Caged on Christmas

ESPN Outdoors Saltwater Christmas features the "must do" saltwater fishing excursions along the coasts of the United States. Between now and year's end, we'll present a bucket list of fishing trips any angler would love to receive.

SAN DIEGO, Calif. — 'Twas the night before Christmas and the only thoughts dancing through my head were clever seals, Gerber jars and wet hands as I sat rocking quietly on a boat in the San Diego Harbor.

Planning a trip for spiny lobster about a month earlier had gotten me stoked to reach the ocean. My uncle, Steve Russow, lives on a sailboat and spends his free time in the winter hooping for lobster out of a small skiff.

My Uncle Steve was one of my childhood heroes and our family trips to the West Coast were always highlighted by a few nights sleeping in the bunks on his boat, eating fresh fish with parmesan potatoes and taking in the foreign smells of saltwater and pelicans. I've always secretly suspected him of being a pirate with his long hair, booming laugh and friendly macaw he fed just about anything.

This trip was all about the spiny lobster, a clawless version of the East Coast relative more people are familiar with. Instead of pincers, they utilize long antennae that are covered in spines, whipping them back and forth as defense from attacking predators.

A tasty meal for ocean animals as well as humans, spiny lobster stay hidden during the day and emerge from crevices, crags and shipwrecks to scavenge along the bottom for food at night. So as dusk fell, I found myself loading the skiff with my uncle and grabbing a bucket full of tuna scraps.


Spiny lobster photos

The set-up for a recreational lobster fisherman has been taken to a new level by my uncle. First, the cage in the center of the hoop net is loaded with the red blood meat from tuna left over from the fishing boats that dock in the harbor. Then, after dropping it over the side attached to a length of rope, a Gerber jar (spare no expense) is fastened to the end of a marker buoy with a light inside. That way, in the dark of night, each buoy can be located and pulled up.

After repeating this process nine more times in likely lobster grounds, our traps have been set and the waiting begins. Unlike commercial lobster fishing, where they have a giant series of cages for lobster to get stuck in, hoop netters check their drops regularly to see if anything has gotten curious enough to sniff after the bait.

Our first drop resulted in only one cage that still had bait. The rest were empty, no trace of the tuna remaining. A splash to the side of the boat and a snort revealed the culprit.

A seal had followed the boat, slurping up each piece of fish after we dropped the net down to the bottom. Amazingly, each cage was completely intact — the seal was clever enough to suck the fish out and move on to the next one.

"There's no point in baiting the traps if the seal keeps bothering us," Steve said. "At this point we would be better just chumming the rest of the fish right now and heading in."

Rather than donating the tuna to our new friend, we decided to take what was left of our bait and drop the nets one more time, hoping the seal was full and wouldn't bother us.

Drop Two saw fortune swing in our direction. Our second pull (basically, when you get to the buoy, you haul up the line as fast as you can, swinging the net into the boat) saw four lobsters and a crab squirming at the bottom of the hoop. Unfortunately for us, none of the crustaceans measured over the minimum-length limit and back they went into the ocean.

The next buoy dropped into the boat and this time a keeper spiny lobster was on board. I grabbed it and she immediately slapped her antennae against the back of my hands, giving me a roughing up like sandpaper. A worse fate was in store for that lobster and into the well she went.

We were camped out on a spot near the mouth of the harbor that my uncle called "The Nursery." According to him, it is a spot that usually sees a lot of action, but the size can be on the small side. We saw at least a dozen more lobster, but none were big enough for our measuring device.

For those looking to do a little lobster hunting of their own, pay close attention to the weather when you are planning a trip.

"The only thing that we have found to be a for-sure thing is if it has rained hard — more than a sprinkle," Steve said. "The first year we went, we kept track of everything from the time to the moon cycle and the date, looking to see what was the best time to be out. Get out there after it has rained and they will be jumping in the boat."

Only hoop nets are allowed, five per person up to a maximum of 10 hoop nets per boat. Every angler must have a fishing license and a lobster report card, for tallying the daily catch.

The season stretches from the Saturday preceding the first Wednesday in October, through the first Wednesday after March 15th. Each fisherman can keep seven lobster per day, but can only have seven lobster in their possession (including the freezer) at any one time.

"The beginning of the season is always the best — it gets harder and harder to find a legal one towards the end," Steve said. "Percentage-wise, there are less legals later in the season, but you are getting into the rainy season so there are more lobster crawling."

My arrival coincided with the beginning of the rainy season, but as is often the case in fishing, I should have been there last weekend when the area experienced the first significant rain of the year.

Fishing had slowed and after checking the nets for the third time, we shut the motor down and drifted with the currents of the harbor, waiting another 30 minutes before pulling them up again.

Conversation came easily while staring at the San Diego skyline — stories of fishing trips past, catching up on events of the past year. My Uncle Steve has a way with stories that make listeners sit back and enjoy the telling, knowing a few laughs are guaranteed along the way.

Frenzied pulling of the nets followed by periods of calm, rocking with the swells moving toward the coast.

As night wore on, the cold wind got colder and my hands were wet from a few pulls. As good as any signal for us that the evening was wearing to a close, we wrapped up the nets and headed back to the boat, one lobster richer.

"I like to steam up an artichoke and right before it's ready to go, I'll break the tail off and throw the tail in a steamer for eight minutes," Steve said. "Melt a little butter and garlic and go nuts."

As Christmas dawns, children across the country will be waking up to presents from Santa. I'll make sure to take a few minutes from the fun to go nuts on my first spiny lobster. Thank you Uncle Steve.