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The Florida Keys lobster

When most people think of lobsters, large, bright red creatures from Maine with big claws come to mind. But down here in the Florida Keys we have our own special brand of lobster, called the spiny lobster. It's smaller and there are no claws, but it tastes delicious and these Florida lobsters are in demand by both locals and tourists alike, for some real gourmet eating.

These bobsters are related to crawfish and shrimp, and have very keen radar and very bad eyesight. If you approach a lobster in the water, and it detects you with its radar, it will shoot backwards using its large tail. The tail, by the way, is the part that tastes so delicious. They can actually go pretty fast backwards, which you will discover if you decide to try your hand at lobstering here in the Florida Keys.

Lobstering is very popular, and each year before the full-blown lobstering season begins, there is what we call a lobstering mini-season. During the last consecutive Wednesday and Thursday in the month of July, there is an open season for lobstering, and anyone, including nonprofessionals can come and hunt for lobsters in state and federal waters. In fact, this sport season is designed to provide non-professionals with an opportunity to catch some of these delectable creatures, to give us amateurs a head start on the season, before the big boys get in there. An individual will catch more lobsters during the mini season than the whole rest of the year.

The mini season, or sport season, is so popular that it is very difficult to find hotel rooms in the Keys during this time. You will even have trouble finding a spot in a campground! The Florida Keys are just buzzing with energy during these few days, and it's a really exciting time to be here. Each diver is allowed to take six lobsters per day, and you can't go out at night to get them. The earliest you can get out there is sunrise, and you can stay out until sunset. You also cannot dive for lobsters in John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park during the mini season.

Lobstering isn't really that difficult, and sometimes the lobsters are found in water shallow enough so that you won't need dive equipment. However, although it may be possible to snorkel for lobsters in some areas, you will usually need dive equpment. Lobsters are nocturnal, and during the day they hide under rocks, reefs, caves, and any other structure that will shield them from daylight. Since they are good at hiding, you'll have to scout around under water for them, which is why it's handy to have dive equipment. Look for little underwater shelters, and then look for the lobsters hiding, and sometimes the only thing visible will be just one antenna, so look closely. Scour the area for antennae sticking out, and if you see one, you might get a whole group of lobsters hiding together. So once you've found a little lobster club hanging out under a rock, the next step is to coax them out so you can grab 'em.

Coax may be the wrong word, since what you will be doing is basically poking them out of their hiding places. What you don't want to do is put your arm in the hole to get the lobsters. For one, lobsters have some slick offensive moves that can leave you bleeding. Secondly, the lobsters might have other guests, like moray eels, which can do you some harm with their strong teethy jaws. When you dive for lobsters, you should carry a tickle stick, with which you can poke the lobsters out from their hiding spots for capture. To protect your hands from the spiny horns and the whipping tail, wear some heavy-duty gloves for grabbing the little bugs, as they're sometimes called. Put your catches in a big mesh bag with a drawstring, and preferably a way to attach it to your belt. Don't get it caught on coral as your tickling the lobsters with your probe, though. You can damage the coral and rip your bag, and all your lobsters would get away (remember, they move pretty fast when they want to). Bring a net so you can scoop them up before they get away, too.

And lastly, so that we preserve lobsters population for future generations, bring a measuring device so you don't take lobsters that are too young. If you get caught lobstering without the special measuring device that's sold everywhere in the keys and is very cheap, you'll get fined. What you're actually measuring is the carpace, which is the part of the lobster shell starting between the eyes and back to the hard part just before the tail begins. It's like the lobster's torso. This carpace has to be at least three inches long, or else the lobster is called a short and you cannot keep it. Measure it when you find it, not after you get into the boat. Don't bring any shorts into the boat, or it will look like you're going to keep them if you get boarded by DEC.

DEC will also looking for the required current Florida saltwater license with a lobster (they call it crawfishstamp on it, so get one of these before you go. The crawfish stamp cost just a few dollars above the saltwater fishing license. Here's a short recap of what is required for lobstering in the Florida Keys:

What You'll Need for Lobstering

  • Dive gear
  • Heavy duty gloves
  • Net
  • Tickle stick
  • Mesh bag
  • Measuring device
  • License
Since the patch reefs are full of rocks and coral structure, they are a good place to start your lobster hunt. Check the oceanside of the patches, since you want relatively shallow areas that are next to deeper water. Look for lost of stucture and rough bottom on your sonar if you have it, and you can save time and the coral reef if you do a quick dive to the bottom to check for likelihood of lobsters, before anhoring. If the spot doesn't look promising, you can just zip away to the next spot. On the gulf side, look for holes in the bottom. You might be able to get away with using just snorkel gear in the shallower gulf waters. Holes will appear as patches of brightness, amongst the darker color of the grass on the bottom. Once you have found a good spot, whether it be on ocean or gulf side, throw your anchor overboard, put the the diver down flag, and begin hunting.

Jump in and use stealth, as the lobsters will get nervous if you thrash around a lot. Move slowly and look for antennae. Once you see your lobster, use your stick to tickle his tail, and hopefully he will move forward out of his shelter, thinking something is behind him. He will come out to see what is going on, and that's when you should put your net behind the lobster (remember: they move backwards pretty fast) and tap him on the head with your stick. This will make him propel backwards right into your net-trap. Grab it, keeping him in the net, and whip out your measure stick. Measure the carpace and if it's under three inches, untangle the lobster from the net and set him free for another day when he's bigger. Also, if you see eggs, you must release the lobster. Eggs look like reddish-brown nodules or a dark spot under the tail.

If the lobster is legal size, put him in your net tail first, in case he decides to run for it (which he will do backwards). Don't let everyone else out of the bag while you're doing this! Once you're back in the boat, have a baitwell filled, and dump your guys in there to keep them fresh until you get back to shore. If you do not have a bait well in your boat, use a cooler with ice. Just put the lobsters on ice. Just as you must not filet fish until you get back to shore, you must not separate the lobster tails from the bodies until you get back. That's because if you get boarded by Florida Fish & Wildlife or DEC, they won't be able to tell whether or not your lobsters are legal. The tails have to be 5.5 inches long, by the way.

The bodies of Florida lobsters don't have anything to eat, so you can discard them once you're on dry land. Some people like to keep them and boil them for stock but most throw the bodies back into the water, returning them to nature. Once you've wrung the tail from the body, snap off an antenna and use it to remove the intestinal tract in the tail. Do this by inserting the antenna, large end first, into the underside of the tail. Then pull it out and the thorns on the antenna should grab the intestines. Freezing the tails is easy: just put them in zip-loc bags with some fresh water and freeze for up to six months.

As for cooking the lobsters, they taste great grilled. To prepare them for grilling, use some scissors to cut open the tail, spreading it out so it's a little flatter for the grill. Butter it up, sprikle some spices on it, then fold it up into some tin foil. Grill it for about fifteen minutes, or until it turns bright red and the meat, like cooked fish, is opaque. Dip it in butter and you have a Florida Keys feast.

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