How to Catch a Lobster in Portland, ME
Lucky Catch Cruises promises an authentic lobstering experience.
I’d been chowing down on lobster rolls for a few days in Portland, Maine, and wanted to know more about how the tasty cold-water crustaceans end up on my plate.
The fine folks at Visit Portland Maine arranged for a group of travel writers to tag along on a Lucky Catch lobster cruise. The hour-and-a-half excursion takes passengers into the scenic waters of Casco Bay as commercial lobstermen check their traps and replenish the bait inside them. The route weaves around picturesque lighthouses and islands that were Civil War fortifications.
To begin, we boarded the St. Croix, a 40-foot, 16-passenger lobster boat docked at Long Wharf on the waterfront. Our captain, Brian Rapp, motored slowly through the harbor, passing sailboats and cruisers, and picked up speed as we got into the bay. That’s when the fun began.
The history of Maine’s lobster industry is engaging and long-standing. During Colonial times, lobsters were so plentiful, the well-to-do did not consider them a desirable food. Instead, they were given to prisoners and poor folk, or they were crushed for fertilizer.
Culinary tastes changed, and by the mid-1800s, commercial harvesting began. Little has changed since then. Lobsters are still hand-caught, one at a time, mostly by small operators like Lucky Catch. In 2018, 120 million pounds of lobster were harvested in Maine.
The state’s lobster industry is highly regulated to ensure the sustainability of the species. First of all, you need a license to catch a lobster, and only residents of Maine can get a license. Non-commercial license holders are allowed to set 5 traps for personal use, and they can’t sell their any of their catch. Commercial licenses limit holders to 800 traps.
Lucky Catch operates commercially most of the year and runs passenger excursions from May through October.
“That’s so I don’t get burned out, “ Brian said. He’s a Portland native who was a surfer dude in Hawaii for a few years before coming home to be a lobsterman.
Aboard the St. Croix, our sternman, actually a friendly sternwoman, instructed us to don bright orange rubberized aprons that covered us from neck to toe. She recruited a few volunteers to help fill net bags with small bait fish that are tied inside the traps and replenished as needed.
We made stops at several of Lucky Catch’s underwater traps to see what we could find. Brian knew where they were by the identifiable buoys that marked them. That’s how lobstermen and lobsterwomen keep track of their traps, although some may keep note by latitude and longitude.
Legal-sized lobsters must measure, from eye socket to the end of the body, a minimum of 3 ¼ inches and a maximum of 5 inches. Anything smaller or larger must be tossed back into the water and left to either grow up or continue breeding. It takes 7 years for a lobster to grow to the legal minimum size.
A minimum size lobster will weigh about 1 pound, and a maximum size lobster will weigh between 3 and 4 pounds.
Female lobsters with eggs also must be released. They are easily identifiable by the thousands of tiny black eggs, or roe, under her tail. If she has been caught previously, she’ll have a V-shaped notch cut into one of her five tail flippers, the second from the right. It’s a signal to other lobstermen and lobsterwomen that she’s fertile. If a notch isn’t there, one will be cut before she is sent back to perform her motherly duties.
“We take very good care of our lobsters,” Brian said.
After locating a trap, Brian hoisted it to the boat. The traps are wire cages, rectangular in shape, with cut-outs for small sea creatures to escape. Each trap held a lobster or two, which Brian measured to decide its fate. He’d also caught a few non-lobster sea creatures including a rock crab missing most of its legs. (“They’ll grow back,” he said.) These, too, were returned to their watery homes after we all had a chance to admire them. Thick rubber bands were stretched around the claws of lobsters he kept.
By now we were being followed by a flock of gulls, eager for schnibbles of bait that may have trailed behind. Some coasted patiently in the water, but others hung suspended in mid-air, ready to dive at a moment’s notice.
Between stops, Brian cruised past Portland’s oldest and most iconic lighthouse, Portland Head Light, completed in 1791. We also passed the granite walls of Fort Gorges and Fort Scammel, both Civil War fortifications.
Lobsters harvested on excursions are sold at the end of the cruise. Passengers may buy them at a wholesale price to cook at home, or the nearby lobster shack, Portland Lobster Company, will cook them on the spot. Lucky Catch also will ship.
All this talk about lobster made me hungry. On the way back to our hotel, we stopped for dinner. A lobster roll, of course.
Book your Lucky Catch lobster cruise online.