By Marc Falco
Recreational Lobsterman Extraordinaire
So you want to catch lobsters? You’ve come to the right place as Bob Ketcham revolutionized the lobster pot fishery back in the 1970s with rubber-coated wire traps, and still today, nothing compares to the quality of a Ketcham trap. The company is still going strong with Bob’s daughter, Heather Ketcham, now at the helm.
Lobstering is a fun-fulled sport, filled with anticipation and excitement that will round-out any day on the water when your efforts are rewarded with a delectable lobster dinner. As with fishing, crabbing, shellfishing or any consumptive sport, there’s a tremendous feeling of satisfaction and self-reliance when eating the fresh catch that you caught using your own hands and wits. And when you set a trap, you never know what you’re going to get. Your by-catch sometimes as interesting as the lobsters themselves.
You’ve already got the boat, so just add traps (also called pots), some basic gear, a state license and you’re in the game.
The Massachusetts recreational lobster license is available either online at massfishhunt.mass.gov, in person at the Mass. Division of Marine Fisheries offices in New Bedford and Gloucester, or through the mail by downloading and mailing the application available at https://www.mass.gov/files/2017-06/recreational-lobster-permit-2011.pdf. The cost is $55 for residents and $75 for nonresidents and permits are limited to one per household. For more license info, go to https://www.mass.gov/service-details/who-needs-a-recreational-lobster-permit
Rigging the pots yourself is not as complicated or intimidating as it may seem and Ketcham offers the option of its YotPot already rigged and nearly ready to fish. Unlike the big, heavy commercial traps, which often require a winch to haul up from the depths, the YotPot is a scaled-down version weighing only 22 pounds and easily hauled by hand. All you need to do is pick your colors, paint your buoys and mark them with your permit number. Ketcham has special buoy paint in many colors and be sure not to duplicate the color scheme of someone else’s buoys. The plastic tag located on the inside of the door must also be marked with your permit number.
The pots come with 50′ of line and a state regulation requires the line to be marked with a 4-inch section of red paint (Massachusetts) at the half-way mark (colored electrical tape can also be used). Pots also come rigged with a 600-pound test weak leak (required by law) that is designed to break away in the event a whale becomes entangled in your gear. A bait bag is also included.
The Mass. recreational lobster season is open May 16 – Oct. 31 and regulations allow up to 10 traps per permit with a daily limit of 15 lobsters. Your permit allows you to fish Massachusetts state waters that are divided into three areas – Southern New England, Outer Cape Cod and Gulf of Maine – but minimum and maximum sizes, along with trap vent sizes, are specific to each area so check the chart/map in the Mass. Saltwater Fishing Guide at www.eregulations.com/assets/docs/guides/21MASW_LR2.pdf to make sure you’re legal and have the proper equipment for that area.
Once your traps are rigged, you’re almost done but you’ll need bait. The most common bait is fish, with oily fish that produce a lot of scent being the most effective. Mackerel and sea herring, when available, are favorites. Pogies also work well. How much bait to use? It all depends on the size. Two large mackerel or three average herring or pogies will suffice. If you’re using small tinker mackerel, you may need five or six in the bag. Using fresh fish carcasses from your fishing trips also works well.
C & P Bait at 33 Wright St. in New Bedford caters to the lobster fishery with a large selection of different baits to try. Or you can catch your own. You can stop and get bait before each trip but a small chest freezer comes in handy for storing bagged bait. For example – buy a tote full of bait from the dealer, take it home, bag it (enough to bait your traps for a trip) in freezer storage bags, then put the bagged bait in the freezer. Before the next trip, remove a bag from the freezer and thaw it out. It saves a lot of running around.
The old rule of thumb was that the stinkier the bait the better, however, it’s likely you’ll find that fresh bait will out-fish rotten, smelly bait. Fresh bait is also a lot easier on the guests you may have aboard.
The bait is placed in the plastic mesh bag which is then suspended in the kitchen area of the trap by hanging it from the two prongs at the top of the trap. It should be suspended high enough in the trap so the lobster can’t reach it from the entry port. Make it commit to coming into the trap to reach the bait. Once it’s come through the entry port and landed in the kitchen, it will eat some bait then likely will follow the path of least resistance and crawl up the header (funnel-shaped net)and end up in the parlor area of the pot and be trapped.
Each trap is required to be outfitted with an escape hatch secured with rustable rings so if the pot is lost or the line is cut, the rings eventually will rust and dissolve, allowing the vent to open and expose a much larger opening in the wire. This prevents un-buoyed traps from continually “ghost fishing” where lobsters crawl in and remain trapped until they die.
Once the traps are loaded on the boat, you need to find a place to drop them and start fishing. Lobsters prefer rocky habitat, structure and ledges so look for rocky bottom. Do not encroach on another fisherman’s area and steer clear of commercial gear and trawls, which is a long string of commercial traps marked by a double buoy at the east end and single buoy at the west end. It’s also wise to stay out of high boat traffic areas and popular fishing spots which can result in lost gear when it gets run over and cut by a propeller. Lobster buoys can be difficult to see
by fishermen and boaters running between dusk and dawn. You don’t want to cause a hazard to navigation.
Traps can be checked as often as you like but should be checked and re-baited at least once a week. Bait deteriorates much more quickly in the warm water of summer and may need to be changed twice a week to be effective. It lasts much longer in the spring and fall when the water is cold.
YotPots come rigged with the aforementioned 50 feet of line so be sure of your depth and consider the tide before you drop the pot over the side. If your depth finder marks 48 feet but it’s low tide, the buoy will be underwater at high tide. Strong current also will pull a buoy under the surface if you don’t have enough line out.
When tending your pots, you are required to visibly display your buoy color scheme on your vessel, commonly done by displaying a buoy painted the same as your pot buoys. Some people fit the painted buoy with a stick or dowel and insert it in a rod holder while tending their traps.
Checking pots is pretty simple. Just ease up to the buoy, on the windward side, so the momentum of the boat will help you pick up the slack. Reach over with a boat hook or shepherd’s hook and grab the line. Pull the buoy in and begin pulling the line, hand over hand, being careful not to get your feet tangled in the line, until the pot is at the boat. Then pull it up onto the gunwale or deck and see whatcha’ got.
You hauled your first pot and there’s a lobster in it. Being very careful of the claws, you can reach in and grasp it firmly by the top of the tail, behind the top shell. You also can use tongs to remove lobsters from the trap. Inspect your prize to determine if it’s legal or not, and if so, band the claws, put it in a livewell or in a cooler on ice to keep it cold. Banding the claws not only protects you, it also protects your catch. Lobsters can be territorial, especially in a livewell, and will fight, the stronger ones often twisting the claws off the weaker ones.
Like any sport or pastime, there’s a learning curve, so don’t expect to limit-out on your first trip. You may not limit-out at all during the season but if you’re catching lobsters, you’re doing it right. If you’re pulling your traps and finding nothing but spider crabs, you’re likely fishing muddy bottom and it would be wise to change the location of your pots.
Incidental gear you may want to consider is pair of rubber gloves and Ketcham’s accessory pack, which includes a bander (for securing the claws closed) rubber bands and a measuring gauge, which is necessary to determine keepers from undersize lobsters which must be released. Lobsters are measured from behind the eye socket to the back edge of the front shell (the “carapace”, 3 3/8 in. minimum for Southern New England and Cape Cod — H.K.).
Egg-bearing females also must be released along with any lobsters bearing a “V” notch in a tail flipper. Commercial fishermen are required to mark egg-bearing females with the V notch, which protects them from harvest through several moltings of their shells. A tote hook comes in handy for reaching pots from boats with high gunwales. Pots should be handled firmly and carefully to prevent damage to your boat’s gelcoat and other surfaces. A board fitted over the gunwale can help protect it from chips and scratches.
Once you get the hang of it and start hauling traps with lobsters inside, you’ll be hooked. Like the saying goes, “give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and he’ll spend thousands of dollars on a boat, gear and tackle to catch a $25 meal.” The same goes for lobstering. It’s a lot of fun for the whole