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Rock Lobster in the Florida Keys

As summer approaches in the Florida Keys, guests at the Bluegreen Resort, The Hammocks at Marathon are readying their tickle sticks. That’s the name for any long, pointy stick-like shape used to “tickle” the lobster out of hiding, into a net and onto the dinner table.

“You can’t spear the lobster, you tickle them,” says Gary Graves, vice president of Keys Fisheries in Marathon, which supplies lobster and stone crab to Joe’s Stone Crab, Miami’s premier restaurant, and many other international clients. He’s referring to the Florida spiny rock lobster, an odd-looking critter with hooked eyes, long antennae and a sharp spiky back that lives off the Florida Keys and around the southern arm of the Sunshine State.

Rock Lobster in the Florida Keys
The lobsters, referred to as “bugs” and “crawfish” by locals, are related to shrimp, crawfish and other lobsters. The Floridian species lacks claws, but makes up for the sharpness with its pointy back. The spiny lobster’s meat is known for its delicious sweetness, and fans around the globe lay in wait with those tickle sticks until the official lobstering season begins during the summer months. The Florida Keys fishing activity is fun for both lobster novices and lobster veterans, and the commercial industry fills plates far and wide with the spiny crustaceans.

It all kicks off with the “mini season:” a two-day event held annually the last consecutive Wednesday and Thursday in July beginning at 12:01 a.m. on Wednesday and ending at midnight Thursday. This small window allows recreational divers to try their hand at lobstering before the commercial fishermen have set up their traps. It’s a lively couple of days. August is the start of the eight-month season, which runs through March. Keys lobster festivals and a plethora of celebrations are popular throughout the season, and are always a great source of entertainment for Bluegreen vacationers..

Rock Lobster in the Florida Keys
Graves says that August through the end of December is the best time for catching the lobster because they congregate in the warm, shallow waters. As the winter chills in, the spiny lobsters head into deeper waters.

Lobster season draws thousands of people (including Bluegreen owners) to Florida each year for the thrill of the hunt—not that it’s that much of a hunt. Grave says the process is pretty straightforward. “Once you locate the lobster, catching them is not that difficult,” he says.

You can do that by snorkeling or diving into the bay and looking in coral ledges, under rocks, into reefs and grass. “Then you take the tickle stick, basically, and a net and you kind of tickle behind them so they shoot out and they go into the net,” says Graves.

Lobster seekers must obtain a recreational saltwater fishing license and a crawfish permit from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and are limited to six lobsters a day.

Rock Lobster in the Florida Keys
What to do with all those lobsters? Cook them. Or if you’re inclined to avoid the exertion and mess yourself, most area restaurants even boast a BYOL—that’s bring your own lobster—policy: you catch it, they’ll cook it. Our very own Barnacle Barney’s will cook your lobster or any other catch of the day to order.

“We’ve got beautiful water down here, we’ve got plenty of lobster and it’s fun to go down and cook them yourself or have them cooked for you,” says Graves. “It’s a wonderful, wonderful thing.”

Most importantly, don’t overcook your lobster. An average sized lobster  (a pound to a pound and a quarter) will take no more than 10 minutes on the grill. “In Japan and other countries they eat raw lobster and it doesn’t hurt you, it’s actually flavorful,” says Graves. “Undercooked is much, much better than over cooked. Undercooked only requires more butter.”

Restaurants in the Keys, especially Barnacle Barney’s at Bluegreen's resort The Hammocks, are generally happy to accommodate you and your lobsters: You do the hunting, they’ll do the cooking. All you have to do is select the way you’d like it prepared.

When asked how he likes his lobster cooked, Gary Graves, vice president of Keys Fisheries, doesn’t hesitate. “The way we do it and the way I highly recommend it is on the gas or charcoal grill. It’s hard to beat basil butter and garlic. It’s the best.”

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