As long as I can remember, my family has spent our summers in Islamorada, in the Florida Keys. Part of a multi-family tradition begun by my parents and their friends long before I was born, this annual vacation lasted anywhere from one week to one month, and always involved more time spent on the water than on land – fishing, diving, and searching for that ultimate maritime delicacy – the lobster. Though I was born merely Cracker and not Conch (people native to Florida are called Crackers – those fortunate enough to have been born in the Keys are called Conchs), this annual migration instilled in my soul an eternal respect for Mother Ocean and a lifelong lust for Panulirus argus, the Spiny Lobster. This year was extra special for my father, marking his first return to the deep after undergoing open-heart surgery on August 1, 2007. We hoped to herald this anniversary with a bounty of crustacean goodness, so on Tuesday afternoon I traded our island for another and headed south to join my family in pursuit of the wily critters.
The Florida Spiny Lobster differs from its Yankee counterpart in that it has no claws (it uses spines for protection – hence the name) and does not get as large. Sometimes called crawfish or bugs, the creatures are found from North Carolina to eastern South America. Due to seasonal temperature variations in the water, they generally live in deeper (100+ feet) in the northern limits of their range so they are thus hunted mostly from the southern peninsula of Florida to the Bahamas and throughout the Caribbean. Nocturnal, they prefer to hide during the day under coral reefs, artificial reefs, sponges, bridge pilings, wooden bridge bumpers, piers, and under the prop roots of mangroves. From my experience, pretty much anything lying on the ocean floor will do. I have seen hundreds of them crammed inside an old oil drum, under a car hood and entangled amongst discarded engine parts. In the Keys, their meat is so popular it rivals the shrimping industry, and they are regulated from over fishing by a season during which they may be caught – from August 6th to March 31st. This makes it illegal to harvest them during the time when they spawn.
In 1975, a special two-day ‘sport’ season was added, to begin before the regular season, usually the last Wednesday and Thursday in July. This allows recreational fishermen a chance to grab some lobsters before the traps go in the water and has, over the years, evolved into absolute lobster lunacy as the word spread and folks from far and wide began descending on the Florida Keys.
The meat that’s in that tail — that’s better than your mother’s love,” one fisherman said, by way of explanation.
The Sport Season allows for 6 lobsters to be taken, per each person on a boat, per day. Unless a person is under 16 or over 65, a Florida saltwater fishing license with lobster permit is also required. The lobsters’ carapaces must not measure less than 3”, and they must not be carrying eggs. The idea behind this is obvious – this ensures that there will be lobsters next year. Violations of any of the above could result in the forfeiture of anything used in obtaining the illegal lobster, including the offenders’ boat, trailer and vehicle. In years past, the Florida Marine Patrol would set up shop just before Highway 1 exits the Keys, randomly checking the coolers of motorists on their way home. As could be expected, this created a traffic jam stretching nearly all the way down the Overseas Highway to Key West – making the height of season on this island look like a leasurely Sunday drive. While this has not occurred in a number of years, the Marine Patrol as well as Keys locals are still ever vigilant to catching poachers, and we saw a number of boats stopped with their coolers being picked through.
There are also rules as to how the lobsters may be caught. Recreational fishermen are not permitted to set traps, and use a ‘bully net’ and a ‘tickle stick’. A diver (or snorkeler if it’s shallow enough) uses the tickle stick to coax the lobster out from under his hiding spot and into the net. Once in the net, the diver measures the critter and checks for eggs (roe) while trying to avoid being gored by the long spines protruding from the top of its head. Sometimes, the crusty crustacean manages to get in a good jab (long gloves are recommended), forcing the fisherman to let go and giving the lobster a chance to escape. Lobsters swim backwards using their large tails, and they are very fast. There is nothing funnier than watching a hapless diver, encumbered by tank, weights and BC, attempt to swim after a determined lobster scooting into the grass flats (hint – unless the critter stops for some reason, you do not catch them – ever).
Different people have their own spots for searching for lobster, on either the Gulf or the Atlantic side of the Keys. For some reason known only to the lobster gods, my family has always hunted on the Atlantic side. The underwater topography of the sea bottom off the coast of Islamorada typically fluctuates from 20 to 40 feet until one reaches the edge of Alligator Reef, and is covered by large areas of sea grass mixed with things that lobsters hide under such as coral heads, rocks and ledges, along with a smattering of debris such as the aforementioned oil drums and car parts.
For my family, finding these hiding places involves pulling someone wearing a mask and snorkel along behind the boat. This person peers down through the somewhat clear water at the seafloor while holding on to a ski rope or ‘sled’. When he sees a group of rocks or some other viable lobster hiding place, he signals the person on the boat who’s job it is to watch him, while simultaneously letting go of the rope and free diving down to see if any lobsters are present. If the spot is a good one, the GPS numbers are plugged into a computer on the boat, so that the spot may be found the following year. The numbers are also written in a log, with notes like, ”hundreds of lobster, 2001”. If there aren’t any lobsters (and the ‘watcher’ has paid attention so that the boat is not now a mile away but has stopped and circled back to where he dropped off), the process begins anew.
Typically, the day before sport season, everyone goes and checks out their recorded locations so as to best devise a plan of attack for the following day. Some actually camp out, anchoring their boats above ‘their’ honey holes so as to be the first fisherman there once the sun comes up and the season begins. One year, two such enterprising gentlemen awoke to find that another boat had come upon their location as they were sleeping, and were suiting up in preparation to ‘steal their lobster’. The men responded to this affrontation by pulling out their shotgun and sending a load of birdshot across the offender’s bow. Both were promptly taken into custody by a nearby Marine Patrol boat.
There is no way to determine from year to year how successful the lobster hunt will be. According to floridaconservation.org, an average of 51,000 people participate in the two day season, with 64% of them in the Keys. This year, the two boats in our group hit gold on the first day, with my father and I scooping up our limit in less than an hour at two locations that we had numbers for. The second day saw us go to every location in my dad’s log, and then spending hours trolling for new ones, all for naught. Normally, one can see evidence – in the form of broken antennae, churned up sand and frightened juvenile lobsters (shorts) – that someone else has plundered the site before we arrived. But the only signs of lobster life we observed at all came at the end of the long day when Dad attempted to bag the one lone critter we saw who happened to be heavy with eggs (when I realized that he hadn’t noticed this, I was forced to invent a new underwater signal for ‘pregnant lobster’).
Islanders Bill and Carolyn Van Duzer have been participating in the lobster lunacy almost as long as my family and their friends. For the last 15-20 years, accompanied by Ted and Joellyn Reckwerdt, they have headed to Marathon (about 30 miles further down the Overseas Highway from Islamorada), where Bill and Ted get their bounty near the famous Seven Mile Bridge. They did not join the migration this year, but Carolyn was happy to reminiscence with me about years past.
“This is the first year we haven’t gone and I can’t believe we missed it,” she said, laughing. “Ted is out of town so we decided to wait and try after regular season starts, but for the last 15 years, we have gone to Marathon. Bill and Ted don’t SCUBA dive for lobsters, they snorkel, and they have numbers around the Seven Mile Bridge in six to eight feet of water,” she said. She told us that she and Joellyn would sit on the boat while the men dove. “Bill can hold his breath for so long, and he just goes down and gets them – sometimes he can get three at a time on one breath.”
The downside to all of this is that some folks seem to lose all sense when in the presence of these sirens of the deep. In an attempt to capture as many lobsters as possible, they will stop at nothing. Over the years, I have witnessed boat owners cramming their boats with as many people as possible – some of them so old I doubt they even knew where they were – because more bodies = more lobsters. I have seen grown men gamely paddling along in crafts that look more like they belong in our cardboard boat races than out in five-foot seas on the Atlantic. Not to mention what this does to the coral when novice divers step all over everything in sight in their zeal to fill their bags with bounty.
This type of frenzied activity leads to dangerous situations, and every year several would be anglers do not make it home as a result. Carolyn recalled seeing many incidents of ‘boater stupidity’ over the years, and I related how my father typically spends at least 70% of the time cursing about others’ recklessness.
“Last year, Joellyn and I were sitting there in the boat while Bill and Ted were diving and this lady drove her boat so close to ours that she almost cut our anchor line,” Carolyn told us. “I was yelling at her to watch out, scared she was going to run over one of the men, and she looked at me like I was crazy.”
Despite everything, however, for families like ours the two day sport season has evolved into tradition and we can’t imagine the summer without it. I learned to dive in Islamorada’s aquamarine waters, and remember fondly the first year I was permitted to leave my snorkel behind – donning a tank and BC and joining the others at the bottom (the younger kids who had to remain at the surface were called ‘lids’ and it was a rite of passage when one grew old enough to SCUBA). Like the Reckwerdts and the Van Duzers, my family is always careful not to damage the fragile coral, and my father taught me to take only what was permitted. Against the backdrop of many others who were careless, I learned the difference between being a ‘lobster diver’ and a ‘lobster monster’ (as the Keys locals call those who do nothing but pillage and plunder), and this created a bond that will always be present.
After that second day of hunting, after hours spent holding our breath and repeatedly diving to depths of 20 to 30 feet, and finally putting on our tanks only to find one poor pregnant lobster, my dad and I stood on our dock we hosed off our gear. Though exhausted, we were happy, and, like every year, I have never felt so close to him as I did right then. As we trudged into our rented house, my long-suffering mother served us each a goblet of wine. “Next year,” said Dad, his tired, red-rimmed eyes burning with purpose as he tried to raise his glass, “Next year, we’ll get our limit.” Like a couple of drunken sailors, we both then fell promptly asleep – smiles still plastered to our dopey faces.
And that’s reason enough for me.