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Scallop season gets off to brisk start

CRYSTAL RIVER

Don Chancey spotted a window in the weather. • "I think we might be able to run out there, find a few scallops and get back before the storms roll in," the charter boat captain said. "It is worth a try." • The seawall at the Plantation on Crystal River was packed with boats Monday morning. July 1 is the traditional start of scallop season, but this year, Gov. Rick Scott opened state waters two days early to boost local economies.

"We've been packed," said Michael Mancke, director of sales and marketing for the resort that caters to boaters, anglers and divers. "Everybody has been getting their limit."

Chancey, a Homosassa fishing guide who hangs up his rods and reels during scallop season, planned to run south out of the river mouth and avoid the crowds.

"I've been seeing a lot of scallops the last couple of weeks while I have been fishing," he said. "I know just where to go."

You'll find scallops throughout the Gulf of Mexico, but you can only harvest these prized shellfish from the Pasco-Hernando county line to the west bank of the Mexico Beach Canal in Bay County.

These tasty mollusks need the right mix of saltwater and freshwater to survive. If rains are heavy, too much freshwater can flood the bay and wipe out a crop. If the water is too salty, they won't survive, either.

The state's prime scallop grounds — Steinhatchee, Homosassa and Crystal River — have the perfect combination of fresh and saltwater.

These fishing towns go scallop crazy during the summer months as locals and tourists flock to the coast in search of the treasured bay scallop, which cannot be bought or sold on the commercial market.

There's only one way to get fresh scallops, and that's where Chancey comes in.

"I prefer a low tide and a sunny day," he said as we anchored up on our spot, about 2 miles from the river's mouth. "But sometimes you just have to make the best of what you have."

High winds, scattered thunderstorms and poor visibility posed a challenge to Chancey's crew. Ideally, it's best to hunt scallops on a slack tide, when the grass blades stand straight up. That's because bay scallops, like most wild creatures, are masters of camouflage. It takes a keen eye and steady hand to locate these critters as they hide in the thick beds of eel and turtle grass that flourish in the shallows.

Once a scallop is spotted, the critter often tries to run. These mollusks, unlike their clam and oyster cousins, can swim. By squeezing their shells together, scallops expel a jet of water that rockets them across grass beds.

After an hour scouring the grass beds at three locations, Chancey's scallopers found several dozen shellfish. But a wall of thunderstorms barreled down from the south.

"We better get moving," he said. "I would hate to get caught out here. I don't mind rain, but I can't stand lightning."

When Chancey reached the river mouth, he noticed that the pack of boats to the north had yet to pick up their anchors and head for port. As the storm approached, several boats tried to run for it, but one by one they disappeared behind a gray curtain of rain.

"We've got enough for lunch," Chancey said. "It's always better to be safe than sorry."

.FAST FACTS

Scallop season

Scallop season along Florida's Gulf Coast runs through Sept. 24. There are advantages to waiting later in the season. First, the animals are bigger, which means more meat for the table. Second, most people think the grass beds have been picked clean. So on a weekday in August, you pretty much have the place to yourself.

It is legal to land up to 2 gallons of whole bay scallops in the shell, or 1 pint of scallop meat each day during the open season. Recreational scallopers are not allowed to possess more than 10 gallons of whole bay scallops in the shell or a half gallon of meat aboard any boat.

The law requires that a vessel display a divers-down flag (red with a white diagonal stripe), whenever divers or snorkelers are in the water. The flag must be at least 20 by 24 inches if displayed on a boat; at least 12 by 12 inches if towed on a float by the diver or snorkeler.

In open waters, vessels must make an effort to stay 300 feet from a divers-down flag. In a river, channel or inlet, the distance is 100 feet. Vessels may operate within those distances, but only at idle speed.

If you go

The Plantation on Crystal River offers special packages for scallopers during the summer. Go to plantationoncrystalriver.com for information.

Scallop season gets off to brisk start 07/01/13 [Last modified: Monday, July 1, 2013 10:55pm]

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