For city folks, Miamians have it pretty easy if they want to experience the thrill of hunting and gathering.
We have pick-em fields of strawberries in the Redland or tomatoes in Homestead. There’s mahi mahi just offshore, and snapper and snook in our mangroves. There are spiny lobsters, now in season, hiding among the rocks of Biscayne Bay.
But there is a marine delicacy just out of our reach that is worth a road trip, and we have one month left to reap its harvest: bay scallops.
To get to those fan-shaped shells hiding their mild, sweet meat inside, cross over to the west coast of Florida and head north. You don’t have to drive all the way to Steinhatchee, the remote, panhandle-meets-peninsula village synonymous with scalloping. There’s a closer, lesser-known option just north of Tampa. The coastal communities of Crystal River and Homosassa are better known as winter havens for manatees, but they’re enjoying a bountiful scallop season this summer — and they’re only a five-hour drive from Miami.
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Scalloping is one of the easier sea adventures perfect for families. It requires only a snorkel, mask, fins, basic swimming skills and a boat. A state fishing license is required, too, but if you charter an excursion out of one of the multiple marinas or hotels that offer them in this area, you’re covered under the captain’s license.
Not to be confused with the larger and meatier sea scallop, bay scallops are dime-sized and super-sweet. Baked, broiled, blackened, fried, sautéed or citrus-scorched into ceviche, Florida’s bay scallops are culinary treats made all the more delicious by the fact that you have to catch them yourself to enjoy them. The commercial harvest of bay scallops has been closed in state waters since 1994.
The recreational scallop harvest season, which opened July 1, normally closes Sept. 11, but this year the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission extended it through Sept. 24. The commission closely monitors the state’s fragile scallop population in the Gulf to prevent over-harvesting because the tiny mollusks are at risk from declining seagrass habitats and other threats. The shellfish require just the right balance of clean, high-salinity water with low sediment — which also happens to be ideal conditions for spotting them.
Paddling around in clear water only three- to six-feet deep in the spring-fed Crystal Bay near Gomez Rocks, my 12-year-old was the first to spy one of the gray mollusks nestled not-so-discreetly in a bed of sea grass. “It’s like hunting for Easter eggs,” our guide, Captain Rick LeFiles, had told us.
“I see one,” my daughter shouted before turning upside down, her flippers frantically kicking in excitement. She surfaced triumphantly, waving the shell above her head.
Over the next two hours, the four of us settled into a contented search, disrupted only by the sound of our breathing in our ears and the occasional, competitive nudge — “How many do you have?” — as we compared the bounty in our netted bags. We pulled up anchor once to putter to another nearby spot when the pickings grew slim. More than 100 other boats were within eyesight, but far enough away that we didn’t feel crowded. Other than schools of mullet, bleached coral and a startling encounter with a stingray (they love scallops, too), scallops were the only sea life we spotted the entire afternoon.
With sun-kissed skin and wobbly legs, we ended the day with about 60 shells on ice in our boat’s cooler – easily within the two-gallon, per-person limit set by the state, but enough to feed two to three of us.
Back at Plantation on Crystal River, a sprawling inn with old Southern charm and its own marina, Captain Rick tried to teach me how to clean the slippery bivalves by using a spoon to tap the shells apart and scoop out the slimy innards to get to the round, white meat inside. He kindly took over after watching me struggle with a few, then handed off two bags of the glistening, thumb-sized scallops to the resort’s kitchen staff.
That evening, our catch re-appeared table-side in the resort’s restaurant, where chef Eric Smith had sautéed them into two, steamy entrees: scallops scampi, with fresh garlic and chopped Florida tomatoes on linguine, and scallops-and-grits, with andouille sausage, peppers, onions, baby spinach and “pot likker” gravy over stone-ground cheese grits.
The newly-renovated, 232-acre resort is a genteel, oak-shaded gem in the middle of rural Citrus County, where chain hotels and restaurants dominate. Originally built in 1962, it’s now owned by a Massachusetts-based real estate company that also operates historic hotels in Martha’s Vineyard and Cape Cod. The two-story inn’s 196 rooms sport refined linens and flat-screen TVs. Warm wood floors in the common areas open to a large pool, outdoor bar, a sandy volleyball court and a croquet course on the lawn overlooking Kings Bay.
Two-day scalloping packages available until the end of the harvesting season include a “Scalloping 101” bag with instructions, a net and water bottles, plus a “cook your catch” dinner for one night. Although there’s a cheaper rate if you bring your own boat, most guests charter a captain through the resort’s marina. The half-day scalloping excursions occur at 7 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. The experience takes about six hours, with one hour spent idling and motoring out to the Gulf and another hour back.
Fortunately, this is one of the most beautiful areas of the state so there are plenty of distractions during the watery commute by barrier islands: jumping mullet, old cypress trees dripping with Spanish moss, water skiers and commercial crabbers, osprey, roseate spoonbills, endangered wood storks, the occasional manatee or bald eagle. Looming in the distance like an ominous Oz is the Crystal River Power Plant, with its plumes of smoke from burning fossil fuel.
Almost as surprising as the power plant anomaly was our discovery that, unlike other shellfish, free-living scallops can move around using jet propulsion. And they can see you coming. Scallops have up to 100 simple eyes lining the edges of their mantles. When you look down on them in the water, these eyes shine like an eerie, bright-blue string of beads between the two shells. The panic-stricken mollusks actually start to jiggle when you reach down to pluck them from grassy beds and sandy patches on the sea floor.
If you’re not careful, they can pinch your fingers — as one of my daughters discovered, then laughed off after the initial shock. From his watchful perch above us in the boat, Captain Rick smiled, knowing the last bite was ours.