The enigmatic lobster

When we first put out our lobster pots, back in May, we had a couple of good lobstering trips that netted a couple of good lobsters. Then we had two lousy trips, one with my brother and his wife and one with my mother, from which we came back empty-handed.

The only reasonable conclusion, I thought, was that my family scared the lobsters away. My family has scared away tougher things than lobsters, so it wasn’t a stretch. But then I heard from a couple of sources that lobsters tend to move around, and that these particular lobsters had moved east. I thought this a more probable explanation, so Kevin and I planned to go out and move the traps to where the lobsters were presumed to be. That was over a month ago.

Moving lobster pots that have been sitting in a lobsterless part of Cape Cod Bay is sheer drudgery. It’s all the work of hauling pots with none of the excitement of expecting lobsters. Any wayward specimens that had wandered in would doubtless have found their way out by now, or died in the attempt.

That’s why we didn’t get around to it until yesterday.

We’d frozen the racks from the ten bluefish we caught over the weekend, and Kevin cut them into pieces that would fit in a bait bag, an activity that requires a machete, a hammer, and a high tolerance for the flies that come swarming around as soon as the first few shards of bluefish guts defrost. Kevin has gotten good at this. (And, yes, we make the master baiter joke all the time.)

We filled a cooler with the bait and put it on the boat. We brought fishing rods because we figured we might be able to snag a fish on our way in, consolation for the heavy, unrewarding work we were going out to do.

We put the boat in, glad at least to have a beautiful windless day. We motored out to our line of ten pots, which was right where we left it.

I grabbed the buoy of the first pot, and started hauling. When the pots have been out a long time, the ropes get fouled with all kinds of sea crud, and Kevin stood at the gunwale, de-crudding, as I hauled on the line. The crud not only made the pot heavier than usual, it made the rope diabolically slippery. As Kevin ran the rope through his hands to clean it, the crud fell on the deck, making that slippery, too. Blech.

But when Kevin pulled the first pot over the gunwale, all blechiness was forgotten. There were two – two! – lobsters in it. One was blue, and looked to be almost three pounds.

“Please don’t let that one be a female,” I said as Kevin opened the trap. He pulled it out. No eggs. No notch in the tail. A keeper! As was the other, smaller one.

We banded the lobsters, filled the cooler with sea water, and got the aerator going.

The work got way easier after that.

We ended up with twelve – twelve! – lobsters. You’re not allowed to take females with eggs under their tail, and we had to throw back three big hens. You also have to let go any lobster that’s undersized or has a notch in its tail – we had one of each. That left us with seven keeper lobsters. Seven! It was our biggest haul ever, by a long shot.

But you’ve got to wonder what goes on down there on the sea floor. What would possess a lobster to go into a trap with no bait? I assume these guys hadn’t been there with no food for five weeks, as they seemed feisty and robust. Do they figure out how to get in and out, and take up residence like it’s some kind of cave? If so, why bother baiting at all?

We don’t know a whole lot about lobster behavior (‘we’ being the marine biology community, not Kevin and me), but what we do know has been written about by Trevor Corson in a book called The Secret Life of Lobsters, which has been recommended to me. I just bumped it up to first on my to-read list.

Seven lobsters would have made our day, but we kept seeing fish on the fish finder, so we dropped a couple of lines down on our way in. First up was a spiny dogfish, a kind of small shark. Alas, I found out too late that it has to be bled right away to be edible, or uric acid in its bloodstream contaminates the meat, so it’s destined to be lobster bait. (For more on sharks, read Hank Shaw’s post at Hunter Angler Gardener Cook. If we all ask him nicely, I’m hoping he’ll tell us how to gut and bleed a dogfish.)

I know just what to do with a fluke, though, and Kevin caught one, our second of the season, just outside Barnstable Harbor.

The only casualty was Kevin’s twenty-five-year-old fishing rod, which snapped in half when my fluke hook got caught on the seabed. We can live with that.

When we got home, we weighed the catch. It was fourteen pounds in total, and the blue one was three pounds even. My parents came over, and Kevin’s son Eamon is visiting, so we had a lobster feast for five. With leftovers! Who ever heard of leftover lobster?

Several of the lobsters were so big that they were hard to crack, and had a tendency to open explosively when you finally exerted enough pressure on their joints. My mother had to clean her glasses several times, and the table was a disaster. But I’m thinking any night you get lobster in your hair is a good night.

15 people are having a conversation about “The enigmatic lobster

  1. Love the blog! I’m hoping Hank does a tutorial as well (I checked with our local and we can keep up to 15 spiny dogfish a day). Have fun with those Turkey polts (I nick-named ours the “bag of hammers” ala Brother Where Art Thou”).

  2. Amanda — Then why do I feel so uncool?

    Adam — Thanks for stopping by! I see you’re not just a fellow fisherman but also a fellow turkey-raiser. I can’t go with the “bag of hammers,” though. Ours just don’t seem that dumb to me. I think turkeys have a bad rap.

  3. Congratulations on your lobsters! What’s the notched tail for? I mean, why does the law require you to throw them back?

    I’m presuming that you’re using just the flesh for bait, and the guts go elsewhere? Bury them in your garden with a few handfuls of wood ash over the top before you throw the soil back on. My excellent gardener of a neighbor in Florida said the ash keeps the raccoons from digging the guts back up, and the guts make the best fertilizer. I’ve probably already told you this, so sorry if I have.

    I wish I had some fish guts, but mostly because that would have meant that I went fishing.


  4. I’m so glad you had such a successful lobster haul. Leftover lobster is so decadent! My grandmother used to make lobster newberg with the “leftovers” and it was my favorite meal.

    I don’t know what this says about my level of humor, but I laughed out laod when I read that you made lots of Master baiter jokes. Hopefully your other readers are more adult and respectable than I am.

    Lobsters – like bees – are mysterious. I suppose their downfall is that they taste so much better than bees. That book looks like an interesting read.

  5. Rick — That about says it all.

    Paula — We actually do use the guts for bait. Lobsters seem to like bluefish guts. But, when it’s not lobster season, I want to use that technique. God knows my garden needs all the help it can get.

    As for the notched tail — commercial lobstermen are required to put the notch in all the breeding females they find. That way, she’s protected for a couple of years (a few molts will make the notch disappear).

    Jen — If we continue down the road we’re on (‘we’ being civilization), the only animals left will be the ones that don’t taste good. It’ll be all Canada geese and false albacore.

    And I’m extremely grateful to have at least one reader who laughs at the silliest jokes.

  6. This just proves that whenever you feel like you’re going to throw in the towel, it’s worth the effort to “go the extra mile” or “haul the extra pot”….just like you’ve been teaching me with our training runs!

  7. What great visuals on your feast! Do you think Julia Child ever experienced the pure joy of a “Lobster in Your Hair” night? I never thought I would find myself living vicariously through someone’s blog, but I just love to read your posts. My work on Russian airplanes has taken me far away from digging in the dirt and the smug satisfaction of working and being provided for by Mother Nature.
    I used a meat saw (commercial-type bandsaw) for cutting my frozen horseshoe crabs into bait bits. It beat using an ax, although some days wielding an ax was therapeutic…
    Leftover lobster? Never heard of it.

  8. Wow, what a treat that must’ve been – unexpected success is a beautiful thing.

    Dunno if Hank’s answered your bleeding-out question yet (and if not, he won’t soon because he’s on a deer hunting trip now), but the captain and mate took care of that on our boat last week. I don’t know what he did to bleed them – or whether he did anything special to bleed them – but he did gut them right away (as soon as we were done with the hero shots).

  9. Jill — Working on Russian airplanes sounds way more interesting (and vastly more mysterious) than catching fish and raising chickens. Do you have a blog I can live vicariously through?

    As for bait cutting, Kevin has also used the Sawzall (a tool whose name he takes literally), but the problem is that it scatters fish guts far and wide. He did it in the garage once, and it stunk for a week. The flies enjoyed it, though.

    NorCal — Hank did put instructions in the comment section of his post on sharks, and I’ve read up on the details of how to deal with dogfish. I’ll be ready next time. Meantime, I’ll send good deer vibes his way.

    He’s very lucky he’s got you to take his hero shots — they’re always so appropriately heroic. I have GOT to work on my photography. The blue lobster is embarrassing (the light was fading, and the water was boiling, and it was the only shot I had).

  10. I love everything about this story…hearing about a place where lobsters are so accessible (not so many here in western NC), that you go out and get them yourselves, and that the day ends with family gathered around the table, lobster bits flying everywhere.

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