Florida has, as one of its many resources, the spiny lobster, panulirus argus. These clawless lobsters are known as crawfish or “bugs” to the locals. Each year, the lobster season runs from August through March with a special two-day “recreational” season in July.
Boaters and divers from all over the southeast United States make an annual trek to the Florida Keys for the August opening of lobster season. Traffic on US-1 comes to a crawl as trailer toting trucks and cars head for motels and campgrounds.
Years ago, we had a standing reservation at the Sugarloaf Inn on Sugarloaf Key for the first week in August. When we checked out at the end of the week, we left a $500 deposit to reserve a room for the next year. It was that way back then; imagine what it is like now!
I came up with a better and cheaper plan over the years. The traffic down and back, the expense, the hassle – all of it got to be too much.
You need to check the regulations from year to year, as they change frequently. But, one of my favorite places to catch crawfish was in sight of Miami. Across Biscayne Bay, off the tip of Key Biscayne, lies the “finger channels.” It’s a series of flats and channels that separate Key Biscayne from Soldier, Sands, and Elliot Keys. Water on the shallow flats between channels is home to bonefish and tarpon, and at night, it is a favorite haunt for lobster.
Lobster move at night, often many miles. They find a hole or some shelter and sit out the daylight hours in relative safety. At night, they feed and continue their migration to their breeding grounds. They can be found moving across the flats, sometimes very quickly with the tide. With a good light or lights and water less than three feet deep you can catch your limit of bugs in short order. All it takes is the right equipment.
That equipment would be a good bully net. If you took a normal net about two feet in diameter on a pole about ten feet long, you have the makings of a bully net. Simply bend the ring of the net to a ninety-degree angle with the pole. The idea is to use the pole and set the ring of the net right over the lobster. The lobster kicks up and into the net, and you simply lift him aboard the boat.
Underwater lights worked extremely well for us back then, lighting up the bottom without annoying other boaters. I used an old car-top carrier bar with automobile headlights mounted on it. When I got out to the flat, I strapped that carrier under the boat and clipped the leads to a car battery. Presto – instant, lighted bottom.
The easy way to do this was to simply allow the tidal current to take us across the flat in two to three feet of water. We watched the bottom and prepared to work fast, because the current across these flats is very swift. I had to jump in the water numerous times to keep from losing a lobster. I had the bug pinned to the bottom with the net, but the boat was drifting out from under me. Just make sure your partner can crank up and get back to pick you up!
If you plan to look for lobster like this, please remember that a number of nature’s other critters frequent the flats at night. They include stingrays and feeding sharks, and some of the sharks can be enormous.
Within sight of downtown Miami, I have, on many occasions, caught my limit in less than an hour of netting. Back when the regulations allowed it, we would make several trips in one night, with each trip accounting for twenty-four crawfish. Today’s recreational limits are not nearly as liberal.
These tasty bugs are not as sweet as a Maine lobster, and the tail meat is a bit tougher. But, they are my favorite seafood. And, if you don’t think they are very popular, make a trip to the Keys during the first week in August. You will be amazed! Oh, yes, you might want to call ahead now to make your reservations for next year. There may still be a room or two available.
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