STEINHATCHEE, FL -- Tropical Storm Debby dumped about a foot of rain when it came ashore near this tiny Big Bend burg late last month. But the slug of fresh water pouring out of the swollen Steinhatchee River has not hampered the annual summer recreational bay scallop harvest one bit.
Guided by local captain Steve Kroll, two friends and I dived for scallops on lush sea grass beds three to five feet deep in the Gulf about eight miles north of the river last week and scored a limit of eight gallons in about 2½ hours. Neither of my friends — Donna Creamer of Bell nor Lois Kirn of Hollywood — had ever gone scalloping before our trip.
“Awesome, fun,” said Creamer.
Added Kirn: “This is a hoot!”
The scallop harvest season opened July 1 in Gulf waters from the Pasco-Hernando county line to the west bank of the Mexico Beach canal in Bay County. Steinhatchee was overrun with scallopers the entire week of the Fourth of July holiday, and many brought in their limit in a half-day excursion. The season, which normally closes Sept. 11, will be extended by two weeks to Sept. 25. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission OK’d the extension at its meeting late last month in Palm Beach Gardens, saying that the past two years of a prolonged season has had no significant impact on bay scallop populations.
Debby’s deluge apparently hasn’t hurt the tiny, tasty mollusks, either.
On our July 9 trip with Kroll, the captain motored north of the roiling, tea-colored river until he located water clear enough to pick out individual scallops sitting on the grassy bottom. He anchored the boat and we all slipped into the water.
On our first stop, the shellfish were few and scattered so, after picking up a handful, Kroll decided to relocate.
“People have been catching limits north and south of the river,” he said. “Your bigger creeks and rivers, you’re going to have dirty water. Run outside of those areas. One mistake people make scalloping is like when they go fishing: they go to a place and stay there too long. If you’re not finding them, move.”
And we did, checking three or four spots till we found the mother lode in tall, tangled grass about five feet deep a few miles south of Keaton Beach.
Here, you could pick up three or four scallops at a time. Unlike spiny lobster, the object of next week’s two-day mini-season, bay scallops do not put up much of a fight. The little mollusks are usually found perched on a blade of sea grass or sitting placidly on the bottom, their row of tiny blue eyes gazing at you through the opening in their hinged shells. Sometimes, they try to swim away by clapping their shells together, but it’s easy to swoop in and grab them. Harvesters liken the sport to an underwater Easter egg hunt.
Unlike sea scallops, bay scallops are tiny. It takes a lot of thumb-sized meat morsels to make a meal, so you are allowed to take two gallons of whole scallops or one pint of meat per person per day. The boat limit is 10 gallons whole, or a half gallon of meat.
Shucking scallops — removing the guts and extracting the muscle — is time-consuming. Scallop cleaners, who abound in Steinhatchee, charge by the pound or bucket load to prepare your bounty for eating, or you can do it yourself with a scallop knife. But a five-gallon bucket full easily can take more than an hour to clean. Some do-it-yourselfers use a shop vac to separate innards from meat. But then the vacuum apparatus has to be taken apart and cleaned, casting its labor-saving potential into doubt.
Bay scallops can be enjoyed a myriad of ways: raw, ceviche, baked, fried, broiled, blackened or sautéed. Chef/owner Jim Hunt at Fiddler’s Restaurant served all of the above for our dinner party of six. Even with accompaniments of salads, sides, and drinks, not a morsel was left over.
These culinary treats are savored even more when you realize that the only way you can chow down is to catch them yourself. The commercial harvest of bay scallops in Florida has been closed since 1994. However, the FWC is kicking around the possibility of a future re-opening.
Besides Steinhatchee, other scalloping destinations include Homosassa, Crystal River, St. Marks Refuge, and St. Joseph Bay.