Bug hunters wrestle for the biggest catch
by Chelsea Sektnan

For more photos, visit blog.chelseasektnan.com/2011/10/lobster-mobster/

It looked like any normal Friday night at the ocean. Fish were feeding and moving from place to place. Waves were crashing on the shoreline, intersecting with buoys and break-walls. However, this night was different. The waves were pounding upon the sides of more boats and scuba divers than normal.

More than 200 men and women were readying themselves for the start of lobster season and the 35th annual Dive N’ Surf Lobster Mobster competition. At midnight, the lobsters were in for a change of pace.

“They will be slow tonight because they haven’t seen a light for six months,” said Bill Holzer, a 62-year-old retired electrician and a 35-year lobster fishing veteran. “They will be easy to grab tonight. After tonight they will know what’s up and it will be harder.”

Hovering above the newly legal bounty were fisherman and women from across the L.A area, itching to dive into the black water and rustle up some “bugs” (lobsters).

“If you were ever to go out, tonight would be the night,” Holzer said, remarking on opening night conditions.

To be able to hunt for the precious bugs, anglers 16 or older must have a sport fishing license, lobster report card and a net of some type to hold them. The lobsters must measure at least three and one fourth inches in length from the rear edge of the eye socket to the rear edge of the carapace, and the limit for each fisherman is seven lobsters per day in their possession. According to Commercial Fishing Digest, California Spiny lobsters differ from the generally seen Maine Lobster in many ways. Their nickname, “bugs” came about because of their particularly buggy appearance, with long antenna and no large front claws. Not much is known about the species; most baffling is the creature’s age. According to California Department of Fish and Game, it is estimated that most of the lobsters around regulation size are about seven years old, but because crustaceans molt, it is impossible to know for sure and it is thought that some of the larger lobsters could be 50 years old or more.

“You have to appreciate them for the fact that they are unique looking,” said Kristine Barsky, a senior marine biologist from the California Department of Fish and Game. “It’s just you against the lobster with your bare hands under the water. Whether you hunt to see and observe them or hunt them for dinner, it’s an amazing animal.”

Scanning the deep

Holzer and five other men waited from the shore by the Redondo breakwall, suiting up and checking their tanks before submerging into the inky blue unknown. Holzer made his move and duck-walked to the water’s edge before merging with the waves and disappearing.

The other divers followed suit minutes later, the only trace of their existence being the numerous turquoise blue dots in the water indicating where their high-powered underwater flashlights were searching for prey.

“The first guy to the wall will get the most,” Holzer explained. “The guys behind get less and less. It’s about timing it so you can get in before everybody else. It’s just like a horse race.” Holzer was confident he was the first in the water.

After 67 chilly minutes, Holzer and another diver slowly emerged from the water, covered in seaweed and lugging behind them two heavy bags of chatty lobsters (antennae hitting carapaces).

Holzer has been participating in the ‘Lobster Mobster’ competition at Dive N’ Surf since the first competition 35 years ago “I caught five lobsters,” Holzer boasts. “None of them super big; at least they are legal.”

Holzer and the other divers looked into each others’ bags, comparing and measuring their catches. One diver realized his method of measuring lobsters was flawed, and his only catch was too small. Holzer urged him to throw it back, saying, “If the lobster’s too small the fine is up to 1,000 bucks. Don’t get caught with that one. Just follow the rules. I’ll tell you one thing — if I had to pay that fine I’d never hear the end of it.” The other diver looked crestfallen but walked to the water’s edge and released his only catch.

An unknown diver emerged from the water with a thick bag brimming with lobsters. “He’s got some monsters in there,” said Holzer. “I’ll trade you one of those big old tough ones for a small sweet one!” The other diver just chuckled and waddled up the shore to rinse off his gear and bugs.

There’s skepticism as to whether the mystery diver was in the water before the midnight mark. Although he told the group he was only in for 40 minutes, he was the first in the water, scooping up the biggest lobsters, and the third diver out. The other divers wonder if Fish and Wildlife Services will show up to check on their lengths and make sure everything is on the “up and up.”

“He got the most because he was the first one to the wall,” said Holzer.

The divers reconvened at the parking lot, swapping bug wrestling stories and bragging about past catches.

“Last year off the wall I had a 4.2 pounder,” Holzer brags. “The last big one I caught was 10 lbs. I took pictures and put it back. Once you get one big one, it’s just to do it. After that I let them go.”
Richard Mejia and Art Cobian from L.A. only caught one lobster, but raised it for photographs with big gleaming smiles on their faces. “It’s just a lot of fun,” said Mejia, still wet from the adventure.

Everybody has their own way of hunting lobsters. Mejia and Holzer have tried many different ways and cater their hunts to the lobster and the conditions.

“These are nocturnal,” Holzer explained. “They are in the rocks, you can’t get to them. In the night time they are out looking for food. They are like scavengers, like cockroaches… I shine the light to get their attention, then come up from behind and catch them.
“Notice they all have their legs and everything. It’s because of a nice clean grab. In the old days I’m known to fight to the death, legs flying all over the place… I’m a happy guy. I hope I can do it again next year.”

Lobster stories eventually merge to the thought of dinner, and the men discuss recipes in weary, far-off tones. Images of lobster rolls, pasta, and possibilities of new recipes like lobster pie fill the cold night air.

“I’ll tell you one thing,” said Holzer. “When you have company over for Christmas and you have garlic mashed potatoes and lobster nobody ever says, ‘hey man — where’s the turkey?’”

Lobster Mobster

Dive N’ Surf’s ‘Lobster Mobster’ competition has been going on for 35 consecutive years. It’s the longest running lobster competition in the area.

“This year we had over 200 people sign up,” said David Jensen, an employee at Dive N’ Surf. “We weigh the lobster and whoever has the largest bug gets a prize. It’s a way to give something back to the divers who come to our shop and keep it going.”

People with bugs dangling from their fists line up to weigh their bugs and get their picture taken with their catch in the courtyard at Dive N’ Surf. A long table is filled with forms, t-shirts, four boxes of donuts, carafes of coffee to keep everybody from falling asleep and a scale to weigh the incoming lobster.

“It’s a tradition for them,” said Jensen. “Once they get into it, they love it. Coming down here at 3 a.m, it’s all about bragging rights. ‘This is how I did, how did you do?’ See, they are lining up over there showing off their bugs. It’s just a fun event.”

This year’s Lobster Mobster competition winner was David Ploessel with a lobster weight of 9 lbs 12 oz. Jacob Street and Dan Elias followed with weights of 8.96 and a 8.65. The biggest weight of 11.86 lbs belonged to Bob McGill, a scuba diver, who wasn’t able to enter the competition after he brought back the lobster because he forgot to sign up by midnight. “It was a real bummer, but it’s been part of the rules from the beginning,” Jensen said.
Holzer, meanwhile, caught five lobsters, with his biggest weighing 2.2 lbs.

Local Tradition

Mark Koeckritc, Tom Wachte, Fred Sanchez and John Cowan have been catching bugs for more than 25 years.

“There’s nothing more fun than catching a sack of lobsters,” said Sanchez.

The four men have been getting together almost every week during lobster season for more years than they can remember. They meet down near Laguna Beach and catch the lobsters from kayaks every Thursday.

“It’s not even for the lobsters,” said Wachte. “I think they are overrated to be honest. It’s almost more fun to give them away than to eat them yourself. We give them away because people like them and it’s kind of fun to have dinner parties. I think lobster in pasta is, in my opinion, the best.”

Over the years, the men and their families have found lots of different ways to cook lobster. “The best way to cook it is nice and simple,” said Sanchez. “Just take the tail and steam it.”

“You can’t forget the cocktail sauce with ketchup, worcestershire sauce, grey poupon, lemon and a little horseradish,” Wachte said.
Each of the men caught their limit, and even gave away some of their catch to lobsterless hunters.

“I think the system they have in place works. The limits, the time of the year and the size are good,” said Koeckritc. “It replenishes the species every year. It’s not like we’re depleting the ocean of all the lobster — there are plenty out there.”

Many factors weigh in when it comes to finding lobster.
“Usually diving is good up until the northern storms start hitting. That’s when it gets harder to dive,” said Sanchez. “Rough conditions bring out the lobster. We walk a fine line between having dangerous conditions where we can get hurt to where we like it when it’s kind of stirred up.”

There are many rumors about different lobster sweet spots, including many human-made lobster homes like dropped toilets or bathtubs and even an alleged YouTube documented instance of an empty file cabinet filled with lobsters.

“In the deeper water people drop things and mark were it’s at,” said Koeckritc. “The lobster make their home there, then it’s your secret spot.”

Even though they have been hunting lobster for many years, there are days when the men return home to their families without any booty.

“When you chase lobster for 30 years you become an amateur biologist,” said Sanchez. “You have a lot of theories about what those little bastards do. Sometimes they are just straight out gone and hard to catch and it’s like, ‘Where did they go?’”

“We have a lot of theories about where they go,” Wachte adds with a laugh.

Recreational lobster season runs from Saturday, October 1, 2011 through Wednesday, March 21, 2012. For more information visit dfg.ca.gov/marine/faq.asp.

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