How to Catch a Lobster in the Florida Keys

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Heading out into the mangroves off of Islamorada in a catamaran. (Jo Piazza/Yahoo Travel)

The Smugglers Cove marina buzzes with activity right before lunch as half-day fishing charters chug in with their hauls.

We’re after much smaller fare than the dolphin or mahi mahi being lofted into the air for photos with sunburnt tourists and we don’t have to go nearly as far out into the Intracoastal waters or pay hundreds of dollars to get it.

Today we are looking for lobster in the Florida Keys and if we’re successful we’ll  save ourselves a fair chunk of change on dinner.

January falls in the middle of Florida’s eight-month lobster season (from August 6 through March 31) in the Middle Keys that stretch from Islamorada to Marathon.

Florida lobsters, or bugs as they are affectionately called in the Sunshine State, are smaller and spinier than their episcopalian cousins in the colder waters off of Maine. They have 10 sharp-pointed walking legs, no pincer claws and spines projecting out of their hard shells.

Given Florida’s laissez fare attitude to most felonies, I was surprised to learn that lobster hunting is actually heavily regulated in the state. You’ll need a salt water fishing license, plus an additional lobster stamp on your license. Even then each license-holder can only take six lobsters out of the sea. You can get your license online at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission website. Violations are second-degree misdemeanors and punishable by up to $500 in fines and six months in jail.

You can scuba for lobsters, but many of the juiciest catches are found in just five or six feet of water so a mask, snorkel and fins work just as well as a tank. Lobster charters are all over this part of Florida and can run up to $100 for a morning or afternoon jaunt. We were lucky to have a friend with a wonderful catamaran anchored not far from Islamorada. With a steel drum version of Jimmy Buffet’s greatest hits blasting, eleven of us set off in search of some bugs.

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Lobster aren’t easy to spot. You’ll need to keep an eye out for their antennae moving independently of the long seagrass.

It all starts with a tickle stick and I promise the name of that never stops eliciting a giggle.


The tickle stick is the lobster hunters very best friend. (Jo Piazza/Yahoo Travel)

Tickle stick is a misnomer because I’m fairly certain the lobsters don’t think there is anything funny about what you do to them with it. 

Once you’ve found a lobster in a crevice or underneath a rock, reach behind them to tap them on the tail with the tickle stick. They’ll propel themselves forward in surprise. Throw the net on the sea floor to trap them. You can try to catch them with your bare hands but they’re spiny and they don’t want to get eaten so they will absolutely fight you to the death.


The proud lobster hunter shows off her catch. (Jo Piazza/Yahoo Travel)

Make sure to bring a glove to protect you from those spines. You’ll need it when you take the lobsters out of the net to measure them. The tail technically has to be five and a half inches and the length from the eye to where the shell breaks should be three inches. Otherwise you’ll need to throw them back. 

Pregnant lobsters are also protected by law so make sure to flip them over to see if they have roe (eggs) on their bellies.


Our first catch of the day. (Jo Piazza/Yahoo Travel)


The second catch. (Jo Piazza/Yahoo Travel)

No one person epitomizes the Key West lifestyle quite like Jimmy Buffet. His songs are so ubiquitous in this part of Florida that part of you starts to wonder, “What happens if you live here and you hate Jimmy Buffet?” 

The son of a son of a sailor man once said, “Searching is half the fun: life is much more manageable when thought of as a scavenger hunt as opposed to a surprise party.”

We’d been on this particular scavenger hunt for most of the day. Three hours of searching uncovered no lobsters. Close to sunset we moved about a half mile hoping that the new location would prove more prosperous. One lobster will typically lead you to another lobster since they often migrate in large groups, sometimes 50-strong.

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It had been a long day and some members of our group had simply given up. 


Sunset over the keys. (Jo Piazza/Yahoo Travel)

"Keep hunting our dinner while I drink some beer," yelled my friend Pete, who earned himself the nickname "The Great Indoorsman"on this trip. 

With the light getting low, we were all ready to just buy some damn lobsters when we hit the jackpot—six lobsters hiding underneath one rock, five of which were big enough to keep. 

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Now came the fun part—grilling. To obtain the meat, grab the carapace and the tail and twist to separate them.


The smell of lobster on the grill might just be the perfect end to the perfect day. (Jo Piazza/Yahoo Travel)

"How’d you learn to do that?" I asked our captain.

"YouTube," he replied. 

We covered our lobsters in a simple butter with jerk lime zest and threw them on the small grill on the back of the boat just as the sun slipped beneath the horizon. 


Delicious lobster bites. (Jo Piazza/Yahoo Travel)

Nearby bistros along US 1 were selling the lobsters at a market price of around 23 a lb. By our estimates we ended the day up about $200. Plus, nothing tastes as good as lobster taken right off of the ocean floor. 

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