How to catch lobsters by hand

how to catch lobsters by hand

When I first discovered a cave full of lobsters spearfishing I was stunned. I never knew you could catch lobsters by hand.

But over the years I learnt where to look, and how I could quickly and easily pull these lobsters out of the cracks and crevices they were hiding in, because they’re absolutely delicious. Eastern rock lobster are also one of the most expensive seafoods in Australia, and a live one will set you back around $80 (around $50 USD).

So keep reading to find out where you can find these lobsters while you’re spearfishing, and how to safely catch them when you do.

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How to catch lobsters by hand

Catching lobsters in the wild is tricky, for two reasons.

First, they’re generally a nocturnal sea creature. Which means that if you’re spearfishing in the day, you will need to search and find their hiding place. Second, they’re not going to go down without a fight. Lobsters can be tricky to wrangle out of the caves and cracks they like to hide in. You’ve got to grab the lobsters firmly with your hand, then pull them out of their hiding places.

Being that most of my experience is with the Eastern Rock Lobster, this guide will focus on teaching you how to catch spiny lobsters like these. But the tips and tricks I share are definitely valid for other types of lobster that you’ll find all over the world. But before we get into the how, it’s important to understand a little more about the lobsters you’re hunting.


Understand the different types of lobster

You’ll find there are many different types of lobster around the world, all widely commercially fished for their meat.

In the United States, the most common is the Maine Lobster, which has a hard shell and two large claws. In Europe, they have a similar clawed lobster. Though these are a little smaller and have a distinctive blue shell. Spiny lobsters are found in warmer waters all over the world, and have developed spines on their shells as they lack claws for defense.

Though the exception to this rule is the South African Lobster, a spiny cold water species that’s also clawless.

Here in Australia, the most common lobster I’ve caught is the Eastern Rock Lobster. It’s clawless, with a green spiny shell. Chefs often call this one of the most delicious types of lobster in the world. You’ll also come across the Painted Ornate lobster, which are found all over the tropics, however in Australia they’re generally small. On the other side of the coast you get the Western Rock Lobster, which is one of Australia’s most valuable seafood exports. Sometimes you’ll even come across the Southern Rock Lobster, which has a more reddish shell.

lobster hiding under rock

All the parts that make up a lobster

In order to master the art of catching lobsters by hand, it’s important you know all the different parts of a lobster. And how they behave underwater too, as this will give you an edge when you’re spearfishing.

  • Antennae. Like a length of wire, these two antennae stick out and are what lobsters use to “feel” what’s happening around them.
  • Horns. Where the antennae connect to a lobsters head are two spiky horns. You can grab the horns to pull a lobster out of a hole.
  • Eyes. With a 180 degree field of view, lobsters generally have poor vision. Recognizing shadows and fast movements before they flee.
  • Carapace. This is the “body” of the lobster, and while covered in spines one of the best places for you to grip as you catch them.
  • Legs. There are 5 pairs of legs on a lobster, that’ll grab you as you pull them free but generally don’t do more than scratch.
  • Tail. Their tail allows them to flip and shoot backwards fast escaping a predator, and has spines that will slice open unprotected fingers.


Can a lobster bite me?

In the traditional sense, no. Lobsters don’t have teeth that are capable of biting you. Instead, lobsters have what’s known as a gastric mill. Which is almost like a set of teeth in their stomachs they use to grind up their food. But that doesn’t mean that lobsters are safe to handle.

Spiny lobsters are (as you would imagine) covered in spines, which are incredibly sharp and can do quite a bit of damage to your unprotected hands. You want to be especially careful of the tail as these have larger spines and as the tail closes shut these spines all close and pinch together. I still have a scar from my first lobster catch, that required 6 stitches to close.

If you’re dealing with a clawed lobster, that doesn’t mean you’re safe either. They’re capable of exerting 100 pounds of pressure per square inch in their claws, which is more than enough to break a finger. So be extra careful if you’re trying to grab hold of one of these lobsters!


How you can catch lobsters by hand

Just about every marine environment is going to have some type of lobster around. They play a vital role in a healthy reef, and I’ve found them in everywhere from just a few feet of water to well over 100 feet deep. The trick, is knowing where to look, and where they might be hiding.


Where do lobsters like to hide underwater?

Where I had the most luck lobster hunting was along the reef. On the mid-north coast of NSW where I grew up in Australia, you would find lobsters hiding in and around the reefs and headlands. You’ve got to work to find them though, diving down and searching for the cracks and caves they may be hiding in before you can reach in and grab them with your hands.

Just remember, these hiding spots the lobsters are in may not be visible from the surface. You need to investigate everything.

What looks like an ordinary rock could well have a space underneath for two or three lobsters to shelter. So make sure you get in close, and take a proper look around. I know, the first few lobster hunts are going to be frustrating until you get an idea of where the lobsters like to hide. You’ll likely also need to cover a lot of ground until you find them. But once you do, you can be pretty certain they’ll always be lobsters in those holes (or areas) in future dives.

In my local spearfishing spots, there are a few places I always like to check. Lobsters do move around, and depending on the tides, the moon, and even the water temperature they’ll not always be in the same place. But I’ve found that more often than not, they’ll be in the same spots.

eastern rock lobster how to catch

My first experience catching lobsters

I still remember the first time I discovered a cave full of lobsters. I’d heard from the older guys that you’d find them in among the weeds and the reef, but for the longest time I’d never seen one myself. But when I spotted the tell-tale antennae sticking out of the rocks, my heart skipped a beat.

Dick diving down down for a quick look, I could see a massive lobster just sitting there. With another three in deeper behind it.

Now at this point in my spearfishing career, I had zero gear. We were kicking around on the reef with a pair of cheap snorkelling fins, a pole spear, and a mask and snorkel. It wasn’t the best spearfishing equipment, but being just 15 years old, it was what I was working with. But what I wasn’t prepared for was just how sharp the spines were on that lobster. He didn’t have a lot of space to disappear into his hiding spot, but getting him to the surface was tough.

His head was covered in spines, and as I reached around with my hand I felt the smoother tail at the back. Thinking it was safer, I grabbed his tail hard to pull him out. And that’s when I realized my mistake. Grabbing my first lobster by the tail, once he was free from the rocks he started flapping his tail to get free. Trouble was, my pinky finger was right in the way of all the spines on the edges of his tail, and it sliced it open. I needed 6 stitches on that one.

I wouldn’t recommend anyone try to catch lobsters by hand without a decent pair of spearfishing gloves.


Spearfishing gear to catch lobsters by hand

Before you go following in my footsteps, there are a couple of pieces of spearfishing gear that’ll help you when you’re hunting for lobsters.

Now, the lobsters we’re generally hunting are covered in spines. It’s their natural defense, and your hands will suffer if you try to grab one. Especially if you’ve been in the water for a period of time and your skin has softened up. You need a good pair of spearfishing gloves to catch lobsters. This is critical. The ones I like are Akona’s All ArmorTex :

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Next, you’ll need a way to see them. A small underwater flashlight can help you to quickly scan to the back of a cave to confirm if there are any lobsters hiding inside. Plus, the eyes of a lobster are generally pretty sensitive to light. They live in dark caves after all. What I’ve found is that a bright torch light can disorient them, momentarily stunning a lobster while you’re reaching in to grab it. Get yourself a flashlight for spearfishing like the Orcatorch D710:

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Depending on the rules in your area, you may also benefit from using a snare or a lobster hook to pull them out from under the rocks. Where I typically spearfish in Australia you’re only allowed to catch lobsters by hand (either bare or gloved), without the use of additional gear.

But if you’re in an area where it’s allowed, a small fish gaff helps immensely. You simply slide it in alongside them, and use it to push the lobster closer to you so you can grab it. Alternatively, you can aim for the joint where the carapace meets the tail and spike the lobster, and just pull out out. The gaff I’d recommend is:

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Finally, you’ll want somewhere to store the lobsters you’ve caught, so you can bring them safely back to shore. I’ve got one of these net bags connected to my floatline and I love it. You can open it with one hand by squeezing the handles, and quickly and easily slide your lobsters in. You actually want one like this that isn’t all mesh, otherwise you’ll struggle as their legs get tangled in the netting on their way into your catch bag. Simply slide them in tail first and you’re good to go.

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Oh, and don’t forget a way to measure your catch. You measure a lobster from the rip of its head (just between the biggest horns) to the base of the carapace, and there are strict regulations in place to prevent any undersize (sometimes even oversize) catches. Get it wrong and you’re up for hefty fines, so make sure you’ve got a way to accurately measure any lobsters you’ve caught.

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Should I use a snare for catching lobsters?

Similar to the hook that many people use when lobster hunting, a snare works in a similar manner. It’s a length of metal, but instead of a hook at the end there’s a loop of cord. The idea here is that you slide the loop back behind your target lobster while keeping it distracted on your hands. As it gets startled, the kicking tail passes through the loop of the snare, and it gets tangled in the confusion as it tries to escape. Because it’s swimming away from you, while you’ve got hold of the snare.

Personally, there’s only been a few situations where I wish I had a lobster snare, I find that a hook is actually easier to use as there’s less chance it’ll slip off once I’ve got a lobster on the end of it. You’re almost guaranteed to get it to the surface.


Learn to Hold Your Breath Underwater for Longer


What’s your plan to catch the lobster?

Once you’ve successfully found a lobster hiding in a cave, it’s important to plan out your attach. The lobster won’t be going anywhere, so regain your composure, take a breath, and do an investigation dive. This is the most important part when you’re trying to catch lobsters by hand. As you need to figure a few things out:

  1. How deep is the cave they’re hiding in, and if you’re able to reach the back of it.
  2. Any possible escape routes, like a big opening, or a second hole out the back.
  3. Which is your target lobster, as often you’ll find two or three hiding in a hole.

If you’re looking at a deep hole, or one that’s quite wide and gives your target lobster an easy escape route. You’ll have to move in fast and confidently to grab hold of the lobster before it can retreat our of your reach. It’s surprising just how fast they can move with a few quick flips of their tail, and the distance they’ll cover to escape. If you’ve found a lobster in a smaller hole with nowhere to go, you can afford to take your time before trying to grab it.

What I also scan for is anything else that’s hiding in the hole. Eels are common and will bite at intruders, and where I spearfish it’s common to find carpet sharks (tassled wobbegongs) at rest under these caves too. So look around. One sign that a lobster may not be alone in a cave is it’s antennae. If only one is pointing forward and the other in another direction, that’s a good sign there’s something else in the cave the lobster is paying attention to as well. Try to figure out what that is, before sticking your hand in.

Once you’re nice and calm, and have a plan of attach, it’s time to make your move.


What I do to catch lobsters by hand

After taking a breath, I dive down into position. By this point I’ve already unloaded and dropped my speargun, as it connects with a towline to my dive float. This allows me to have both hands free. With my left I generally grab hold of a rock or the side of the cave to anchor myself, and then creep my right hand forward.

Once I start getting closer to the lobster, I try to get its attention focused on my left hand while my right moves behind it. Some lobsters are extremely inquisitive and they will come forward, investigating your outstretched left hand with their antennae as they try to figure out if you’re a threat. It can be tempting to try and grab at the antennae at this point. Don’t do that. A lobster’s antennae is fragile, and will break. What you want to aim for is where their antennae connect to their carapace. The base of their horns.

Just be quick, trying to catch lobsters by hand requires a bit of practice. And when they get startled, they will shoot backwards. I’d say 9 out of 10 times, they’re able to flip backwards before I can grab them with my left hand. But that’s why I’ve moved my right hand back. Because they’ll swim right into it, and if I can, I’ll grab hold of their carapace.

If not, I’ll try to pin it to the rock so I can move forward with my left and grab the base of the horns. But they will fight you. Their legs will grab hold of the rocks, and it can feel like you won’t be able to pull it out at all. But here’s the trick when you’re trying to catch lobsters by hand. You can break it’s grip on the rocks with a forceful “push-pull” movement. And then you should be able to easily pull it free. Once it’s out of the cave, hold tight and get back to the surface, and get it straight in your catch bag.

Then it’s off to find another lobster to catch.

how to catch lobsters by hand

How to catch lobsters by hand at night

Catching lobsters at night is a surreal experience. The water and the whole feel of the environment changes once the sun sets. Lobsters are nocturnal creatures, and the best time to find them out in the open is during the night. Because they’re roaming out on the sand flats and sea floor, it’s much easier to see them.

If you’re looking for lobsters at night, the best way is this. Sweep your flashlight over the bottom, staying several feet above the sand. You can quickly cover a lot of ground, and it won’t be long before you find your first target. You’ve got to be quick though. In the open, it’s quite hard for you to catch lobsters by hand.

Because they have 180 degree field of vision, ideally you want to approach a lobster from behind. That way there’s a chance it doesn’t see you coming. Because once they try to escape, they’ll flip their tails and they’ll quickly be out of reach. What you want to do is pin it to the bottom before it realizes what’s happening. I’ll approach quickly with my right hand outstretched, pressing down while trying to get a grip. While quickly bringing my left up to secure it.

eastern rock lobster at night spearfishing

Don’t forget the rules and regulations

It goes without saying that you should always abide by the rules and regulations of your local fisheries. There are certain catch limits, sizes and seasons for lobster too.

Do your due diligence and know the current regulations before you go spearfishing. In general, there are certain periods of the year where you might find its off limits to catch lobsters by hand. You may also require a special permit for the area. In addition to only taking appropriately sized lobsters, it’s a good practice (and often a legal requirement) to return any with eggs to the water as soon as possible. That’ll ensure there are lobsters around for generations to come.

Where I go spearfishing in New South Wales, Australia – the following regulations apply (current as of May, 2023). Please do refer to the department of fisheries for the most updated information, as the rules do change. In August 2022, the daily bag limit for all lobsters in NSW was increased to a total of 3. That’s Eastern Rock Lobsters (Sagmariasus verreauxi) or Southern Rock Lobster (Jasus edwardsii).

You also need to know the following rules in New South Wales, Australia:

  • Minimum carapace size of an Eastern Rock Lobster is 10.4cm (with none over 18cm)
  • Minimum carapace size of a Southern Rock Lobster is 10.5cm (female), and 11cm (male)
  • Tropical Rock Lobster (Painted and Ornate) has no minimum size, but a daily bag limit of 2

And finally, and this is critical. Any lobsters carrying eggs must be immediately returned to the water.


Wrapping up our guide to spearfishing for lobsters

Catching lobsters with your hands takes practice. And with a little time and a little luck you’ll quickly get the hang of it. What’s important is to know where to look and to equip yourself with the right spearfishing gear. Practice your technique so you don’t spook your prey and send them running.

Once you know what to do, you’ll be surprised how easy it is to bring home fresh lobsters for dinner.


Learn to Hold Your Breath Underwater for Longer


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