On a 15-mile stretch of Alabama along Mobile Bay’s eastern shore, fortunate waterfront homeowners experience a mysterious and joyful natural phenomenon called a jubilee. It occurs a few times each summer, typically on the evening of a full moon with a post-midnight rising tide. A certain alchemy of salt water mixing with fresher bay water and decaying organic matter creates a low-oxygen environment that sends bottom-dwelling fish and crustaceans toward the shallows, gasping for air.
Flounder, eels, crabs, shrimp, stingrays, mullets, and other creatures swarm the shoreline, where there’s more oxygen, or slither or crawl out of the water, making it easy for locals to scoop them up, sometimes in volumes that seem like folklore: skiffs full of flounder, coolers brimming with shrimp, and bushels of crabs that fill a truck’s bed.
Jubilees begin while it’s still dark, and they can be over in less than an hour. Traditionally, the first people to notice one is on its way—telltale signs include floating hogchokers (small flatfish) and eels making their way onto the sand—alert the neighbors, formerly by ringing bells and hollering into screened doors, now by texting and calling from their cell phones. People grab “go kits” of gigs, nets, and floating buckets and haul in as much as they can, aided by flounder lights, until the sun starts to rise.
Then comes hours of scaling, filleting, steaming, and shelling, which fills freezers with a summer’s worth of seafood. Families might eat grilled, crab-stuffed flounder for breakfast that day, or make a fresh pot of gumbo that night to celebrate.
While similar incidences have been documented elsewhere, it’s only here along Mobile Bay that jubilees are a reliable, if unpredictable, summer event.