SAN DIEGO — It was an hour after sunset on the Ocean Beach pier, and Bill Forrey, like dozens of other hoopnetters around him, was poking around the ocean floor, hoping to come up with a lobster.
With the powerful grace of a discus thrower, he tossed his baited, circular net over the pier railing, watched it splash into the surface and slowly sink to the rocky bottom.
Then he waited.
Down along the railing, a novice hoopnetter, accustomed to catching his lobsters by hand underwater, impatiently peered down at the dark swirling sea. "Sure, it's drier and warmer up here," he said, as a wave pounded into the pilings. "But it's not as exciting."
Indeed, hoopnetting, practiced on piers and jetties along the Southern California coast, is a placid sport. Some people might even call it boring. It demands only patience of its practitioners--enough patience to wait for a lobster to accept the net, smell the bait and scuttle over to it.
How long does that take? Forrey, who has been out there often since the season opened Oct. 1, said 10 to 15 minutes, or about half a beer and a walk around the pier.
It's a great time to compare lobster theories, which abound among hoopnetters.
"Bad current tonight," muttered one unlucky netter as he unsnarled a kelp frond from his trap. "They'll never come out in this."
About 350 yards toward shore, another netter showed off his catch after 45 minutes--two big bugs. "It's always good at the change of the moon," he said.
His wife, standing guard over a make-do plastic foam lobster prison, gave an enthusiastic nod. "Maybe we'll get some more," she said. "We can have a lobster feast."
One veteran advised netting for an hour on either side of a tidal change; his neighbor said the only time to net is just after the sun sets. "If you don't get any within two hours, you might as well pack up and go home," he said.
There is scientific evidence in support of the last theory, according to Mark Olsson, a graduate engineering student at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla. He took part in a recent two-year lobster migration study.
"We found that the maximum period of activity occurs right after it gets dark," he said. "On a number of dives, we just sat at sunset and watched the lobsters from a distance. They all hang tight (in a protective crevice or cave) until it gets good and dark, and then they're gone."
After a few hours of foraging for food, they crawl back to their holes, always leaving plenty of time to spare before dawn, when they become vulnerable to big fish and octopus. "They've got to get to cover before daylight. If they don't, they're goners," Olsson said.
He added that lobsters seem to be most active during the dark of the moon, and shy away from the glare of a full moon or artificial lights. But it's easy to find disagreement on the full-moon theory.
"The moon is no problem. It's the swell you've got to worry about," said Jack McCarson of Coronado, 60, a retired civil servant who has been hoopnetting for six years. "If the swell is too big, it'll pick up your net and pull it around. Then you'll never get anything."
It's common knowledge on the pier that lobsters make their food runs in groups, marching across the ocean floor single file. "They're like ants," said McCarson. "If your net isn't near that line, you may not get anything at all. So you have to move around every once in a while."
Forrey, 39, who manages an apartment building near the base of the pier, said that in his first six trips, he netted at least one legal-size lobster--3 inches from the eye sockets to the back of the body shell--every time, and as many as three.
He usually works his net for about four hours, starting just after sunset, but one night he "got obstinate" and stayed until dawn. "Nothing happened after midnight," he said. "But it was real pretty watching the sun come up."
Forrey usually hoopnets with his wife, Debbie, who has been busy researching lobster recipes lately. "The first night, we got two keepers," he said. "Deb and I went home at one o'clock in the morning, boiled up a big pot of water and dropped them in. We celebrated our first lobster catch right then and there, with a lobster dinner."
The odds of catching a legal lobster are fair now, but will certainly decrease as the season progresses and the population is thinned by commercial trappers and sport divers. The season runs through March 18.
"Lobsters don't molt during the season, so what you start with is all you get," said Steve Crooke, a marine biologist with the California Department of Fish and Game. "The bulk of the catch comes early in the season, then it becomes more and more difficult to find a keeper."
Even worse, hoopnetters must often contend with pesky sea lions. They don't normally fancy lobsters, but they do like the bait netters use--mackerel, squid or parts of other fish described by one warden for the Department of Fish and Game as "the most awful, smelly stuff they can find."