Lobster, crawfish, summer crab, bugs, or as the commercial fishermen have reduced it to just plain fish.
Whatever you call them, I just call them plain fun.
I started coming to the Keys back in 1974 after a three day field trip with my elementary school to the Sea Camp on Big Pine Key. I grew up on the water in Sarasota, Florida so I was fairly well indoctrinated to the general way of life found near the Gulf waters, however when I got to the Keys, the difference for me was that I could now see through the water as the visibility was at least a factor of twenty compared to the stained murky waters of home. After returning home from that trip I summarily declared my intention to my parents to move to the Keys.
After a few months of constant nagging I somehow convinced my parents that the family summer trip should be to the Keys. As it happened, my father’s attention span waned around mile marker 70 and we landed at the KOA. It coincidently also just happened to be the first day of lobster season, which until then, no one in the family had heard anything about. We rented a small skiff and putted a few hundred yards into the channel. With mask, fins, snorkel and gloves I plopped into the water with a back flip over the gunwale Sea Hunt style and when I popped back to the surface I was firmly holding a lobster in each hand. As my 12 year old self remembers it, the current had bent the sea fans over and the lobster were just sitting there in the shade of the soft coral.
To my father, who traveled on his stomach; seafood, lobster in particular being his favorite food uttered something akin to Eeeeewwww!...and a family tradition was born.
It took about ten years but I finally made good on my declaration to move to the Keys where I started my career teaching diving full time in Marathon. Come hell or high water I have yet to miss an opening day of lobster season in my 52 years of life.
In my forty years of diving for lobster things have evolved greatly in the methods and madness of what has evolved into Lobster Mobster Days. When I first started, it was only a gloved hand and a careful look for moray eels before plunging a hand into the back of the hole to wrench the bug out by the horns.
Very few lobsters were landed ashore with both antennas intact. Within a few years, the black spiny sea urchins were experiencing a population explosion before their inevitable collapse and every lobster hole in the Keys was surrounded by the dreaded sentinels. The first tickle sticks that I used were not to tickle the lobster but were to move the moving sea of needles away from the entrance of the lobster holes.
I really do not remember what year it was that I was introduced to the venerable combination of net and tickle stick. This combination greatly reduced the cuts and scrapes from fire coral, punctures from sea urchins and bites from moray eels. I am pretty sure that it was in Marathon at Knights Key with the son of one of the owners of the park. Eugene Kyle or better known those days as EG, was somehow to become one of my longest lived friendships. As we currently joke these days, we are stuck with each other as it is now way too late to make “new, oldest friends”. Every bad habit and unsafe diving skill that I currently am trying to break, I am positive that I learned from EG. We somehow lived through those early days on our own exploring the Keys around the Seven Mile Bridge. It took a few summers, but between the two of us we methodically managed to dive every single piling of the Seven Mile Bridge.
Without a personal demonstration, the best that I can do to coach a new tickler is to try to explain that the stick is not used to pry or scare a bug from its hole but to coax it. Tickling is a very accurate definition of what you are trying to accomplish. Try to get your stick into the hole without disturbing the lobster and then gently touch its tail and gently walk it out of its hole. Failing to do so will send the lobster scurrying to the farthest regions of its hole where it will be much harder to extricate. I prefer the aluminum tickle stick with the slightly bent end for maneuvering into the hole and getting behind the lobster. Once the lobster has cleared the hole you deploy the net. Use the net and stick in unison to control the lobster and set the edge of the net on the bottom while using the stick in front to back the bug under the net. Once the lobster is under the net quickly push the net to the bottom. By this time most free divers are wanting for a breath of fresh air. There is one more thing to do before ascending. Grab the lobster firmly in your free hand BEFORE you lift the net toward the surface. While the scoop and go will catch a few lobster, there will be a large percentage that will prove to be slightly faster than you and will quickly outrun you into the vastness of the sea.
Though not without a few close calls, and more than a little loss of blood, I have evolved my technique of catching lobster. I have had the pleasure of passing these skills down to hundreds of other divers. With a little luck those techniques that took me a lifetime to acquire will be passed down to a few hundred more.
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