STEINHATCHEE — Jim Henley doesn't like to rush scallop season. The Harvard-educated fishing guide prefers to wait until the mad rush of early July has subsided before he heads out to snorkel for the mouth-watering mollusks.
"This is my favorite time of the year," said Henley, 55 who gave up a successful career in the financial industry to spend more time on the water. "The scallops are bigger and the meat is sweeter."
Henley, a Georgia native, promised we would be in and out of the water in a matter of hours.
"I guarantee you will find all you need to eat and then some more," he said. "The scalloping here is that good."
The name Steinhatchee roughly translates to "River of Man," but it could have been just as easily named "River of Scallops." This fishing town of fewer than 2,000 and located about three hours north of Tampa along the gulf, was one of Florida's first settlements, visited by everyone from Spanish explorer Hernando De Soto to General Andrew Jackson.
Today, Steinhatchee caters to the outdoors crowd. For most of the year, tourists come to fish the rich grass beds for trout, redfish, sheepshead, black sea bass, mangrove snapper and tarpon. But come July 1, local fishing guides break out the Bimini tops for their boats and switch to scalloping.
"We are scallop city," said Dean Fowler, a 74-year-old historian who developed an old Florida-style resort called Steinhatchee Landing. "We have tried to preserve a way of life that you don't really see anyplace else."
Fowler, Henley and other locals don't want Steinhatchee to get much bigger. They know that growth can bring its own set of problems.
"Everything has to be just right for scallops to thrive," Fowler said. "This resource is fragile. We want to keep it healthy."
The water of life
Scallops need a mixture of freshwater and saltwater to survive. If the rains are heavy, such as during an active hurricane season, too much freshwater can wipe out an entire crop. If the water has too much salinity, scallops won't survive, either.
The Steinhatchee River, which starts in north Florida's Mallory Swamp and flows 28 miles to the Gulf of Mexico, provided just the right amount of freshwater this year to produce a bumper crop.
"You are not going to believe your eyes, boys," Henley said as he anchored on a deserted grass flat in about 4 feet of water. "You will be done in an hour."
Henley helped us into the water one by one. I cleared my mask, dipped my head in the water and immediately counted a dozen scallops within arms reach.
By 9 a.m., just an hour after we started, my 8-year-old son and I had gathered 2 gallons of scallops each. My friend Dean Pickel and his son Cley, 7, did just as well. Henley, who was only in the water for 20 minutes, got his limit too.
"I wasn't kidding, now was I?" Henley said as we motored back to the dock.
Baked, broiled or fried
Henley unloaded our haul and put the cooler in a truck for the short drive to Miss Beverlyn Hanson's house. Hanson cleans the scallops by hand — so not even the tiniest piece of meat is lost — then she bags them for lunch, dinner or the freezer.
We took ours to Jim Hunt's restaurant, Fiddler's, where he prepared them three different ways for lunch.
"I've got some fried scallops, scallops scampi and a little Greek creation for some variety," he said. After eating several pounds of scallops, I could feel my belly busting out of my belt buckle.
"Had enough?" Hunt asked.
"I think so," I said. "Until next year."