Scallop season off to early start in Gulf
The only bad thing about Florida's scallop season has always been that it's too short.
This year, with a bit of help from Gov. Rick Scott, divers got a couple of extra days, with the show starting on June 29. The season, which some have described as an "underwater Easter egg hunt," continues through Sept. 24.
Scalloping is a great family sport, and thousands of Florida kids have gotten their first taste of the Gulf of Mexico's beautiful, clear inshore waters while snorkeling for scallops with mom and dad.
Scallops are an annual crop, according to biologists with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Institute in St. Petersburg. They are spawned, grow to maturity, lay eggs and die all in a single year, and that means the extra days of harvest are unlikely to have much impact on the numbers. Most harvest takes place in the first few weeks of the season, in any case, then on weekends only later.
According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which runs surveys before the season, numbers are up this year over the last three years at Crystal River/Homosassa, with the average number of scallops spotted in a 600-square-meter survey area around 75. Steinhatchee should be better than last year, with 36 per survey area, but not as good as two years ago, when they reached 136 per area. Hernando County numbers are down, with the tally about 21 per survey area, lower than the last several years.
Biologists say water temperature, currents and the presence of red tide all affect scallop numbers from year to year, as does water quality - murky water and scallops do not get along.
Captain William Toney of Homosassa runs guide trips for the shellfish during the season.
"Basically, they're likely to be just about anywhere over the turtle grass at depths of 4 to 8 feet," says Toney. "You just have to move around until you find that first one, and then there may be hundreds more nearby."
Captain "Red" Ed Brennan, also working out of Homosassa, says the season started with a bang last weekend, with most divers getting limits almost immediately. He offers half-day trips he says are great for kids and beginners.
Scallops are one of the few shellfish capable of moving. They don't "fix" to hard structure like oysters and barnacles, but drift with tidal currents. And they're capable of a slow, strange sort of locomotion, too; by clapping their shells together repeatedly, they can swim in a sort of mad flutter that makes chasing them all the more interesting to families.
The shell of the scallop looks almost exactly like the symbol on the Shell Oil sign. They're typically 2 to 3 inches across at maturity.
The part that is consumed by scallop lovers, however, is much smaller. The muscle that opens and closes the shell is only about the size of a slice of hot dog, maybe an inch long. It's pure white meat, however, and some of the best-tasting stuff that comes out of the sea.
Scalloping is legal anywhere north of the Pasco/Hernando county line north and west to Mexico Beach Canal in the Panhandle. Scallops are around in other parts of the west coast, but the state judges that they are not numerous enough for harvest yet in areas like Tampa Bay, Charlotte Harbor and Pine Island Sound - all of which have slowly increasing populations once knocked back by pollution.
The most popular ports for pursuing scallops include Homosassa and Crystal River, Suwannee, Cedar Key and Steinhatchee. In fact, if you haven't already reserved a room in one of those areas, forget it for the next couple of weeks; the limited number of motels and fish camps sell out every year for the early part of the season.
The limit is two gallons of whole scallops or a pint shucked per person, with a boat limit of 10 gallons whole or one half gallon shucked. (It's a good idea to shuck these little dudes while in the boat, because if you take them home to clean them, the highly odorous remains in your garbage can will make you wish you hadn't).
Adults need a fishing license to harvest scallops, and the boat must display a dive flag anytime divers are in the water.
Scallops are best sautéed lightly in butter, but they're also good lightly breaded and deep fried. Some also eat them raw, sprinkled with fresh lemon juice.
For details on harvest regulations, visit myfwc.com. For more on scallop trips, contact Brennan athomosassaredfish .com or Toney athomosassa inshorefishing.com.