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Capt. Tommy Thompson's Saltwater Angler's Guides

Scalloping 101

by on Feb.13, 2014, under CAPT. TOMMY'S BOOK SIGNINGS, TALKS, TRAVELS, Recipes and Food

Anna Patterson, Chiefland Watermelon Queen, with a fresh-caught bag of scallops.

Recently, someone asked me if I could “teach him how to catch scallops”.   A more understandable request would have been asking me how to safely operate a boat in crowded waters, review with them the FWC’s rules and regulations regarding scalloping—or even show them how to clean and cook the tasty critters.  In a nutshell (or a scallop shell, for that matter), scalloping isn’t difficult, but there are a few basic things to know before you head out searching for them this summer.

Florida’s 2014 recreational scallop season begins on June 28 and lasts until September 24.  You may scallop in waters from the Hernando/Pasco County line, at the southern end of the Big Bend, to the Mexico Beach Canal, west of Cape San Blas.  Your catch must be landed, cleaned or intact, at ports within these boundaries.  Simply put, don’t run north from Hudson, in Pasco County, to the waters off Hernando Beach, catch a limit of scallops, and then land them back in Hudson.  The FWC knows all the tricks!  There are no size limits that apply to scallops, but there are bag limits.  Anglers may keep two gallons of unshucked scallops each (1 pint shucked), up to a boat limit of ten gallons (1/2-gallon shucked).  A shucked two-gallon limit works out to about a pint of those small white morsels which are actually the muscles that allow the scallop to open and close its shell.  Other rules that apply include the need for a recreational saltwater fishing license for everyone participating who would normally need a license, and a dive flag requirement for letting other boaters know you’ve got divers in the water.  It’s probably a good idea, even for scalloping veterans, to carefully review the rules and regulations, found online at: www.myfwc.com/RULESANDREGS/Saltwater_Regulations_bayscallops.htm

Bay scallops can be found all along the Gulf coast of Florida, including some areas that are well outside the harvest boundaries.  In fact, there have even been sightings of scallops in Tampa Bay in recent summers.  While scallops are likely to be found Gulf-wide at depths that are not practical for harvest by hand or with a dip net, it’s certain that what attracts them towards shore in certain areas, to spawn, is a combination of water salinity and clarity.  In some areas where darker water is the norm, particularly Yankeetown, Cedar Key, Suwannee and much of Apalachicola Bay, scalloping isn’t considered a worthwhile effort.   On the other hand, at Hernando Beach, Bayport, Homosassa, Steinhatchee, Keaton Beach, St. Marks, Lanark Village, Port St. Joe and Mexico Beach, coastal economies rely on visiting scallopers to make up for slow times and cold winters.  And to confuse matters, any of the places within the boundaries might have ‘off-and-on’ scallop harvests, depending upon rainfall, tropical storms or even abnormal river flows.

If you’re new to scalloping you might skip the first week of July—for a couple of good reasons.  First, despite attempts by many marinas and editorial outlets to have their spies (usually local fishing guides) pinpoint the largest concentration of scallops, the best information normally follows a week or two of the actual harvest.  You’ll find that you’ll do a lot less running around once the best area is found.    Word travels fast and a simple visual scan of the horizon will quickly spot the ‘fleet’ anchored over the best areas.  And second, the first weekend of scallop season is usually the 4th of July weekend and a time when partying (on and off the water) sometimes trumps safety and good common sense.

However, if your Type-A personality requires that you be the first on the water on the first day of the season, keep in mind that scallops are likely to be found near the grassy edges of sandy potholes, and that they tend to come to the top of the grass when the sun’s shining brightly.  Early risers should consider using the rosy dawn to catch a close-to-shore gator trout or redfish, and then wait for the sun to get high into the sky before undertaking the search for scallops.  Start your scallop hunt by running your boat at idle speed in water that’s three to four feet deep, using polarized sunglasses or a 5-gallon bucket fitted with a clear bottom to carefully scan the bottom.  Once you see reasonable numbers of scallops nestled in the grass, anchor up, hoist your mandatory dive flag, and get your crew overboard.

Safety is always a consideration for boaters and fishermen, and scallop season demands special attention and awareness.  It’s important to recognize that you, or others around you, may not be regular boaters or snorkelers, and may not be accustomed to motoring a boat or diving in what are likely to be crowded waters.  Accidents, sometimes tragic, during scalloping season can be avoided by motoring at idle speed within 300-feet of boats flying dive flags or of swimmers and snorkelers.  In recent years, many local marinas have been selling and making recommendations that individual snorkelers tow dive-flagged buoys.  This is not a requirement, but certainly a great idea.   Make sure, too, that your boat’s operator remains alert and tuned-in to his or her task.  Even the slightest distraction, including casual conversation, can be disastrous, so let them concentrate on getting everyone out and back safely.  And while some in your party may wish to partake of an adult beverage while scalloping, boat operators should UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES participate, remembering that the FWC and local authorities frown heavily on boating under the influence.  Scallop season also coincides with Florida’s thunderstorm season, and maintaining a visual ‘weather watch’ (or an ear tuned to the WX channel on your VHF radio) is a good practice.  Also, avoid making a decision to run home too late, as some narrow channels and boat ramps get pretty crowded as storms force boats back to port.

In-the-water ‘essentials’ for recreational scallopers are snorkels, masks, swim fins, plus mesh bags for gathering your harvest.  Most folks simply swim along the surface in the clear summer water and dive down only when a scallop is spotted.  Depending on the bottom, you’ll likely see some scallops ‘face up’, looking at you with a row of brilliant blue eyes around the slightly opened shell.  Others will be lying flat, with either the light or dark side of their shell facing upwards.  It doesn’t take much practice to learn to spot them like a pro, and even the kids will become experts after just a few minutes.  If the water’s not in its usual gin-clear state, you may have to dive down and skim the grass tops, swimming into the current, to get a better view of the scallops.   Most scallopers simply pick up their catch bare-handed, but many prefer scooping with small bait nets.  Scallops don’t bite, but will sometimes try to flutter away from an incoming human hand and a net sometimes makes the gathering easier.  Once caught and measured in a bucket, put your catch under ice immediately.  This not only keeps them fresh but also makes the scallops open up for easier cleaning later.

Cleaning a catch of scallops is not nearly as much fun as gathering them.  The ‘goodie’ in a scallop is the white adductor muscle, and the rest of the bivalve critter is discarded.  Scallops, even those iced on board, should be cleaned quickly to ensure freshness.   Some scallopers clean the catch on their boat, but care needs to be taken to not throw the offal (guts and shells) into the water while snorkelers are about, as there have been instances of sharks being attracted to a ‘scallop chum line’.  Cleaning scallops isn’t difficult and simple tools like oyster knives, sharpened tablespoons and garden gloves speed the messy job.  Ashore, most marinas have good stand-up cleaning tables, and some even have professional scallop cleaners standing by who will, for a more-than-reasonable fee, clean, rinse and bag your catch.

So, what’s the big deal about scallops and scalloping on Florida’s Gulf coast?  First, and foremost, if you’ve never eaten a Florida bay scallop, you’ve never really eaten a scallop.  Those bagged, frozen imports from South America that are regularly found in fish markets can’t compare in terms of taste, and store-bought ‘sea scallops’, though bigger, are often textured much like overcooked pork chops.  Our bay scallops are small, tender and best eaten the day they’re caught.  Preparation can range from sautéing in butter and garlic (served over pasta) to deep frying–just be sure not to overcook them.  Actually, they’re pretty darned good right out of the shell, raw, or as the basis for a simple lime and hot-pepper ceviche.   And second, eating your scallops is only half the fun.  A summertime scalloping trip to Florida’s Big Bend coast is an excellent opportunity to get family and friends—even the ‘Moms’– together for a fun day on the water!

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1 comment for this entry:
  1. Capt. Bob Erdman

    Nice job Tommy. There are several guides in Steinhatchee who would love to take up to six scallopers for a great day on the water. Check out my web site at http://www.somethingsfishycharters.com for more info.

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