Miles from shore floating gently along glassy water, a soft breeze rustling the dive flag and maybe a cold beverage in hand. It's as beautiful a place as I have ever seen and a treasure of my home state. The Florida Keys – is unlike any other place in the United States. Less than 100 miles from Cuba and even closer to the Bahamas. Twice a year this place explodes with activity as fisherman from far and wide partake in the annual lobster season.
Florida’s lobster season is a popular recreational sport in part because all you really need to be effective is a mask and snorkel. Of course it helps to have a few extras like fins, a “tickle stick” and take it from me, a good pair of armored gloves. The reason for the gloves is not obvious, unless of course you don’t have them. Then it can be painfully obvious! My first year down I experienced what grabbing a handful of sea urchin spines feels like.
Three to five miles off shore you find yourself in only ten to fifteen feet of water. And what water! Crystal clear, you can see coral with ease from fifty yards away.
Florida lobster, also known as spiny lobster are not true lobster. They do not have claws and they are actually more closely related to crawfish that we find in states like Louisiana. The tail meat is very firm. Spiny lobster inhabit all of the Florida Keys and Bahamas. Found nestled in holes in coral or congregating under large ledges created by corals or limestone shelf. They also may seek refuge in artificial cover such as sunken boats, or in some cases debris placed purposely on the ocean floor to attract them, a practice which is now illegal including the harvesting from such structures. During the day the lobster hide but at nightfall they leave their hiding spots in search of food.
To catch Florida lobster you must find where they are hiding. A telltale sign will be their large antennae sticking out from coral or holes along the ocean floor. More often than not however where you find coral, you will also find lobster. The process of capturing the lobster starts with getting the lobster out of the hiding spot. Many people grab the antennae in an attempt to pull them out, but like many animals they have no qualms about letting go of a body part to save themselves. Instead using what is called a tickle stick, you can poke and prod the lobster to coax them out.
Once out lobster use their tails to jettison backwards and can be quite fast for a short distance. You can use this to your advantage by placing a net behind the lobster, then using your stick to cause the lobster to retreat directly into your net! It can be very exciting albeit exhausting. If you have any young kids around, they can come in handy. When you arrive on a suspect spot they are promptly thrown out of the boat to investigate while the adults tend to their cold beverages!
As an ingredient Florida lobster can be treated much like our northern true lobster. Popular preparations such as butterflying and broiling the tail work equally as well. Served with drawn butter you won’t find many complaints! They are however more firm, having a texture similar to shrimp when cooked. When harvesting your own fresh lobster you have the opportunity to utilize the head and body for stock. From there any number of dishes such as lobster bisque or seafood chowder are possible.
For a completely different experience look east towards the Bahamas. Spiny lobster is a very popular ingredient and preparations often are centered on the famous jerk seasonings and African spice influences that Bahamian food is so well known for.
For information on dates of the Florida lobster mini season and regular season, as well as regulations refer to http://myfwc.com/fishing/saltwater/recreational/lobster/ and please be safe! Keep an eye out for divers, and always use a dive flag to alert other vessels of divers in the water.