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Catching Tail: The Truth About Key West Lobster

“Getting some tail” has so many meanings in Key West. But, for today, let’s focus on Key West lobster tails.

Lobster is probably Key West’s most famous fish, err…crustacean. They’re found all around the island, from the seagrass beds, sandbars, and reefs to the Publix seafood aisle and nearly every restaurant menu. Finding fresh Key West lobster is not hard once you start looking. 

What's Up With These Keys Lobsters? Where Are Their Claws?

Lobster Trap at Boca Grande Sandbar

If you’re from up north, you might look at our lobsters and say, “WTFH?!?” They aren’t usually red, they don’t have claws, and they look very little like the lobsters you know and love.

In Florida, we have warm-water crustaceans that are properly called the Caribbean Spiny Lobster. They go by other names, of course. In some islands, they are called crawfish, and many locals here just call them bugs. They sometimes get called Florida Lobster, but this sort of ignores that they live everywhere in the Caribbean and Bahamas.

Instead of big claws for defense, the carapace of the Spiny Lobster has—any guesses? Oh, come on—are you even paying attention? Spines! It has spines, people!

How else are they different from their cold-water family? It has little to do with them, but lobster rolls aren’t a thing here. We still like butter on our lobster, but putting it on stale bread and selling it to you for $45 just isn’t our style. Also, pronunciation-wise, the “R” in Florida Lobster is not silent.

The best eating part of the Florida Spiny Lobster is its tail. In fact, it’s usual for the rest of the poor critter to be discarded. Some locals like to pick the flesh out of the antenna and legs, but there just isn’t much there, and it’s hard to get to. 

Like other shellfish, it’s common for Florida Lobster to be boiled or steamed. Grilling the tails is also a popular preparation method. You can eat the grilled meat with a little Cajun butter, or mix it with pasta for a scampi, or enjoy a Cuban-style lobster creole, or chop it and make a lobster salad or lobster mac and cheese, or…well, the possibilities are pretty endless and tasty.

Florida lobster tastes slightly less sweet than New England lobster. It’s somewhere between cold-water lobster and shrimp, with a touch of crab and a little like Louisiana crawfish. Maybe it’s best to try it and let us know what you think. It’s delicious, anyhow, and lots of folks seem to think so.

When Is Florida Lobster Season?

There are two lobster seasons in Florida—Mini Season and Regular Season.

Mini Lobster Season is a two-day event for recreational bug catchers called Day Sport Season. It runs every year during the last consecutive Wednesday–Thursday in July. For example, in 2024, the Mini Season will be July 26 and 27.

For the lobster-hungry, it’s a big event. The Keys get packed with boats and tickle sticks that week as thousands of Floridians come for their share of the booty. 

Because so many people come here for Mini Season, Monroe County (the Keys) is one area in Florida with stricter bag limits. Down here and in Biscayne National Park, you can only catch six lobsters per person during Mini Season. Enforcement is strict, and marine officers seem to be everywhere that week. To legally participate in the lobster harvest, you need a Florida saltwater fishing license and a lobster permit. 

Regular Lobster Season is the standard commercial and recreational Spiny Lobster season. It opens August 6th and runs through March 31st every year. 

There are a ton of rules that go with catching lobsters in Monroe County and Key West. The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, which covers most of the waters around the Keys, has a handful of no-take areas where you cannot lobster. You cannot lobster in Dry Tortugas National Park or Everglades National Park.

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Wondering Where To Get Fresh Lobster in Key West? Or Where To Eat Fresh Lobster?

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No matter where you go, the key to getting fresh lobster in the Keys is to go during lobster season. To protect future populations of the tasty crustaceans, Florida lobster season is only open from August 6th through March 31st. 

If you’re into catching your own bugs, Mini Season is held annually during the last Wednesday and Thursday of July. But this is a recreational-only season—you won’t find these critters on the menu or at the market. 

Of course, you’ll find plenty of lobster on the menu year-round in Key West. But—and this is the local’s secret—if it’s outside of the season, it’s probably frozen. But here’s the other local’s secret—Florida lobster tails freeze remarkably well. It can be hard to tell the difference if it’s done right. But, while frozen tails can still be mighty tasty, it’s hardly fresh. 

 

So, start your hunt for the best lobster by heading to the Keys during the correct months. If you’ve done that, finding fresh lobster is not hard in Key West. It will be on pretty much every restaurant menu. You’ll find plenty of it at any local supermarket or fishmonger. 

Generally, you’ll only find the tails for sale. Unlike their northern relatives with huge claws, the tail is the primary culinary part of the Spiny Lobster. 

When is Lobster Fest in Key West?

Key West Lobsterfest is a huge street party held on the island to celebrate the opening of the regular lobster season. It happens every year during the second weekend of August. Events are spread out over the weekend, with the big street party on Saturday along Duval Street. There are free concerts, fair booths, and, of course, lobster!

For 2024, the 27th annual Lobsterfest will be held from August 8 through the 11th.

What's Your Favorite Way to Enjoy Lobster in Key West?

 

If you’re a fan of lobster, Key West is the spot for you. Whether you want to cook it or just enjoy the freshest, tastiest recipes at the best restaurants, our little island is the place to be. 

Interested in catching your own during Mini Season, or maybe just taking a snorkel trip to see some Key West lobster in the wild? Call Captain Zak on the Casual Monday. He knows where the bugs are and can get you out there in no time. Just bring the butter!

Frequently Asked Questions

Is March a good time to catch Florida Spiny Lobster in Key West?

 Lobster charters this late in the season (August-March) are not very common for a couple of reasons.   The main concern being that by this time of the season the lobster have moved out into much deeper water (20+ ft) than where they can be found earlier in the season (4-6ft).   This makes for a real challenge when diving recreationally.   Another issue this late in the season is that finding a legal lobster is much harder this time of year, the majority of them have already been caught for the year.
 
I usually run a few lobster charters before November but that is usually my cutoff for the year unless it’s an incredible year

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