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A scalloping life for me

HOMOSASSA — If it was at all possible to be a professional scalloper, I'd quit this newspaper gig.

Seriously, it would be the greatest job in the world. All you need is a boat, something to get you to the fertile grass flats off Homosassa.

Then you anchor, put on your snorkel, mask and flippers (about $40), lower yourself into the 86-degree water and start slowly canvassing the ocean floor. The scallops are hiding in the grass just a few feet below. Spot one, dive down, grab the shell and put it in your collection bag.

It takes little skill, which is right up my alley. No worrying about moon phases, early morning launches to net bait, or reels that tangle. Just the serenity of your breath through the snorkel as you slowly float on the water.

It's a summerlong Easter egg hunt.

"It was kind of thin last year,'' said Don Chancey, a charter captain in Homosassa for the past seven years. "But there's been a lot of scallops this year. It's been very good so far."

Due to the gulf oil spill, scallop season opened two weeks early. The scallops were small in mid June, almost too small to worry about. But now is the time. On a recent trip, the scallops were big and plentiful. Yep, it would be a heck of a way to make a living.

Argopecten irradians

To be a scalloper, you have to think like a bay scallop. In other words, you don't have to think much at all.

They are bivalves with a central abductor muscle, which happens to be tasty. They like to eat plankton and have little filters at the front of their shells that help trap food. They are mostly free living, which means they can move from place to place on the ocean floor. Scallops do this by using that abductor muscle to push their shells up and down. However, they move slowly, so it's not much of a defense mechanism.

Scallops actually have eyes, but they can only detect change of light and motion. That's why when you get close to grabbing a scallop they shut their shells tight, as if to say "Oh, no!"

Scallops hang out in the waters off Homosassa and Crystal River not only because of the grass flats but because of water clarity. The less pollutants in the water, the more scallops thrive. According to a state survey, there has been a 270 percent increase in the scallop count from 2009.

Tracking them down

So scallops move slowly, have no dangerous defense mechanism and are relatively easy to spot. No wonder hundreds of boats fill the flats each season.

Chancey and I glide along the water in his 24-foot Carolina Skiff during our 30-minute journey to the scallop grounds. Chancey is a fourth generation Floridian, originally from nearby Webster. His main passion is fishing, either inshore or offshore, but he spends the summer taking tourists out on scallop hunts.

"It's kind of boring for me," Chancey said. "I just spend four hours watching people swim around. Some captains won't even do scallop charters. But I figure it's better than being home."

There is no real science to finding a good spot. The farther east you are on the grass flats, the more shallow the water. The farther west, the deeper the water. We are on the west side of the flats in 7 feet of water.

"I found the scallops are bigger in the deeper water," Chancey said.

Each season varies. Chancey said last year was slow. The year before that there were jellyfish in the water. This year is about as ideal as can be.

That was apparent just after entering the water. It took less than 30 seconds before three scallops showed themselves on top of the grass. All three shut their shells tight, and it was almost possible to hear the "Oh, no!" coming from them.

From there it was a steady stream of scallops. "Oh, no! Oh, no!" After 30 minutes, my bag held about 70 scallops.

Time to clean

Cleaning a scallop is simple. Just take a spoon, clear out the brown guts and leave the white muscle attached to the shell. Chancey can clean one in about 5 seconds, but he doesn't make it a habit.

Here's a tip: Head down to Homosassa Springs to clean the scallops. It is the source of the Homosassa River, and it pours fresh water into the river. The temperature is 72 degrees, but it is especially refreshing on a summer day after spending hours in the salt water.

You can clean the scallops at the spring, throw the shells in the water, put the muscles in a plastic bag in your cooler, then jump in for a swim before heading home.

Wouldn't that be a perfect work day?

FAST FACTS

Bay scallops

Season: July 1 to Sept. 10 (season opened two weeks early this year).

Regulations: 2 gallons whole or 1 pint meat per harvester, per day. No more than 10 gallons whole or half gallon meat per vessel, per day.

Where to find them: Harvesting is only allowed in state waters (within 9 miles of shore in the gulf) from the Pasco-Hernando county line to the west bank of the Mexico Beach Canal in Bay County.

A scalloping life for me 07/29/10 [Last modified: Thursday, July 29, 2010 6:45pm]
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