STEINHATCHEE, Fla. -- More than a week into Florida’s regular lobster harvest season, some divers may already need a break from dodging errant boats and tackling recalcitrant creatures covered with bony spines.
For them, harvesting bay scallops in Florida’s Big Bend and Panhandle regions may be just the thing.
Small, tasty, and easy to catch, bay scallops are open to recreational harvest only; you can not buy them to eat. But gathering them is more like an underwater Easter egg hunt than hand-to-hand combat, and it’s a fun activity for families with kids of all ages as long as they can swim. And there’s plenty of time left in the season, which opened June 29 and runs through Sept. 24.
While bay scallops occur all along Florida’s Gulf coast, the population is large enough to sustain a harvest only north of Tampa Bay. The legal harvest area runs from the Pasco-Hernando county line north to the west bank of Mexico Beach in Bay County.
You are allowed to keep two gallons of whole mollusks or one pint of shucked meat per person per day. No matter how many people are aboard, the boat limit is 10 gallons whole or a half gallon of meat.
Most harvesters use mask, fins and snorkel to canvass sea grass beds in three to six feet of water. When they see the brown or whitish outline of the animal’s round shell sitting on the bottom, they simply pick it up and put it into a mesh catch bag. Or they might spot a line of small, jewel-like blue eyes peering out at them from the opening in the bivalve. Occasionally, the animals will attempt to escape, veering clumsily through the water column by snapping their top and bottom shells together. They are usually unsuccessful. Capturing them is about as difficult as plucking blueberries off a bush.
But occasionally there can be challenges. Steinhatchee, a small coastal burg in the Big Bend region which has yielded bountiful scallops since the recreational-only harvest opened in 1994, has been drenched by a continuous deluge since the beginning of the 2013 season. Local guide captain Bob Erdman says scallops are still around, but snorkelers have to look a little harder than usual.
“We’ve had 26½ inches of rain since June 29. It basically puts a tint of tannic acid from the rivers and swamps on the water,” Erdman said. “This year, I think the key is finding yourself clear water and hope the scallops will participate. When the sun’s out and we have a little clearer water, it makes our job much easier.”
Erdman says he typically starts in waters as shallow as three feet and only ventures deeper if scallops are sparse and his customers are good swimmers. He believes a good guide will get in the water to show clients what to look for. This season, he and his guests have had to move from spot to spot to score a limit.
Captain Linda Luizza, a veteran offshore fishing guide who runs the charterboat Ramerezi with husband Steve Magee in Key West, went on her first scalloping trip earlier this month with Erdman. Even though her party didn’t catch a limit, Luizza had a great time.
“I loved it,” she said. “I’m going to bring my husband next summer. We’re going to bring another couple with us. And I love the sea life here. It’s different from what I see in the Keys.”
Luizza and her companions enjoyed a large platter of scallops that evening at Fiddler’s Restaurant in Steinhatchee where chef/owner Jim Hunt prepared them three ways — ceviche, pasta and sautéed. Hunt also gave the group a couple of pints to take home. The visitors didn’t have to shuck the shellfish themselves; numerous entrepreneurs around town post signs advertising the service for $5 to $8 per pound.
Besides Steinhatchee, other popular scalloping areas include Crystal River, St. Marks and St. Joseph Bay.