All that stuff I posted over the previous weekend about scuba diving was inspired by one annual event that is about to take place here in Florida…Lobster Mini Season. It’s also known as the Sportsman Season and a few choice other names by those who have to deal with the mobs of people hitting the water, but in essence, Mini Season is an annual 2 day event held the last Wed. and Thurs. in July when the average non commercial fisherman has a chance to go out and catch lobsters before the commercial boats head out and set their traps. This year, Mini Season occurs on July 25th and 26th, the two days following this post.
Mini Season has it’s own unique sets of rules and regulations regarding how one goes about catching these elusive but tasty critters, how many you are allowed to keep at any one time, and how big they have to be in order to keep them. While Mini Season happens all over Florida, no where is it more popular, and no where does it bring in more crowds, headaches, and money, than in the Florida Keys. Mini Season is a major boon to the local economy with patrons coming into the islands by the thousands along with their credit cards. Hotels are booked solid, bars and restaurants are filled, and dive shops are busy with gear sales, rentals, and running boat trips out to the reefs. And as you might expect, with the crowds are all the headaches, heavy traffic, on and off the water, inexperienced boaters, poachers, drunks, along with general chaos and mass confusion. For some, it’s a major holiday, for others, a week of long, hard hours. For those of you up north, you can equate it to the opening of deer season, only wetter, but with the same amount of gunfire. The bottom line though, is of course, the money it brings in. For a lot of dive businesses, a busy Mini Season can be the difference in a profit or loss for a year. So despite all the downsides, the crowds, the noise, the traffic, everyone buckles up and does their best to make the most of the event.
Already the islands are packed with people. The weather looks to be good with no major storms coming in. It’s unknown how strong a season it will be in terms of how many lobsters are out there for the plucking but we will find out soon enough. By the weekend it will be all over and you’ll see lots of stories of people who got their limits, some who decided to ignore the limits and got caught, and a rundown of those who made the headlines by virtue of their inability to operate a boat, dive safely, or hold their liquor. If you have never been down here for Mini Season and are wondering what all the fuss is about, here are some answers to your questions…
Firstly, let’s take a look at the star of the week, the Florida lobster. A cousin of it’s more famous relative up north, the Florida lobster is a crustacean that lives at the bottom of the ocean. It has a hard shell, antenna, lots of little legs, but unlike the northern version, Florida lobsters have no claws.
As you might expect, Florida lobsters are harvested for their tasty meat. Because of the lack of claws, the only edible part is the tail. The meat is not quite as sweet as the northern lobster but every bit as tasty. An average size Florida lobster will yield a tail’s worth of meat weighing about a pound or two. There are tons of ways to cook lobster tail ranging from salads to pizza and everything in between. But personally, I prefer to just drop the tails in some boiling water mixed with red apple vinegar, and some garlic. Cook about 9 minutes and serve with some corn on the cob, garlic bread, maybe a conch fritter or two, and a slice of key lime pie to top it off. Pure Keys cuisine.
Lobster tails will become available for sale in grocery stores and in restaurants when the commercial season kicks into high gear and depending on the economy and the harvest, they can fetch up to $25 a pound or better. As for going out and catching them on your own, factor in the cost of getting out there along with the gear needed, and all the other expenses, and you are probably paying well over $100 a pound to catch them yourself. But, that is not the point. It’s the thrill of the chase and coming back to the dock with a nice mess of lobster tails that you can cook up and eat that same day. So how do you catch lobsters if you ain’t a commercial fisherman?
Florida lobsters live on the bottom of the ocean. During the day they hang out anyplace where there is cover, under rocks, ledges, in holes, and just about anything else where they can hide from predators. During the night they come out and crawl around looking for food. Commercial fisherman are allowed to set out traps, large crate like boxes with an opening in them. They are dropped off all over the place on the bay and ocean sides of the Keys. You can see them because they are marked with little round buoys.
A quick word of warning. It is illegal and highly dangerous to rob, disturb, or otherwise interfere with a lobster trap. Assuming you survive the ass beating and shotgun wounds, you’ll probably get fined and do some jail time too. Stay away from commercial traps.
Anyways, the lobsters in any area where these traps are dropped will naturally go and crawl into them for hiding. All the commercial fisherman has to do is come by on a regular basis, pull up the traps, empty out the lobsters onto the boat, and re drop the trap back in the water for the next batch.
But if you are not a commercial fisherman, then catching these tasty critters is a totally different business. For the average non commercial fisherman, the only legal way to catch a lobster is to go jump into the water and grab the little critter, by hand. No traps, no hooks, no gaffs, no loops, no lures, no nothing else allowed.
Well, almost nothing else. You are allowed to use the following items in order to catch lobsters by hand: a tickle stick, which is a long thin stick that you are allowed to use to stick in a hole or under a rock to coax a lobster out in the open so you can grab it. It’s unadvisable to stick your hand into a hole where you believe a lobster may be hiding. There may be other critters in there. The type that bite you, sting you, or eat you. Things like sea urchins which are big balls of sharp spines, eels which bite, and sometimes other things. Once I went to reach under a ledge to grab a lobster and nearly grabbed a handful of 4 foot nurse shark. It swam off quickly, more startled than mad, and I quickly swam in the other direction. I could hear the lobster laughing behind me. Smart ass little bastard.
Lobsters have a hard shell and on their shells are lots of little sharp points. So, you’ll need a pair of thick heavy gloves to grab them with. Grab one without gloves sometime, and you’ll have a very sore hand for a week or two. Again, I know this from personal experience. Lobsters are not particularly fond of being grabbed so they will squirm and fuss to get away. All those pointy bits act like little saw blades on your bare skin, so hence, the need for gloves.
Next on your list will be a lobster measuring gauge. Lobsters have to be a minimum size in order for you to legally harvest them, and this goes for commercial as well as non commercial fisherman. The body shell which all the other parts of a lobster are attached to must be 3 inches long from the point between the eyes to the joint where the tail joins. The tail itself must be 5 1/2 inches long. Any shorter, no matter how close, and you have to release the lobster back into the wild. The lobster gauge allows you to measure the lobster before you bring it up to the surface. This is very important. On the water law enforcement is very anal about lobster size and they will carefully measure every bug you catch when they pull you over, on and off the water. Get caught with lobsters that are “short”, and penalties are heavy. You’ll read a lot about this in the news. Also, when you catch a lobster, look on the bottom. If you see a big mass of what looks like little red bubbles attached to the base of the tail, those are eggs. If your lobster has eggs, release it immediately. It’s a non keeper.
Assuming you have caught a lobster or two and you are still swimming around, you’ll also need a something to keep them in, rather than try to hold a bunch of sharp squirming critters in your hand. Tossing them inside your wetsuit or swimsuit is not advisable so you’ll need a goodie bag, so named because when everyone sees what you have in it, they say. “Oh goodie!”. A goodie bag is a simple mesh bag with a one handed operated opening so you can open it with one hand and shove a lobster in with the other.
All that gear is known in the Keys as a lobster kit and you can find them for sale everywhere from dive shops to gas stations. They are cheap, about $20 or so and pretty much a necessity if you want to go bug huntin’.
One other necessity, however, is a Florida Saltwater Fishing License with a lobster stamp. Without one of these you cannot legally harvest lobsters in Florida waters. You can get a fishing license at just about any place that sells bait and tackle. Some dive shops sell them too, or if you have planned ahead, you can go online and get one. There are all manner of licenses, for residents, tourists, even lifetime licenses, which is what I have. You absolutely must have a saltwater fishing license in order to go lobstering, no ifs, ands, or buts. Some charter boats have a blanket license that covers the boat and all who are onboard, but if you are going out on your own then every person who plans on going into the water has to have a license.
In addition to size limits there is also a take limit during the Mini Season. In Monroe County, you are limited to no more than 6 lobsters per person per day, on land or sea. This is another common violation you’ll hear a lot about. There will always be some bastard who feels the laws simply don’t apply to them and take dozens and sometimes hundreds of lobsters at a time. In addition to being illegal, it’s hard on a species that is already overfished. Overall, penalties for taking more than the limit, shorts, or egg bearing females, can be very severe and deservedly so. But, people are greedy and selfish and don’t care about the future of a species. All they want is all those yummy tails, to eat, or to sell. Law enforcement does it’s best to keep everyone legal but with the sheer numbers of people on the water during the season, it’s a no win job. Officers will run traffic stops, pull over boats on the water, and in some cases dive in and follow people under water watching what they do. It’s quite the adventure.
In addition to the laws and regulations I outlined above there are other things to consider. There is no diving within 300 feet of any private canal or dock. While in the water you must display a divers down flag either on your boat or with a flag float. And of course your boat must be up to speed on registration, safety equipment and all that. Not to mention that you had better be up on your dive training and in shape to be able to swim around all day looking for bugs.
But at the end of the day, when you are beat up, burnt, scratched, cut, and the bleeding has stopped, when you are sitting at the dinner table with a nice cold rum runner in one hand, a fork in the other, and the cook brings out those delectable tails with all the trimmings, it somehow makes all the money and work you put in worth it. Florida lobsters are a special treat down here and actually catching your own and eating them the same day is something few people get to enjoy.
If you have never had the chance to try your hand at catching your own lobsters you are missing out on one of life’s special pleasures. It’s well worth the expense to try your hand at the Mini Season at least once in your life.