursuit of these delectable, tail-snapping, rust-color crustaceans pits boater against boater in feuds that boil up at night.
This is recreational lobster fishing off the southern California coast. And if you thought West Coast boaters were laid back, dude, you haven’t been buggin’.
Far from mellow, a typical bug battle unfolds like this: Claim Jumper arrives around dusk at the captain’s favorite lobster spot but finds another boat, Vanguard, has already set its lobster nets. Undeterred, Claim Jumper begins setting nets 50 yards away from Vanguard’s string.
Vanguard’s captain bristles and bolts over to confront Claim Jumper. “You’re not seriously going to fish here?” he barks, chopping his throttle just in time to avert a collision. “We’ve already set our nets here, so you need to go somewhere else,” he shouts, the boats now practically gunwale to gunwale, the boating version of chest bumping.
Claim Jumper’s captain offers assurances that there are plenty of lobsters for both boats and that he won’t get in the way.
“You’re already in my way, and you need to get the **** out of here,” shouts the captain of Vanguard.
“Well, that’s not going to happen,” says Claim Jumper’s captain as he drives away and continues setting his nets.
Now spitting mad, Vanguard’s captain charges Claim Jumper, turning off at the last second. The intimidation tactic doesn’t work. “This is a bunch of sh*t,” he sputters before spinning his boat around and racing away in the dark.
In case you’re wondering, while the boat names were changed, this lobster tale is true. I was crew on Claim Jumper.
Drama similar to this plays out nightly during California’s six-month recreational spiny lobster season, which begins this year on Sept. 29 and ends on March 20, 2013. The start of the season sends frenzied boaters out in droves, each jockeying for the best fishing spots. The goal is to catch daily limits (seven per angler) of bugs.
California’s spiny lobster is similar to Florida’s spiny lobster in that it has no claws and dwells within structure most of the time. Once the sun starts sinking on the left coast, the bugs venture out in what locals call a crawl. This is the best time to catch them.
For many years prior, the recreational harvest was confined largely to divers — a hardy few with the skills and bravado to plunge into inky waters and wrestle critters in the dark. Yet within the past seven years, a more productive technique has gained immense popularity — hoop-netting at night. No more night dives. Just drop a baited net (see “Hoop-Netting Gear”), let it soak for 30 minutes, and then pull it up quickly to see if lobsters have crawled inside.
As more hoop-netters take to the water at night, competition for productive bottom structure has grown, leading to hot-tempered altercations (mostly verbal), particularly when one hoop-netter encroaches on another.