Divers are lucky indeed if they ever witness a lobster queue, the mysterious mass migrations of Panulirus argus, the Caribbean spiny lobster. Obeying some still-unknown impetus, dozens of the critters form lengthy, single-file formations, like giant crustacean conga lines. They march day and night for many miles, straight as a plumb-line, to keep some lobsterly appointment in the deep. Ah, to ambush such a platoon, catch bag at the ready.
Now, I've never seen a lobster queue, but damned if I'm not in one now. I got in line just south of Miami, after the final stoplight at about SW 10,000th Street where U.S. 1, the Dixie Highway, shakes loose at last from stripmall hell and makes a clean beeline for the Florida Keys. Ahead of me is a truck and a boat, and a truck and a boat, and another truck and another boat, and then a Winnebago and a bigger boat. Can't see past the big RV. Don't need to. I can guess who's in front--King Lobster himself!--and I know where he's going. An estimated 50,000 recreational divers are converging on the Keys for Florida's lobster mini-season, a 48-hour feeding frenzy held on the last Wednesday and Thursday of July, and set to commence tonight on the stroke of midnight.
I've heard it's a war zone down here. That grown men will come to blows under water over a disputed lobster hole. That the tension at the boat ramps builds to such heat that husbands will cuss at their wives and make their babies cry. I've come to find out if these rumors are true and maybe catch a lobster or two. Whichever comes first.
Big Tent Reunion
The boat and the truck in front of me, and the boat and the truck in front of him, are pulling off to the side of the road, and so do I. We're at Mile Marker Six on Key Largo where the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC for short) has set up an educational exhibit under a government-green tent. For some, the FWC tent is a traditional rendezvous point; I see old friends meet again at last, with manly hugs and slaps on the back. The atmosphere is like the outskirts of a Grateful Dead concert, minus the drugs and hacky sack.
In lieu of hallucinogens and endless guitar jams, what the FWC has for us pilgrims are several bubbling aquariums stocked with lobsters--papa lobster, mama lobster, baby lobster (see-through, and no bigger than your thumb, though perfectly formed), and even an albino lobster. Marine biologist Dave Eaken is tirelessly demonstrating the correct way to measure a bug. Lifting his struggling assistant from the tank, he positions one end of a three-inch lobster gauge just so between the creature's two cephalic horns, and shows us how the other end must not extend beyond the carapace and fall onto the tail. If it does, you've got an illegal bug--what's known in the lingo as a "short."
"The great thing about mini-season," Eaken tells me, "is the idea that you can drive down here in an old El Camino with a johnboat in the back and go out and catch a meal that costs 40 bucks.
"Of course, some folks spend a good bit more than 40 dollars," Eaken allows as Darth Vader's own spit-shined black monster truck bulls by hauling a quarter-million-dollar fiberglass toy.
I head for the nearest dive shop, which happens to be across the parking lot, to buy a lobster gauge. Business is hopping inside Divers Direct, one of Key Largo's biggest. Everybody needs lobster toys: nets, tickle sticks, tail snares, gloves, gauges.
Store manager Todd Smith kindly takes a moment to give me the mini-season lowdown from the retail point of view. "We'll do 40 percent of our annual business in these two days," he tells me with a grin. "It's our Christmastime, if you will. Of course, you'll hear some people moan and groan about the crowds. But mostly it's just a good time playing in the water. It wakes people up. Reminds 'em, 'Hey! Let's go diving.' If you catch some bugs, you win."
"Are you going to catch any this mini-season?" I ask him.
He shoots me a look that says, "Are you insane?" He'll be tied up at the store. "Now is there anything else I can do for you?" Mr. Smith queries.
"Um ... a lobster gauge?"
"I believe we can accommodate you," he says, and nimbly dashes around a display case and returns with the item, in matte black plastic, about the size of a pocket comb. "Enjoy," he says with a wink.
Now I have the last tool I need to harvest the tastiest denizen of the deep, the better half of Surf and Turf. In theory, anyway. As Officer Eaken said, it's the "idea" of nearly free lobster that so appeals. In reality, I'm gonna require a 40-foot charter dive boat and a posh resort to dock it at. Best case, we're talking $1,000 for 12 lobster, if I catch my limit both days. In fact, I've never caught a lobster before, but I'm hoping that the gestalt of mini-season will be, as the ad men say, "priceless."
I'm booked the next morning aboard the Sea Fari out of Hawk's Cay Marina. By 9 a.m., we're gliding out past the breakwater into calm seas. It's a postcard-perfect day with towering cumulus clouds mirrored on the water.
I'm prone to mal de mer, so I'm not complaining about a quiet ride to the reef. Still, I might've stood a little more mayhem than I found last night. A little before midnight, I parked at the north end of the bridge at Lignumvitae Channel where boats lit up the bay like a floating city. Because night diving for lobster is prohibited in the Keys, the mini-season kickoff belongs to bully-netters, who hunt the shallows of Florida Bay with 12-volt light rigs and the long-handled "bully-nets."
No bells rang, no starter's pistol cracked, but at the stroke of midnight the tension in the long line of boats waiting to launch seemed to ratchet up a notch. At the water's edge, men worked their boat lines with the intensity of a NASCAR pit crew. At 12:25 a.m., the first boat was back --a couple of scruffy-looking Homestead homeboys with their 12-lobster limit. The game officer congratulated them on their skill, and then got out his gauge. All the bugs checked out legal. I approached the pair with my notepad, but the friendlier of the two declined to be interviewed. "Buddy," he said, "these lobsters ain't news."
Maybe not. But it'll be news to me if I catch one. The Sea Fari has tied up to the buoy at Long Key Ridge and divemaster Joe Hall is briefing the packed boat of 26 divers. In short, there's good lobster habitat all around us, with live rock and reef in every direction, but especially in a long ridge-line parallel to the lie of the boat. A good plan, says Joe, would be to kick up-current until we hit about 1,500 psi, then turn and drift back, snatching bugs both ways. I'm tempted to follow the Zinns, Arlen and Marlene, from Broward by way of Brooklyn, our group's most experienced bug hunters. But they're in the water first and gone in a flash.
Opening day this may be, but the reef is not exactly infested with bugs. Part of the problem is I'm expending most of my energy just flogging myself and my minimal gear--a tail snare and mesh lobster bag--against the three-knot current. Anyway, the water's warm, the vis is good, and the reef is lively with schooling grunt and yellowtail. What's not to like? Wouldn't mind a shot at a bug, though.
And there one is!--at last--tell-tale antennae tips peeking out from under a little ledge. Careful now; don't spook him. I drop to my knees on the sand and slyly insinuate the loop-end of the snare, which doubles as a tickle-stick. He's a big one, all right, but oddly passive. Hello? Boiled or grilled, your decision. I give him a more vigorous goose and out he drifts. Poached! It's a big old dead lobster head, business end already absconded, which explains everything. Drifting back to the boat, I manage to scout out a few more, and discover that the quick are far quicker than the dead. I clamber aboard with an empty bag.
By the end of the second dive, the Zinns have caught their limit. The secret, they say, is just plain thoroughness. Look everywhere. "I saw people swimming right over lobsters," Arlen says. "You gotta look for that vee," says Marlene. "There isn't much on a reef that's straight, except for antennae."
"Look for the little fish," Arlen adds. "You see some coral that's got lots of life around it, there's probably lobster there, too. Plus, I guess we're pretty competitive. I see that vee"--he waggles two fingers above his head, the universal sign of the lobster--"I still get excited."
In second place--if it is a competition--are the D'Angelos, George and George, a father and son team. Nearly every diver has at least a few bugs, and the boat's buckets are brimming with the astonishingly weird creatures--so many movable parts, and yet so perfectly designed for consumption--which are clicking and grunting like little pigs. Even I finally caught a legal bug. Found it, snared it, gauged it and let it go. Well, it was with its wife, and about to become the father of millions. It just seemed like the right thing to do at the time.
So maybe once in a blue moon some fool does right by a lobster. Plenty of times it's just the opposite, especially around mini-season. That's when the aptly named Jason Reiff--pronounced "Reef" (yeah, he knows, he knows)--gets the call. Officer Reiff of the FWC carries a badge and drives a 25-foot, gun-metal gray Mako powered by twin Evinrude 225s.
He's just raised the bimini after ducking through Tom's Harbor Cut Bridge when a call comes in on the radio. A boater has reported suspicious activity aboard a larger vessel, a big green cabin cruiser named the Pequod. Possible over-harvesting. Possible harvesting of shorts. The caller said they were "taking everything."
Speaking of avarice: Yesterday, the first day of mini-season, Officer Reiff busted a guy with 92 tails. Now he scopes the bay with field glasses. Reiff is in his mid-20s, with surfer-blond hair, leonine in his tawny FWC uniform. The boats he watches could be wildebeests dotting the savanna; there are hundreds in view. "Sometimes I don't even know where to begin," Reiff says. But then he guns the motors and roars off toward the nearest boat, throttling down to coast alongside.
"How're ya'll doing?" he asks, tying up to a skiff loaded with four young guys and a girl. "Who's the captain? Do you have your registration? Flotation devices? Any shellfish aboard? Would you open that blue cooler for me, please?"
Everything checks out, except for their dive flag, which doesn't meet the newly minted size requirements. Indeed, almost no one on the bay has the right-sized dive flag, which is a great pretext to start a conversation.
"The hardest crime to stop is multi-tripping"--divers stashing lobsters ashore and going back out for another round--"because there's no evidence aboard. But they know they're guilty. Sometimes you get people talking and they'll admit what they've done."
When talk therapy fails, the FWC lets the dogs out; three highly trained K-9 troopers are working the Keys during mini-season. It's nearly impossible to hide the goods from these lobster-sniffing pooches. Last year an FWC K-9 sniffed out a couple of short tails stashed in a woman's purse under perfumes and powders. And minutes ago, Officer Reiff heard over his radio, Agent Harley, a Chesapeake Bay retriever, "aggressively alerted" on a cooler in the back of a pickup truck in Islamorada. Yep, packed with shorts.
For the next few hours, Officer Reiff, unable to smell a rat like Harley, stops and chats and inspects a dozen boats. Everything checks out legal, and everybody's real friendly--which isn't always the case. "The other day I came alongside a boat. The wife couldn't find the registration. So she sends the daughter over the side to bring up her husband from the bottom. He comes up fuming, pushes his daughter off the ladder and into the water. We're talking about a seven-year-old girl. He's mad as hell--gotta get his limit. It's a tense time for some people. They think, 'This is my hole and nobody's gonna take it.' "
We're almost back to the bridge when Officer Reiff spots the Pequod, hiding in plain sight. Out of the salon pops Mrs. Pequod as the FWC boat draws alongside. Although you might not want to cross her on a golf course, Mrs. P. isn't exactly the criminal element I was expecting. Yes, the officer can come aboard and check the lobster, all 12 of which gauge out legal. By then Mr. P., towel slung jauntily about his shoulders, has joined the discussion.
"We got our limit in a little over an hour," he says. "Now, that boat back there, they've been at it all morning. You've got to figure either they're totally incompetent or they're way over limit by now. And I have to tell you, I was working a hole when one of them swam up and practically assaulted me. He definitely was making threatening gestures with his tickle stick."
Dutifully, Officer Reiff pays a call on the little boat down-current, where three dive buddies reassert their claim that the Pequod is crooked. Like water off a duck to friendly Officer Reiff. Registration? Flotation? Lobsters on board? The dinghy captain shows his bugs and measures them with a metal gauge as Reiff observes.
"You didn't get into the whole he-said, she-said thing with them," I comment as we drift away, no feathers ruffled.
"No point," says Officer Reiff. "Nothing could be proved. Besides, did you see that guy's lobster gauge? Those metal ones aren't cheap. I've got to respect that."
In the waning hours of the evening, I drive back to Lignumvitae Channel to watch the sunset and the last legal divers of this year's mini-season straggle ashore. By all reports, diving the bridges is pretty advanced stuff. There's only a brief slack tide, and then the current whips up to around 10 knots. I've seen one diver wrap his float around a pylon--not a pretty predicament--and another kicking toward his anchored boat and making zero progress. He barely had the breath to cuss his wife, who was tugging on the anchor line with all her might.
Tricky as it is, divers are still emerging from the water elated, catch bags twitching with bugs. One guy comes dripping across the parking lot asking everybody, "Are you Henry David Smith? If you are, I've got your net and your bag, and there's still one lobster in it." Who is Henry David Smith, and what fate befell him? We'll never know. Call him the Unknown Bug-Hunter, and let the red canvas bag be his monument.
Yeah, it's a war down there. And all the rumors of skulduggery and greed are true, too. Sort of. Truer, though, are the older verities of the Keys: this gorgeous sunset commencing, the endless views of ocean and bay from this bridge. Soon the Milky Way will heave into sight, making a grand show of phosphorescence in the sky. A warm breeze will blow, carrying the musk of salt and fish and possibly conch fritters. You don't need a 10-legged excuse to come down here--but it doesn't hurt either.
On my way to the car I pass a last tableau: car, boat, woman, man, and two boys of about Little League age. "How'd you do?" I ask. It's the universal passport to a bit of mini-season palaver. "Oh, not too bad," the father says.
"Wanna see?" the boys ask. Turns out this family has played it smart, camping out for a few bucks, catching their limit and barbecuing bugs every night. They're probably about breaking even. But the look on the kids' faces as they open up the cooler? Don't even make me say it.