How to Use a Lobster Trap

How to Use a Lobster Trap

Before you can use a lobster trap, there are a few things that you need to know and do. One of the first things is to know when the lobster season is. On the eastern coast, lobsters can be harvested year-round but most are caught from late June to late December. The reason is that this is the time when lobsters are most active. You can catch them at other times but generally, they will be in smaller quantities. A more specific time to catch lobsters would be during the warm summer months. They are more abundant during this time because they migrate closer to the shore. At this time they often shed their shells. After a lobster ‘molts’, or lose their shells, they are hungry and like to eat and when they are hungry, they seem to be easier to catch. 

When you are a professional lobster fisherman it is demanding, hard, physical work and involves long hours, an unforgiving and unpredictable work environment, and harsh weather conditions. Sometimes, after several hours of trapping lobsters, you will only get a few lobsters.

Different Types of Lobster Shells

  • Soft-shell – the lobsters generally caught between July and late September has this type of shell. These lobsters are not as strong and difficult to transport live. They have less meat than a hard shell lobster so they are cheaper.
  • Hard-shell – they are caught between mid-September and late November. The reason they have hard shells is that they have not started to molt. Their shells are packed with meat and are more expensive. These lobsters do not have room for water inside so they do not make as much of a mess when you crack them open. They also survive better when being transport. They can withstand temperature changes because they were in the seawater longer. The downside of a hard shell lobster is that they are harder to crack open so you have to use a lobster cracker. The meat may not be as sweet as the soft shell crab.
  • Firm shell – these lobsters also travel well and the meat is considered ‘perfect in-between meat,’ which means it has the tenderness of a hard shell lobster and the sweetness of a soft-shell. This lobster lives longer outside the ocean than the soft shell so it is easier to ship them.

Where to Catch Lobsters for a Trap?

A lobster generally lives among the rocks or at the bottom of the ocean but always near the shore. The American Lobster can be found in the Pacific and the Atlantic Ocean and live in big holes in the ocean. They can live in depths of 6 to 120 feet. You can learn more about Lobsters from the NOAA Fisheries website.

There are two main types of lobsters, which include cold water and warm water. The cold water lobsters are the ones that are usually trapped.

  • Cold Water – these are usually caught off the coast of South Africa, Maine, New Zealand, and Australia. They are sweeter, firmer, and more succulent with whiter meat.  This types of lobsters are clawed lobsters
  • Warm Water – these are caught off the coast of Florida, California, Asia, the Mediterranean, and the Caribbean. They have a fishier taste with a soft mushier texture so they are difficult to handle. These types of lobsters are called spiny lobsters.

Two Types of Lobster

  • Clawed Lobster – there are two categories of this type of lobster; European and American. Both types thrive in shallow, chilly water. The European lobsters are often blue while the American lobsters are browner in color but both turn red after they are cooked. They have more meat and are the types mostly found in restaurants. The meat is found in the first set of large claws/legs closest to their head. The tails do not have much meat. The meat is considered the best and sweetest meat of either lobster.
  • Spiny Lobster – this one is usually found in warm waters and is also known as a rock lobster. There are differences in the appearance of the spiny lobster as they have longer antennae. They are also covered in pointy spines to help protect themselves from predators. They do not have the big front claws but have five pairs of legs that are identical. Since they do not have the big claw, most of their meat is found in their tail
types of lobster

Lobster Gear Needed

Clawed Lobster

  • Rectangle lobster traps that weigh between 45-60 pounds and measure 3-4 feet
  • Heavy-duty gloves to protect your hands when you pull the traps up and avoid being pinched
  • A lobster gauge, which is used to measure the shell of the lobster. When measuring your lobster make sure they are legal size. A mesh catch bag to put the lobsters in but it is preferable to use an ice chest

Spiny Lobsters

  • Hoop net, also known as a circular net
  • The bait for these are usually cat food, anchovies, or sardines
  • Underwater gloves that are heavy-duty
  • Lobster gauge
  • Mesh catch bag
  • If you are going to snorkel or dive to catch these lobsters you will also need a tickle stick and a net plus scuba gear

When measuring your lobster, whether clawed or spiny lobster, the measurements need to be properly done. You measure from the eye socket to the bottom of the carapace, or to where the end of the shell meets the tail. It has to be at least 3 ¼ inches but no larger than 5 inches. If the lobster is larger or smaller than these measurements, it needs to be put back in the water. There are generally hefty fines if the lobster is not the right size.

California, the Gulf of Mexico, and Florida are great popular spots to catch the spiny types of lobsters so you need to book your trip three to four months in advance if you are going to trap these types there.

If you are just trapping lobsters as a hobby or something to do while on vacation, you will have to charter a boat if you do not have one. If you know how to operate a boat, you can rent a small boat. If this is your first time trapping lobster, you should charter a boat that specializes in lobster fishing. They will know the best places to trap lobsters and they can handle the boat while you concentrate on trapping lobster. When chartering a lobster boat, they will usually have the equipment you need but check to make sure.

Regulations when Using a Lobster Trap

All those that are lobster fishing must follow these regulations. Check out the Lobster regulations in New York here.

  • They have to be the right measurement.
  • The traps need to have small openings or vents in the parlor selection so the undersized lobsters can escape and the larger ones stay trapped.
  • You need to know how many lobsters you are allowed to catch daily
  • The time limit to trap lobster generally begins at sunrise and ends at sunset.
  • There are also the numbers of lobster traps you can use at one time or if you are going out on a lobster boat, the number you can have on the boat.
  • Know any areas that are considered off-limits to trap lobsters.
  • The traps should also have a biodegradable escape panel that will disintegrate underwater by itself in case the trap gets lost and any lobsters in the trap can get out and will not remain trapped and die in it.
  • You should know the hours that you are allowed to trap lobsters in the different fishing spots and the date you are allowed to trap them.
  • If you catch a female lobster with eggs it has to be put back in the water right away. Before this is done, you have to check the tail for a v-shaped notch. If there is not one you have to put one on the right side of the middle. If you see this notch you have to put it back in the water because this indicates that it is a female breeder, even if she is not carrying eggs. Female lobsters cannot be harvested. The notches will last for several molts of her shell and if you catch one and see a smallish notch, you should notch the lobster again.

Tips for Applying for your Lobster License

Before you can trap lobster, you need to apply for your license. You can get them through a government agency, local docks, and bait and tackle shops. You will have to fill out a form with your age, name, and address. You will have to show a photo ID and describe what activities you will be doing with your license. Some may even ask if you have any experience trapping lobster or using a boat. There is a fee but it can vary based on where you get it. On average, it is around $20. You should apply for your license before you shop for the items you need to catch lobster. The reason is that some stores will ask for your license number or request to see the license before they sell you anything

Some government agencies may require that you pass a small test before you can get the license. Make sure that where you are going to trap lobster that you study up on the rules and regulations before you apply for the license. You do not need a different license for each type of lobster you trap. If you are just going to eat the lobsters after trapping them and not sell them, in Maine, you can get a personal license for up to five traps.

Type of Bait for Lobster

The type of bait you should use will depend on where you are trapping lobsters.

  • Maine – for Cold Water lobster, the best bait to use is salted Herring. You can also use Bluefish, Mackerel, Menhaden, or Cod.
  • West Coast – here you would want to use chum or any type of smelly baitfish.
  • Southern California – here it is Mackerel, whether it is fresh or rotted. It depends on the preference of the one trapping lobster. 

How to Use a Lobster Trap

It is pretty simple to use a lobster trap. They were invented over 200 years ago and have not changed much in design since the 1800s. The only major difference in the traps of today is that they are built using metal or plastic frames instead of wood. The basic design and function have remained the same. Around the frame, there is a mesh that is used to capture the lobster. There are two compartments in a lobster trap. The pot is what is laid out on the ocean floor. The bait is put in what is called the kitchen and the parlor is where the lobster is trapped.

Baiting the trap is simple. You will place a piece of salted or fresh fish in the kitchen compartment in the trap. Normally, the fish bait is put inside a bait bag. This is hung inside the trap. When you put in the bait bag, make sure that it is not too close to the opening because if it is, they will not go inside. You also want to make sure that it is not to close to the sides either. When it is too close to the sides, the lobsters will pick at the bait through the sides, having no real reason to go inside the traps. The bait needs to be in the middle of the trap.

Once all the traps are baited, they are taken out to sea and lowered to the floor of the ocean on a rope with a floating buoy that is marked in some way. The buoy is at the end of the rope. They can be marked with numbers or colored so the fisherman can see them and identify them as his easily. Many times it is required that you attach tags with your license number on it to the trap and buoy along with your initials.

When you were ready to bring the lobster cages up, they were done using ropes. For the ones that are professional lobster fishermen, they generally used a powered pulley to do the lifting of the heavy traps and the fishermen handle the pot and the rope. You could pull in the traps one by one by hand but it is hard, heavy work. 

Because spiny lobsters are found in warm waters, some like to snorkel or dive to trap lobsters. You can do this at any point in the day. Take the tickle stick, your net, and just dive in. You will find them in coral, ledges, and rock areas. When you see one, just use the tickle stick to guide the lobster out of its hiding place with a sweeping motion and use the net to catch them.

Rigging a Lobster Trap

What this means is that when you are ready to trap lobster, you tie the traps you are using together, with the help of a long sequence of rope. The reason to do this is that if you have several traps, it is easier to tie them all together so you will not need to use as many buoys and it will make it easier to keep track of your traps. This is referred to as a string or trawl. The buoy will be attached to the last trap using enough rope so you can see the buoy above the water. Make sure that before you drop your trap(s) into the ocean that you add a 3-5 pound weight to the bottom of the hoop to help make sure that the lobster trap sinks to the ocean floor.

Fun Facts about Lobsters

  • A lobster likes to eat many things like plankton and other little things. 
  • They catch and eat their prey using their heavy big claws. One of the claws is used for cutting and the other one has big thick teeth.
  • If they lose a leg or claw, they will grow back
  • They swim backward to get away from their enemies.
  • The largest lobster caught measured over 3 ½ feet and weighed over 44 pounds.
  • Before a lobster can become legal size to trap, it has to go through at least 25 molts over a 5-7 year period. 
  • Lobsters have a dominant claw, which means that they are left or right-handed like a human.
  • A female lobster will carry 6,000 to 10,000 eggs but generally, less than one percent survives to the minimum size to be harvested. She will protect and carry the eggs for six to eleven months. She fans them with her swimmer flaps to keep them oxygenated.


Learning how to use a lobster trap is not hard, although there are a lot of things that need to be done before you even set them. Follow the rules and regulations and it will be a fun experience, not to mention delicious lobster for dinner that you caught yourself. Don’t forget to melt the butter!

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