Every July, visitors descend on the Keys and other Florida destinations to join locals in a big, annual summer event, and they’re all bringing tickle sticks. Frankly, this is not the best time of year to be a Florida spiny lobster.
Tickle sticks are tools of the trade used by recreational divers to induce these lobsters out of hiding and eventually onto dinner tables. The occasion is Florida’s lobster “mini-season”, annually the last successive Wednesday-Thursday of July. From 12:01 a.m. that Wednesday, the state allows amateurs 48 hours to use pointy sticks to “tickle” lobsters into live capture for private cooking. Mini season amounts to a two-day head start for amateurs before the eight-month commercial season begins in August. Commercial harvesters are allowed to lay traps August 1 every year and begin retrieving them August 6.
Recreational lobster diving is regulated as strictly as commercial trapping. Traps are not permitted during mini season; recreational divers may use only scoop netting and tickle sticks. Spearing Florida lobsters is not permitted any at time of year. Other regulations are in place as well, including strictly enforced limits on daily harvest limits and a minimum size of 3-inch carapace allowed for any capture.
Florida spiny lobsters are odd-looking critters with hooked eyes, long antennae and a sharp spiky backs that live off the Keys and around the southern tip of the Sunshine State peninsula.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.
Experts agree that August through the end of December is the best time for catching the lobsters, as the crustaceans congregate during those months in the warm, shallow waters. As the winter chills in, the spiny lobsters head into deeper waters.
Lobster season draws thousands of people to Florida each year for the thrill of the hunt—not that it’s that much of a hunt. Locating your catch is the most difficult pert. You can do that by snorkeling or diving into the ocean or bay and looking in coral ledges, under rocks, into reefs and grass. Then,using the tickle stick, you lightly “tickle” them so they scoot into your waiting net.
Lobster seekers must obtain a recreational saltwater fishing license and with an additional lobster stamp from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. If you’re diving in the Florida Keys in Monroe County or in waters off Biscayne National Park, you’re allowed to take home six lobsters a day. If you’re elsewhere in Florida, you may take home 12 each day.
Beginning in 2015, recreational divers can earn the right to take home up to one additional lobster each day. The extra lobster is reward for helping the state rid waters of lionfish, an unchecked invasive species that bad for the local underwater habitat.
OK, so once you get your lobsters, what’s next? 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.
If you’re not experienced at preparing lobster, be careful not to overcook. An average-sized lobster is 16 to 20 ounces and will take no more than 10 minutes on the grill. Undercooked is preferable to overcooked.