It’s a trap

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Some time last fall Kevin and I learned that, here in the great state of Massachusetts, ordinary people are allowed to lobster. You need a permit, and you have to follow the rules, but any Joe Citizen is allowed to put out up to ten lobster traps, pretty much anywhere he thinks there might be lobster.

Count me in.

Mihály Csíkszentmihályi

Mihály Csíkszentmihályi

Back in 1990, psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi published a book called Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. In it, he described flow as a state of complete absorption in a task, of full concentration and engagement. You don’t notice time go by, self-consciousness slips away, and all your resources are devoted to whatever it is you’re doing. That’s me with a lobster, although I didn’t realize it until the Sparks incident.

Several years ago, Kevin decided that, for his birthday, he’d like to go to a steakhouse. He doesn’t eat steak very often and, when he does, he makes it count by getting the best steak around. Sparks is one of the best steakhouses in Manhattan, and I made us a reservation.

While I don’t dislike steak, lobster is one of my all-time favorite foods and Sparks, like many New York steakhouses, has it on the menu. But not in the way your local clam shack has it on the menu; the smallest lobster on offer the night we were there was three pounds.

Bring it on.

They brought it on. I have never, before or since, eaten a three-pound lobster. If you haven’t, I highly recommend it. All those little crevices and crannies which, in a lobster that weighs a pound and a half, have no meat to speak of, are well worth excavating in a lobster that weighs three pounds.

I started at the claws and worked my way down, cracking every piece of shell, peering into every joint, digging out every morsel. I ate every last piece of that lobster, reducing it to a little pile of shell shards with two antennae sticking out.

It wasn’t until I was eating the last of the tail that I realized people were watching. Not outright staring, but sneaking looks over forkfuls of T-bone. I had been so absorbed in the task at hand that I hadn’t noticed that I’d become a spectacle.

Kevin had noticed, but he thought it was funny. I am lucky to be married to a man who enjoys watching his wife eat a lobster in a state of flow.

All this to say that, if there’s a chance we can pull our own lobsters out of Cape Cod Bay, I’m willing to try.

Geared up

Geared up

One thing that many of our enterprises – clamming, fishing, gardening – have in common is that they require paraphernalia. Over the past year, we’ve acquired rakes and baskets, rods and reels, hoes and shovels. For sheer gear, though, nothing can touch lobstering.

First, you need a boat. And not just any boat, a boat big enough to hold ten lobster traps. Then you need ten lobster traps, and the rope, bait bags, and buoys that go with them. You also need a depth finder, to help you locate the sea-bottom structures where lobsters are likely to congregate. Then there’s the marine GPS, to make sure that, once you put your traps out, you can find them again. If lobsters were not both delicious and expensive, nobody would do this.

The boat, we got a couple months back. This past weekend, we went to pick up the traps, an experience that rattled my confidence.

We bought the traps from a commercial lobsterman who’s a friend of our friends Dan and Linda. Mark uses traps with two parlors, which are very big and require specialized gear to get in and out of the boat. When his traps are nearing the end of their useful life, he cuts them down to single-parlor, recreational size, and sells them for $25.

On Sunday morning, we hitched the utility trailer to the truck and went to pick up our ten traps. We went to Mark’s house, and pulled around the back to the giant (spotless, organized) warehouse-like barn where he keeps his gear. Behind it was the stack of cut-down traps.

The trap, top view, with kitchen at the bottom and parlor at the top.

The trap, top view, with kitchen at the bottom and parlor at the top.

Mark had one laid out for us, and he showed us how it worked. You put some nice, smelly, fishy bait in a bag and hang it in the middle of the trap. There are two holes through which lobsters, which can’t see much, but can smell well, crawl through in order to get at the bait. The holes are positioned in such a way that it’s easy for a lobster to get in through them, but hard forhim to go out the other way.

The chamber where the bait hangs is called the kitchen, and there is a second chamber called the parlor. Once the lobster has eaten his fill, he starts looking for the exit. He doesn’t find the holes he came in through, because they are suspended over the floor of the trap. Instead, he finds the hole that leads to the parlor. Once he’s in there, he’s unlikely to find his way out again.

The trap, side view, with kitchen on the right and parlor on the left.  The bait goes in the orange bag.

The trap, side view, with kitchen on the right and parlor on the left. The bait goes in the orange bag.

I entertained visions of parlors full of lobsters as Kevin backed the trailer up to the pile of traps. I picked one up to load it, and got a rude shock. The thing was heavy. Really heavy, and awkward, too. I could lift it, and get it on the trailer, but only just.

Up until then, I had only experienced lobster traps as décor. How heavy can it be, I figured, if it’s hanging from the ceiling of a clam shack? Turns out, lobster traps that create ambiance aren’t the same as lobster traps that trap lobsters. The ambiance kind are wood and rope. The trapping kind are wire and concrete.

It’s important that lobster traps stay where you put them because, if they move around, you’ll never find them again. In the ocean, only heavy things stay where you put them, and that is why lobster traps are weighted, either with bricks or with concrete runners along the base.

Ours have concrete runners, and weigh about fifty pounds each. That’s fifty pounds that have to be pulled up from the seabed by a rope, hand over hand. Factor in the weight of the rope itself, and the seventeen pounds of lobsters you hope to have in the trap, and it starts sounding like a big job. Times ten.

I’m not at all sure that I’ll be able to hoist the traps. I may be relegated to changing bait, measuring catch, and banding keepers. But I won’t know until we’re out there, and that won’t be this week. Our GPS is on back-order.

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Comments

  1. Lobsters are indeed delicious: this is the natural state of affairs. But lobsters are expensive precisely *because* you have to do this to catch them.

  2. I am – to this day – regretting my squeamishness on my last family trip to Maine. Went with my aunt, cousin, and mom to p/u lobsters for dinner that night. Never had much to do with lobsters before that so didnt know that we would be picking up LIVE lobsters and cooking LIVE lobsters! After riding home in the back seat with these guys and figuring out they were cooked alive….I jsut couldnt eat them. Have learned to love lobster since then and regret that culinary experience to this day!

  3. Lobster, Blueberries, Blues, Chickens . . .Pigs?

    Try Starving Off a Float.

    Life, Art and Chickens, Afloat in the Harbor

    For the last two months artists have been floating around New York City on the Waterpod, a 3,000-square-foot experiment in community living and artistry. Founded by Mary Mattingly, whose medium is mainly photography, it was envisioned as a self-sustaining living space, an eco- and art-friendly sphere that could be recreated in the future, when land resources might be scarce. Preparing for the project, Ms. Mattingly thought about hardship and utopia. And so the Waterpod — at least that part of it that is not a commercial shipping barge, whose rental was backed by dozens of public and private groups — was built from donations and recyclables. Its systems run on solar power; its crew grows its own greens, collects its own rainwater. These things cared for each day, the notion was that the crew could work on more creative pursuits.

    In practice, however, the Waterpod has turned out to be more an experiment in sociability and isolation, aesthetic vision and mass utility, organization and freedom, and, mostly, endurance.

    see the rest at NY Times Art & Design, Thursday,
    13 August 2009

  4. Tamar, by reading your post I learned more about lobstering than I did in 22 years’ living on Cape Cod. Never knew about the rooms (a parlor, no less!), the concrete, or the outlay in time and money, though I had a suspicion about that last one. BUT I do know about eating them! I have never tackled a three-pounder, now there is a challenge. Linda makes the best ever crab salad/rolls on the Cape. If it swims, digs, or just moves from kitchen to parlor, Linda is the cook to know.

  5. Former stern "man" says:

    Well Guys, You really can’t just drop your traps anywhere you know..lucky you are not thinking of setting gear up by Matinicus..at least you’ll be setting singles not trawls so you won’t have to worry about anyone setting over you or you over them which would entail cutting and tying and maybe having your bouys disappear..watch out for girls with berries and /or a notch in their tails.. and don’t expect much when the moon is full..I never liked those conger eels which just wrap around your arm..am not sure they inhabit warm cape water tho… and actually three chickens or eights would probably be tastier than a 3 pounder,,,anyway..good luck, bon appetit ,have fun .

  6. Former Sternman is right, you can’t just drop your pots anywhere, you could get fined if they are are set wrong, maybe worse, you’ll just lose your gear.
    I agree three or four culls (or bullets even) would be much tastier than one big bug.
    The eels do get easier to handle once you get the hang of it. They might be good to eat? Worth a try!
    The commercial guys are best left alone, many of them are packing fire arms, so be watchful.

  7. Sternman and FSD — You’re supposed to be building up my confidence, here!

    We’ve read the rules pretty carefully, and hope not to blunder too badly. I’ve been warned about staying away from the commercial guys, so we’ll be on the look-out for them.

    Any eels that get between me and my lobsters will be barbecued.

  8. Ha!

    Knowing the subject was lobster, by the time I read the words “…a state of complete absorption” I already knew where this post was going.

    The night I first met you (some twenty years ago) you ordered a lobster.

    I don’t remember what I ate, or what anyone else ate, or even where we ate. But I’ve thought of your eerie lobster-induced trance numerous times since.

    Until now, I’d assumed it was an isolated incident.

  9. I have never in my life seen or fished a half lobster pot. All the recreational folks on the lower cape use the same pots as the commercial fishermen. When I mentioned the cut down pot to another fisherman, he did the same thing I did when I read the post – scratched his head and said, “Huh?”
    Am I missing something, besides the other part of your lobster pot?

  10. Beth — It’s not that we’re using half a pot, it’s that the guy we bought them from used double pots — one kitchen, two parlors. What we’re using looks exactly like what everyone else uses. It’s a full-size trap with a kitchen and a parlor.

  11. Thanks – I read the double parlor bit, now I have a whole new headscratcher. Is your commercial contact an offshore guy? I’ve got to find me one a them huge pots! Sounds weird!

  12. Beth — Yes, the commercial guy is offshore, and he swears by the double-parlor pots.