Daytime highs are still hovering around 100 degrees where I live in the San Fernando Valley, but the calendar tells me that my favorite fall ritual — the opening of Southern California’s recreational spiny lobster season — is about to go down.
The lobster season opens at 12:01 a.m. on Saturday, September 29th and although you won’t catch me anywhere near the opening weekend mayhem, you can bet there will be throngs of hoopnetters and divers playing bumper boats at every breakwater, jetty, rockpile, reef and wreck from Santa Barbara to San Diego.
The popularity of lobster fishing — particularly using baited hoopnets — has exploded over the past 10 years. This is particularly evident on opening weekend, when a “gold rush” mentality takes hold and boaters crowd local structure looking for space to drop their nets or splash their divers.
Personally, I prefer to wait a while and let the crowds thin out a little before I drop my own nets. Sure, the catching is usually pretty easy those first few days, but it’s a six-month-long season and there are plenty of bugs for those fishermen willing to work at it.
Whether you jump into the opening weekend fray or wait a while as I do, here is a hoopnetting primer to help get you ready for a productive season.
Spiny lobsters live in and around rocky structure of all types, crawling out onto the surrounding sand at night to feed. Successful anglers place their baited nets around this structure to take advantage of the “crawl.”
Visible structure such as breakwaters and jetties get the most pressure because everybody knows about them. The easier spots usually kick out bugs early in the season, but like a clearance rack at Nordstrom’s, they get picked over pretty fast.
I prefer to hit lesser-known structure where you can fish with less competition. The numerous artificial reefs, wrecks and rockpiles off of the Southern California coast will all hold bugs to some degree. The edge of kelp lines can also be productive, as kelp holdfasts connect to rocky bottoms.
The same types of areas you would fish for calicos or winter sand bass are good areas to prospect for lobsters. Although there are no hard-and-fast rules, conventional wisdom says to look for bugs shallow early in the season, then target deeper areas as waters cool and winter storms bring freshwater runoff.
All of the serious hoopnetters I know have switched over the to the “conical” style nets, which feature a rigid frame and an opening that is smaller than the full diameter of the net. Promar’s Ambush net is a great example of this style, and while heavier to pull than the Danielson nets, the netting is deeper and much more durable.
Part of the fun in hooping is setting up your gear, and you’ll find many different options for rigging lines, buoys and lights. I like to keep it simple.
I use hollow-braid polypropylene lines, one end attached to the net’s bridle via a stainless steel clip and the other end passed through the center of the float (like an egg sinker). I affix a lead weight and another stainless clip to the tag end.
This self-adjusting system keeps the float vertical over the net and makes sure there is no loose tag line floating at the surface. It also allows me to clip the tag end to the net frame for easy transport and storage.
A lead counterweight at the bottom of the buoy ensures that the light stick or blinking strobe inserted in the top of the float remains upright. I also use reflective numbers and letters to identify my buoys and keep track of the order when pulling.
Chunks of bonito or skipjack are my favorite bait for So Cal spiny lobster, followed by cut mackerel and dead sardines. I always start off using whole fish with the heads, gills, blood and guts in tact. This puts out a nice scent trail. If the action slows down, I’ll re-bait my nets. Some guys prever to use mashed fish. It’s just personal preference.
To hold the bait in the net I like using a heavy-duty nylon bait bag, but again, opinions vary on this as well. Many good hoopers I know prefer metal or plastic bait cages.
You’ll also need a variety of other gear, including a lobster gauge (double check with a micrometer to ensure it measures 3.25 inches), pulling gloves and a waterproof LED flashlight or headlamp.
It’s also important to dress for the task — pulling nets is a wet, messy job. I’ve been using the new Gage Weather Watch lightweight breathable rainwear and the Gage Ragnar Jacket from Grundens USA to keep me dry and clean. You don’t need heavy PVC bibs and jackets to stay dry, and working up a sweat will ultimately make you cold and clammy.
Although the crawl can happen anytime during the night, there seems to be a flurry of activity right at dusk. I like to get out early enough to have my nets in place 30 minutes before dusk so there is a good scent trail when the bugs come out of their holes.
I like to check my nets after a 20- to 30-minute soak, which will keep you busy. When fishing a 10-net string, it’s time to start at the top of the order by the time I reach the last net.
Get out there this season and snatch up a few bugs.
Make sure you have a California recreational fishing license and a lobster report card. For more information on lobster regulations, visit www.dfg.ca.gov/marine/invertebrate/lobster.