Traffic on U.S. 1 might seem a little lighter this morning, and we all know the reason: Tens of thousands of people are not behind a vehicle wheel but behind a boat wheel, with hopes they steer toward plenty of Florida Keys lobster.
The two-day lobster mini-season started at 12:01 a.m. today and ends at 11:59 p.m. Thursday. Divers are allowed six lobster per person per day (seven if they catch 10 lionfish and leave them whole on the boat to show marine law enforcement). A saltwater fishing license with a lobster endorsement is required.
Captain Hook's and Marina & Dive Center at Vaca Cut in Marathon was packed Tuesday with tourists buying dive and other gear.
"It seems like it's been up compared to last year," Captain Hook's co-owner Greg Davies said. "People are going offshore for fishing and scouting for lobster locations."
Davies attributes what he sees as an increase in tourists this year to lower gas prices and favorable fishing weather. He sees people staying for most of the week, not just the two lobster-hunting days.
Elias Hensel of Melbourne has visited the Keys the past seven mini-seasons.
"I'm going to limit out on catches this year," Hensel said before heading out on the water with friends and family Tuesday.
Matt Parris, a chiropractor from Vero Beach, has come to the Lower Keys for mini-season the past six years. He spent Monday afternoon buying shorts at Lower Keys Tackle on Big Pine Key.
Parris, who has his own boat, said he favors spots between Big Pine and Sugarloaf for catching lobster.
"We're always trying to protect them [the spots]," he said.
Rick Weller, who works at a paper and chemical company in Melbourne, has spent one week the past 25 or so years in the Keys for mini-season. He rents a house with several other families on Cudjoe Key.
"We love coming to catch the lobsters," Weller, who's originally from Miami, said. "We rented a really big house last year."
Weller spent Monday afternoon at Cudjoe Sales Fishermen's Warehouse on Cudjoe Key buying tackle and nets.
Mike Heise of Fort Lauderdale stopped Monday at the Lobster Information Booth on Key Largo to ask "questions about lobstering around [John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park] and where you can go.... You go out there and see all these white [buoys] floating and you're not sure if that's a closed area or what."
Heise said he often goes lobstering in the Keys during the regular eight-month season that opens Aug. 6 but this is his first mini-season. "My friends wanted to come down so I decided to come with them."
At the Scuba Quest Outlet shop at mile marker 106, owner Ken Wilhelm said Monday the lobster-diving crowds seem smaller than in years past. "So far, I think it's a slower lobster season than last year."
Lobster divers are highly interested in this year's pilot program for offering a bonus lobster for harvesting lionfish, said Meaghan Faletti, the lionfish-outreach coordinator for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Joined by volunteer Matthew McMillan, Faletti set up a booth in Key Largo to explain the rule and offer lionfish-hunting pointers.
"It's one extra lobster per day for at least 10 lionfish," Faletti said. "A lot of people seem to think it's one extra lobster for every 10 lionfish. It's not, so we're trying to clear up that misconception."
"Just about everybody who walks up, especially the people from the Keys, know why it's important to get rid of the lionfish," McMillan said. "More than half the divers volunteered to shoot them. They said if they're already out lobstering, why not?"
While lobster diving requires a state fishing license with a lobster endorsement, no license is required to take lionfish. There is no size or bag limit.
The outreach staff offered advice on lionfish gear -- using a dead lionfish as an example.
A lionfish booth will set up in Marathon today and Thursday for the Spines and Spinys Tournament, a lobster and lionfish contest at Tilden's Dive Shop just south of mile marker 49.5 bayside. "Taking tanks until 9 p.m. and closing the doors once air is filled," says the shop staff.
"As usual, people are asking where they can legally go and if there have been any rule changes," said Bobby Dube, Keys spokesman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. "They also want to know where the lobster are. We're getting a lot of questions about spearfishing this year."