PORT ST. JOE
It is scallop season along this tranquil stretch of Florida known as "the Forgotten Coast."
From July to late September, the tasty shellfish lures tourists to this lesser-known part of Florida that lacks the amusement parks, nightclubs and world-famous beaches found in other parts of the state. This region, which stretches east from Panama City in the Panhandle along the gulf coast line as it curves south along the state's Big Bend, is known for its shallow and wide bays that give shelter to scallops, oysters and other fragile sea life. This year, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission extended the scallop season by two weeks, through Sept. 24.
Bay scallops are found throughout the Gulf of Mexico, but you can gather them only from the Pasco-Hernando county line north to the west bank of the Mexico Beach Canal in Bay County. Areas like Homosassa, Crystal River and Steinhatchee tend to have the best scalloping fields because these critters do best in places where freshwater rivers meet saltwater.
"Scallops need clean water. They don't do well if there are any pollution issues," said Stan Kirkland, regional spokesman for the fish and wildlife commission. "What you notice in this part of the state is that there aren't the condominiums and other developments that might cause water quality issues."
The scallops can be found nestled in turtle grass in about 2 to 4 feet of water, which makes it easy to wade into the water and collect them. But longtime scalloper Ronald Pickett prefers to take his boat out into water 10 to 12 feet deep and find scallops while snorkeling.
The best way to eat them is raw and fresh from the bay, he said.
"Really sweet. It's unbelievable," Pickett said as he gulped down a mouthful of scallop on a recent afternoon. "If you've never eaten one of these, you've never eaten a really sweet scallop."
Florida banned commercial scallop harvesting in the region in the 1990s to prevent their demise. The three-month season is for recreational scallop harvesters only, and the state limits each person to 2 gallons of whole scallops per day. A state fishing license is required, with costs varying based on residency and the length of license.
The season is a summertime tourism boon for sleepy Gulf County, said Jennifer Jenkins, executive director of the Gulf County Tourist Development Council.
"We talk to people all the time and they just love this. Really and truly, it is like Easter egg hunting in the water," she said.
Local chef and restaurateur Patti Blaylock said most people who eat at her Sunset Coastal Grill in Port St. Joe like their scallops sauteed or fried. Blaylock's favorite scallop dish is a ceviche.
The restaurant cannot offer local scallop dishes because of the commercial harvesting ban, but Blaylock often prepares scallops for people who bring them in by the bucketful.
"Sometimes they don't know how to fix them or what to do with them, so we will prepare something for them and serve it here," she said.
Information from Times files was used in this report.