HOMOSASSA — Scallop season starts Saturday, a three-day head start on the usual July 1 opening. So now's the time to get prepared to grab your share of the tasty shellfish.
Before you hit the water, here are a few tips from local fishing guide Jim Lemke, who spends most of his summer scouring the grass beds of the North Suncoast.
"Make sure all of your dive gear — your mask, fins and snorkel — are in proper working order," Lemke said. "You don't want to get out there and find that you have got a leaky mask."
Snorkeling gear that is only used once a year (typically during scallop season) can dry out, crack or rot away. Before you go, check your seals and straps. And remember the defogger.
"Check the weather and try to get an early start," Lemke added. "We typically have thunderstorms in the afternoon this time of year. You don't want to get caught out in the open when there is lightning."
Try to get your scalloping in before noon. Public boat ramps get busy, so think about launching in the dark then watch the sunrise on the water.
"Pick your tide," Lemke said. "You want to go scalloping on the last part of the outgoing tide and the first part of the incoming tide."
You won't have to kick as hard to cover ground during a slack tide. It is also easier to spot scallops hiding at the base of the sea grass blades that are standing straight up.
"Look for scallops near the sand holes," Lemke added. "Scallops are easiest to spot in the eel grass, a blade of which is as big around as a piece of fishing line."
Bay scallops are also in the turtle grass, which is wider and flatter than eel grass, but they are harder to see.
Where to go
Scallops 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 — Homosassa, Crystal River and Steinhatchee — have the perfect combination of both fresh and saltwater.
You might hear people say, "The scallops are in." But the idea that scallops migrate is an old fish tale. Scallops don't travel far from the grass beds in which they were born. They spawn in the early fall, and it doesn't take many to repopulate an area. One scallop can lay a million eggs that float around for two weeks to a month. The eggs then attach to blades of grass, and grow until the summer scallop season.
If you are planning on scalloping, head north of the Pasco-Hernando county line. The scalloping grounds run west to the west bank of the Mexico Beach Canal in Bay County and remain open through Sept. 24.
Know the rules
Yes, you need a saltwater fishing license.
And, yes, there are limits. Recreation scallopers are allowed 2 gallons of whole bay scallops (still in the shell) or 1 pint (scallop meat out of the shell) per day. Any one vessel cannot exceed 10 gallons of whole bay scallops or a half-gallon of scallop meat.
Lemke suggests marking the 5-gallon mark on the inside of your bucket.
"Most of the five-gallon buckets that they sell at hardware stores actually hold six gallons," he said. "So if you fill the bucket to the top with scallops, you will have one gallon too many and a very expensive ticket."
You can catch bay scallops only by hand or with a landing or dip net. They cannot be sold for commercial purposes. For information, go to myfwc.com.