It's just after noon when the sky stops spitting and the dark clouds shuffle down the Gulf Coast away from the scallop-laden sea grass beds at the mouth of the Steinhatchee River.
Capt. "Casino" Dave Jenkins tosses the anchor into the shallow, clear water after sighting a half-dozen white spots starboard side. "This looks good," he says, double-checking the boat's GPS unit.
Following his lead, I suction my snorkel mask to my face and wiggle on my fins. Perched on the edge of the skiff, Jenkins hands me a mesh bag and I await last-minute advice before plunging into the water on my first scalloping adventure.
"Oh, they're faster than you think," Jenkins says. "And they pinch harder than you think."
I laugh because the 59-year-old captain is a riot. His charter service is named Fish'n Tales and the trip from the marina to the bay was a string of hilarious stories.
Going overboard, I naively think this is like picking candy from a wide-mouth jar.
• • •
Steinhatchee is known as the "Scallop Capital of Florida." And this year's crop is the best since 2000, according to state marine officials.
From July 1 to Sept. 10, hundreds of nature lovers, boaters and families descend on this tiny fishing village, population 1,500, on any given weekend during scallop season.
Located in the Big Bend coastal region, three hours north of Tampa, a trip to quiescent Steinhatchee (pronounced Steen-HATCH-ee) is a peaceful refuge and summer ritual for many folks. And an exciting adventure for first-timers.
Put me in the last category. Before this trip, I knew one thing about scallops: I like them seared in butter.
I had no idea what they looked like, where they lived or how to catch them. Heck, I barely thought of them as living, breathing creatures.
Scalloping, I discover, is a "drifting sport," as one guide put it, where you snorkel in anywhere from 3 to 7 feet of water looking for a shell-shaped Waldo in the weeds.
The scallops (pronounced like SKAW-lups this close to the Georgia border) nest in sea grass but particularly like the round-bladed needlegrass and brown moss where they can hide. They can live for as much as a year.
On the hunter-gatherer spectrum, I assume it's not much different than picking mountain blackberries. As in, they aren't hard to find if you know where to look and don't mind the effort.
• • •
It doesn't take long in the water to realize the captain is right: These underwater berries are animals. And feisty ones, too.
Around the shell's rim, the mollusks have a row of tiny bright blue eyes. They see you coming.
Some simply shut their shells and let the darker, muckier side of the shell camouflage them. In a foggy, water-leaking mask — bought cheaply at a big-box sporting goods store — they aren't always discernible.
Then there are the ones who don't go in the bag without a fight.
They swim, they spit and they pinch.
Scallops are bivalves (meaning two shells) that feed by funneling water through their gills. In the same way, they can move by clapping the shells together and quickly expelling water, which sends them skittering backward.
Many times I take a deep breath and dive to the bottom, flippers kicking up in the air, only to find the scallops swimming away.
It's fascinating to watch the small creatures. The first time I see them move I swallow a snorkel full of water and have to surface. (Needless to say, the scallop got away.)
Other times, I reach down, grab the rim of the shell and get a little pinch. It doesn't hurt so much as startle.
But I'm not a hunter. And as I realize these animals didn't want to go in my bag, I begin leaving the ones who put up a good fight.
Our guide isn't amused. "You'll be wishing you had it for that last bite of baked potato tonight," Jenkins says as he holds his full sack of scallops.
I think about his words carefully.
And soon this "dinner" strategy changes my whole mission.
The next time I surface we meet our 2-gallon-each limit.
• • •
Three miles up the winding river, we dock at Steinhatchee Landing Resort, a utopian-styled retreat with more than 50 colorful Victorian villas and Old Florida cottages that seem a world away from the rustic town and surrounding areas.
Carrying our catch on ice, we meander on the oak-shaded streets, cross over a tidal creek and pass a cottage with an antique Sinclair gas pump and Coca-Cola sign out front.
"I wanted it to have the feel of a 1920s village," explains owner Dean Fowler, the night before when we meet him for dinner at Roy's, the town's premier waterfront restaurant.
Fowler, a polite, polished and personable host, made his money in the nursing home business before selling his company and moving from Georgia to this hamlet where he fished for years. "This is paradise," he says.
He opened the 35-acre resort in 1990 with nine cottages and it continues to grow.
With an elegant wedding chapel, large conference center, splendid pool, stocked general store, small petting zoo and ample dock space, it has evolved into a reclusive, yet esteemed, getaway destination.
Like the resort, the whole town is changing, natives say, with tall waterfront condos already replacing marinas and a new sewer system in the works that will likely speed development.
But inside the landing, time stands still. We stay in Cozy Cottage No. 22, a honeymoon suite with one large living-sleeping-dining space, a full kitchen and magnificent bathroom. The oversized spa tub is visible from the main room through a glass-enclosed fireplace set in a huge stone hearth.
• • •
Dinner sits in a 5-gallon bucket on the front porch.
On the boat ride back to the dock, I try my hand at cleaning a scallop but quickly prove slow and incapable. (I manage one decent clean one and eat the meat raw — a must try. It tastes sweet, yet salty — good.)
At our captain's advice, we take the scallops to River Haven Marina and Motel, home of the renowned Susie. "She'll be sitting on the dock surrounded by coolers," I'm told. "You'll see her. She's the fastest shucker down there."
Susie Grant, 47, wears a cloth glove on her left hand and wields the scallop knife like it's her natural right appendage. She typically sits here four hours a night cleaning scallops for side money ($5 per pound of meat) after finishing her housekeeping job at the marina's modest motel. Grant is a machine with about 30 years of experience.
We admire the poor souls at the sinks nearby who are cleaning their catch, but they are still working when we leave for dinner at Fiddler's Restaurant. They'll cook our bounty and provide all the trimmings for $10.
We fought hard for our scallops and don't mind letting someone else do the dirty work. After all, we're hungry.
When the waitress comes around the corner, folks at the tables nearby utter collective gasps as they eye the mounds of fried and seared scallops on our plates.
We smile. Scalloping is different than we thought but, in the end, it tastes like candy.
John Frank can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 754-6114.