HERNANDO BEACH — Anyone traveling in Bayport Park or Hernando Beach this past weekend likely observed the flood of boat-towing vehicles that arrives annually with the opening of bay scallop season in the Gulf of Mexico.
The hunt for the bivalve delicacies began on Saturday with the season — which lasts until Sept. 24 — opening two days earlier than its traditional July 1 start.
Steve McGowan was ready. Despite the threat of showers, he and his wife, Theresa, packed up their 28-foot boat and headed over from Lakeland to get an early start on their scallop quest Sunday.
"We come here about three times during the season," McGowan said.
"We usually fish a little and then go scallop diving. It's very relaxing and fun, and it's one of the best dinners you'll ever eat."
If scallops were gold, said Hernando County tourism development director Tammy Heon, area businesses that cater to visiting scallop hunters might well consider this year to be the mother lode.
"Everything I'm hearing is that we're going to have a great, great season," Heon said. "And for the owners of local hotels, marinas and bait and tackle shops, it's a heck of a boon to have at this time of year."
Indeed, over the past decade or so, Hernando County has gained a reputation as being one of the state's prime scallop harvest spots in a zone that runs northward from the Hernando/Pasco border to Bay County. Steve Geiger, a research biologist for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission, said that much of that has to do with the shallow nature of the county's coastline and better water quality.
"When you have a lot of seagrass out there and that's where scallops prefer to stay this time of year," Geiger said. "They do tend to move around, but you can easily find them in shallow areas or in deeper water."
The other alluring part of scallop hunting is that it's a simple, family-oriented activity that doesn't require a lot of special equipment. In some shallow areas close to the shore, scallops can be retrieved by hand or with dip nets in seagrass beds.
However, most experienced scallop seekers prefer snorkeling or scuba diving further from shore. Jeff Tobey, owner of Scuba West in Hudson, recommends using an "ultra-dry snorkel" (a type that more effectively keeps water out of the snorkel), a well-fitting mask and fins for best efficiency. He suggests that divers carry a mesh bag for collecting scallops and leave a five-gallon bucket on the boat to help keep track of legal limits.
Tobey said that safety should always be a main concern, and that snorkel users need to keep track of the depth they are diving so that they can safely return to the surface for air. Divers should keep in mind that state law requires that they display a regulation sized dive flag on a buoy or float to alert people nearby there are people swimming within 300 feet.
According to FWC rules, a salt water fishing license is needed to harvest scallops. There is a daily bag limit of two gallons of whole bay scallops or one pint of meat per person; vessels with multiple people aboard are limited to 10 gallons of whole bay scallops or a half-gallon of meat per day.
Tobey said that for best results in the search for scallops, hunters should scope out a certain spot quickly to decide whether to move to shallower or deeper waters, depending on the presence of scallops in a particular area.
Logan Neill can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1435.