Meet Me At The Jubilee: Appreciating Our Beloved Anomaly

The term “jubilee” evokes a different meaning to the people around Mobile Bay than the rest of the world.

This article is from Mobile Baykeeper’s print quarterly, CURRENTS. The magazine is mailed to active members who have given more than $50 in 2023. To get on the magazine’s mailing list, donate here.

By Sam Wilkes

The term “jubilee” evokes a different meaning to the people around Mobile Bay than the rest of the world. We’re not thinking of anniversaries or liberation — or even cherry dessert. We’re thinking of the Bay. Along with Tokyo Bay in Japan, Mobile Bay is the only place on earth where this phenomenon is documented. A natural event caused by the up-welling of oxygen-poor waters compelling certain creatures ashore. Yet, such an enigmatic happening cannot be summarized so simply. Jubilees may arise in the summer before sunrise, while some occur before midnight in the fall. One jubilee may consist of only flounder, while another may involve crabs or shrimp. Some occur in random concentrated areas along the Eastern Shore, while others may affect a fifteen-mile expanse from Daphne to the southern end of County Road 1.  

Jubilees are not to be confused with fish kills. These are not floating carcasses. These animals are alive, yet often lethargic and almost indifferent to capture. Which is partly why some locals have waited their whole lives to find one. Old photographs of past jubilees line the walls of restaurants along the Causeway and Eastern Shore. Broadcast television crews have lingered here for weeks trying to queue one up, only to have it happen as their plane touched down in New York. Some residents study the forecasts and stalk the shorelines in the early predawn. While others stumble upon the event with divine luck, as if Atlas tilted the globe ever so slightly, sending the bay’s bounty into a dazed exodus just for them.  

While others listened for the bells.  

“When people had screened porches with beds and no air conditioning, it was common for folks to ring a bell alerting a jubilee,” said Neno Ladd of Point Clear. Neno has lived on Mobile Bay, just south of the Grand Hotel, for more than thirty years. As a child her family rented and visited houses along the Bay, but she never witnessed her first jubilee until she actually lived on the Bay. “If you don’t go out and look, you would only know there was a jubilee because the crabs in your traps would be dead. So, you monitor yourself.” 

Neno averages three jubilees a year at her Point Clear property. She’s always prepared, equipped with her propane lights, flounder gigs, flashlights, nets, buckets, and shrimp boots. Neno watches for a “light east wind, no waves breaking at all on the beach, an incoming tide, rain showers, and the Bay water has a distinct jubilee color!” When conditions are right, Neno checks “two or three times during the night for eels, crabs, and flounder swimming on top of the water heading to the beach preceding the jubilee, which typically occurs around 4 a.m. and 5 a.m.” Neno has found that “during a jubilee there are always sting rays and eels. Usually crab and flounders of all sizes. Sometimes shrimp, and a few trout and mullet.”

However, she gets frustrated seeing people ignore the size and catch limits for flounder. “If a family gets ten legal flounder it is more than plenty. But it’s not uncommon to see people with tons of undersized.” So, Neno reminds us that even amidst the excitement of a jubilee, the limit and size regulations still apply.  

Jeremy Hovater did not know of jubilees until moving to Montrose in 2012. “Our house has a jubilee bell and so do most of our neighbors,” he said. “Our neighbors talk about the times when they all would ring the bells to wake up everyone close by. It would be a community event. Now we seem to be more respectful of our neighbor’s sleep. Not sure if it is a good or bad thing, but the stories I hear sound like the old jubilees were a lot of fun.” 

Since moving here, Jeremy has witnessed eight separate jubilees. “I just look out for flashing lights now,” he said. “Before, when the conditions were right, I would get up all hours of the night to walk our pier and look for possible activity. After several failed attempts and being sleep deprived, I realized it was easier to just look to see if there were any flashing lights on the Bay.” Jeremy finds the variety of the catch fascinating. “Just this past year we had multiple jubilees in one week,” he said. “The first one was mostly shrimp and crab with only a few small flounders. The next night we had a jubilee where the beach was covered in flounders and crab of all sizes, but no shrimp. Two days later it was mostly just crab and eel.” 

Jeremy loves taking his young son down to the shore with a gig for the flounder, nets for crabs and shrimp, and five-gallon buckets. “Our first jubilee, we had a bucket full of crab. But after realizing they are a lot of work for a little bit of food, we decided to let others enjoy the crab capturing. The second night we gigged our share of flounder. Fortunately, a gentleman nearby advised us of the limit and size requirements.” Jeremy said he learned that night regular kitchen knives were entirely inadequate for a jubilee bounty. 

Like with most aspects of our lives, social media also plays a role with current day jubilee hunters. “There are a couple of Facebook groups that I have joined,” said Ley Curl of Fairhope. Ley is in his mid-thirties and moved to the area in 2018 but has been visiting since childhood. Ley said “jubilees were one of those things you hear about but always wonder if it’s actually true. Once my wife and I moved down here, I started digging into the tales and asking around.” 

Ley said the Facebook groups can be a helpful starting point for information. “Jubilee Watch Baldwin County” has about 6,400 members, including old salts, snowbirds, and new transplants. “But most of the pages consist of folks looking to take part in the phenomenon and not as much on how to find them. 

Occasionally you will see a post letting you know conditions may be right in the next few days. So, it can be a good reminder,” Ley acknowledged. “But it’s not like the old days of folks ringing a bell and calling the neighbors out. The ones who really want to see it have to do the work.” 

Ley now watches for a calm day with a slight wind out of the east and “a little rain the day before seems to help.” Ley witnessed five to six jubilees in the summer of 2022, along points from Orange Street Pier down to Mullet Point. “They tend to be localized but I have seen some larger ones that extended down multiple spots on the shore. They have varied from a few crabs and shrimp along the rocks to the first few feet deep being covered up with shrimp, crabs, flounder and catfish. You’ll also get some heavy mullet schools coming through.”

Ley said most occurred “early morning before daylight with some lasting into the morning hours. Although when the sun is up, word has usually gotten around and folks start disturbing the waters. When the boat traffic starts, waves will end a jubilee immediately. But if you’re lucky, one will reform.” The All of us that live around Mobile Bay are lucky to have such a natural phenomenon present. The jubilee folklore and experience continues to interest the young and old that journey to our area. Although the bells of yesteryear have quieted, this local anomaly remains ever elusive and fascinating.


The photos are from the Alabama Department of Archives and History. They were donated by Alabama Media Group.

Boy Gigging Flounder: Photo by Aaron O. Tesney, Mobile Press-Register, 1959. 

Girls On Wharf: Lucy Mallini, Linda Philips Mallini, and Jane Mallini. Photo by Aaron O. Tesney, Mobile-Press Register. 1959.

Man By His Boats: Photo by Ford Cook, Mobile Press-Register.

Family With Flounder: Unknown photographer, Mobile-Press Register. 


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