There are many reasons to celebrate summer in Florida, and many others to curse it, but one of the best treats is the opening of scallop season. It begins July 1 in our area. There aren't many better ways to spend a day than snorkeling in the clear waters of the Gulf of Mexico while on the hunt for scallops.
Here is (most) of what you need to know in preparation for the season:
What is a scallop?
Technically, bay scallops are called Argopecten irradians. They are bivalves that are bottom dwelling and hang out on grass flats. Bivalves have two shells joined by a hinge. They can get as big as 3 inches in Florida and live about a year.
One distinguishing characteristic is the tiny blue eyes lining the outer shell. The eyes detect motion and are a warning signal.
Scallops are fragile. The water has to be just right for them to survive. They thrive on grass beds that have just the right mix of saltwater and freshwater. Too much rain can mess up the balance and kill the scallops. Same goes if it's too salty.
And here's a fun fact: Scallops have both male and female sex organs, which means they can produce both sperm and eggs. Change in water temperature triggers the spawning, which occurs in the fall. One scallop is capable of producing millions of eggs at once. Only one egg out of 12 million is likely to reach adulthood.
When the season opens July 1 it stays open through Sept. 24. There are three zones in Florida that stretch from Gulf County in Port St. Joe to the Hernando-Pasco county line. The area closest to Tampa Bay is Zone 3, which includes Crystal River and Homosassa. It is illegal to land scallops outside the open harvest area. So if you take scallops off the Hernando County coast the boat must be docked in that county and not another one. And don't try to take scallops before July 1. That will just result in a hefty fine and besides, nobody likes a cheater.
It takes a saltwater fishing license to harvest scallops. It is legal to take up to two gallons of whole bay scallops in the shell or one pint of scallop meat per person. It is illegal to possess more than 10 gallons of whole bay scallops in the shell or a half gallon of meat aboard any boat. And don't try to sell the scallops commercially, that's another hefty fine.
For all the regulation details, check out myfwc.com.
Where to go and why
There was a time when scallops were found up and down the east and west coast of Florida from Pensacola to the Florida Keys. No more. The numbers have dwindled and they can be found only in certain areas. Luckily for us, one of those areas is in Pasco/Hernando county.
The best scallop grounds in the entire state are in the Steinhatchee/Homosassa/Crystal River area. It's the perfect mix of water as well as an abundance of grass flats.
It takes a boat to reach the swath of water that holds the scallops. Boat rentals are available, and some fishing captains charter their boats for a day of scalloping. The best time is when there is a slack tide. The water isn't as deep and the grass blades are standing up. It's possible to get scallops on a high tide, it just requires a longer dive to the bottom.
Try to go scalloping on a weekday, and go early. It can get crowded on the weekends, which limits the scalloping grounds. And the later you go the more there is a chance of an afternoon shower popping up.
What to do
The most important part of scalloping is the equipment. Get a mask and snorkel that fits snugly so water won't seep into the mask. Fins aren't necessary, but it sure is easier to float around the water with them on. Make sure to have a mesh bag with a drawstring that ties around your wrist. And don't forget a diver down flag for safety.
Scalloping is like an Easter egg hunt. They lie in the grass beds and are sometimes camouflaged in the sand. They usually have their shells open and point toward the sun. But once they sense an intruder it's time to clam up and hit the road.
By pumping their abductor muscle, which is the delicious white meat we eat, scallops expel a jet of water to move. The key is to snatch the scallop before it takes off. You might get pinched as the shells close. It only hurts a little bit.
After the catch
The scallops won't shuck themselves. It takes a bit of work to separate the shells, remove the liver and heart and scrape the white muscle off the shell. Also, there are usually people by the docks who will shuck the scallops for a fee.
Once you have your pint or so of scallops (assuming it's a good day), here's a basic recipe we ran across:
Saute the scallops in a skillet with butter on medium heat for about a minute. Don't overcook the scallop; they can get rubbery.
Then clear out the skillet and add butter, a clove of garlic and salt and pepper to taste. Stir that up for about three minutes and then add the scallops. Stir that briefly to heat the scallops and put it over your favorite pasta.