OMOSASSA -- H If youve got the urge to dive for your dinner but dont want to wait two weeks for the annual two-day lobster mini-season, why not head up to Homosassa in Floridas Big Bend region?
Bay scallop harvest season has been open from the Pasco/Hernando county line to Mexico Beach since June 28, but there are still plenty of shellfish for the plucking in shallow Gulf waters off this small Gulf coast town before the season closes Sept. 25.
And even better, you can catch fish and scallops all in the same day and have a local restaurant cook it all up for you.
One of the top local fishing/scalloping guides in the region is captain William Toney, a fourth-generation skiff guide and president of the Homosassa Guides Association. On our outing Monday, Toney and I caught three gallons of scallops and 14 redfish to 29 inches. We kept all the mollusks and two of the slot-sized reds (between 18 and 27 inches) to eat. What a treat!
You have to time your trip on the tide phase, Toney said. Low tide is better for scalloping and the incoming tide for the redfish.
Scallops are easier to spot nestled on tufts of sea grass or on the sandy bottom in less than six feet of water. In deeper water, they are harder to see, especially with a strong tide stirring up sediment and seaweed and pushing against a diver.
But the small, delicately-flavored shellfish are always easier to catch than lobsters because they are slow-moving and dont put up much of a fight.
This season, Toney said, scallopers have had to work a bit to gather their limit, but most have managed it in a half-day outing. For those who dont know how (or dont want to bother) to clean their catch, several locals have set up cleaning stations along the Homosassa River and at local marinas charging about $5 per pound.
Gulf waters were warm and clear when Toney and I jumped in to look for scallops. We had to move a couple of times, but we were done just after midday. By then, the tide was rushing in and we decided to look for hungry redfish in Homosassa Bay.
Poling his 23-foot Tremblay skiff close to a mangrove island, Toney could see redfish patrolling the shoreline but staying beneath the shade of the leafy overhangs.
He staked out the boat about 50 feet from an undercut in the mangroves and directed me to cast an unweighted shrimp close to the narrow opening. I free-lined the bait for a few seconds until the braided line started zipping off the spool. Then I flipped the bail closed and set the hook.
If this scene had occurred at Flamingo, I would have sworn a snook had eaten my bait. The drag was making a zeee-ing sound and the fish was powering toward the mangrove prop roots with the seeming intention of tangling in them.
Pull him out of there, Toney said.
I made steady progress, and suddenly the fish darted out into open water away from the island. Most snook wouldnt have done that.
About five minutes later, I reeled up a very feisty, oversized redfish that we photographed and released.
For the next hour and a half or so, Toney and I caught and released redfish until a thunderstorm threatened, then we headed back to MacRaes marina on the Homosassa River. One of the locals cleaned our scallops and Toney filleted the redfish.
They were very delicious served blackened, fried and broiled Monday evening at the Homosassa Riverside Resort restaurant.