The boat ramps will be packed Sunday from Homosassa to Steinhatchee, as thousands take to the water in search of the legendary bay scallop.
But old-timers will tell you that it is better to wait until later in the summer, when scallops are bigger, fatter and, some say, juicier.
This year, late-season scallopers will get extra time to pursue their mollusk of choice. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission voted Thursday to extend the scallop season by two weeks, through Sept. 24.
In 2010, the state opened the season 12 days early to give local economies a boost after the BP oil spill. In 2011, the season opened one week early and stayed open two weeks later, once again to help those coastal towns that saw business drop after one of the worst environmental disasters in Florida history.
Know your quarry
Bay scallops are found throughout the Gulf of Mexico, but you can only gather them from the Pasco-Hernando county line north to the west bank of the Mexico Beach Canal in Bay County.
Areas such as Homosassa, Crystal River and Steinhatchee tend to have the best scalloping fields because these critters do best in places where freshwater rivers meet saltwater. Scallops are particular creatures and 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. Scallops are also delicate, which is why biologists have called them the "canaries of the sea." Like a canary in a coal mine, scallops, or the lack of them, will tell you when something is wrong with an estuary.
Making a comeback
Florida's west coast once had a thriving scallop industry. In 1994, with scallop stocks declining, state officials shut down the commercial season everywhere in the state and the recreational season south of the Suwannee River.
In 2001, state officials reopened the area between the Suwannee and the Pasco-Hernando county line because the stocks had recovered. However, recreational scalloping still was prohibited south of the Pasco-Hernando county line, which includes the waters surrounding Anclote Key, once a prime hunting ground for local scallopers.
Researchers from the Fish and Wildlife Research Institute in St. Petersburg and USF are conducting an aggressive restocking, or "seeding," program in Pine Island Sound, Charlotte Harbor, Sarasota County, Tampa Bay and St. Andrews Bay.
So the day may come when locals will not have to travel north to dive for scallops.
Plenty of rules to know
If you do go, scallopers are allowed to harvest 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 may not possess more than 10 gallons of whole bay scallops in the shell or a half gallon of meat aboard any vessel.
Remember, it is against the law to possess bay scallops on the water outside the open harvest areas. It is also illegal to land scallops outside open harvest areas. You may catch bay scallops only by hand or with a landing or dip net. They cannot be sold for commercial purposes.
Because snorkelers will be searching for scallops, boaters should keep watch for dive flags. State law requires that a vessel with divers or snorkelers in the water display a diver-down flag (red with a white diagonal stripe). The flag must be at least 20 by 24 inches if displayed on a boat or at least 12 by 12 inches if towed on a float by the diver or snorkeler.
In open water, vessels must make an effort to stay 300 feet from a diver-down flag. In a river, channel or inlet, the distance is 100 feet. Vessels may operate within those distances, but at idle speed.