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Scallop seekers

Recreational scalloping has been open along the Nature Coast since July 1.

People in search of the tasty mollusk no longer have to make long treks north toward Steinhatchee or the Suwannee River to enjoy the exciting activity.

Starting at the Hernando-Pasco County border near Aripeka and heading north, there are enough scallops to satisfy most snorkelers. All that's needed is a small boat, pair of fins, mask, snorkel and proper diver-down flag.

Don't forget to bring a mesh bag. If you can hold your breath for a bit, being able to stay under water longer makes it easy to fill a bag of these delectable treats.

The rules covering diver-down flags are as follows: Flags displayed on vessels must be 24 feet by 24 feet and have a stiffener to keep the flag unfurled. Dive flags on floats may be 12 x 12. A flag on boats must be mounted at a high point so that it can be observed from 360 degrees.

All vessels approaching a flag must make reasonable effort to keep at least 100 feet away when in a river, inlet or channel. And divers have to stay within 100 feet of the flag.

In open water, boats approaching a diver-down flag must make reasonable effort to remain at least 300 feet away, and divers have to be within that distance.

Vessels may approach within those distances, but only at idle speed.

Buzzing a flag or running too close at high speed has been added to the description of reckless operation of a vessel, which is a first-degree misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $1,000 and/or six months in jail. Flags must be removed when the divers exit the water.

Scallops live just a year, and have the opportunity to breed once in that time. This is the reason for fluctuations in regional populations.

Spawning occurs in the fall with the release of millions of eggs and sperm into the water column. If the population is not sufficiently dense, fertilization will not occur. A population must be able to completely reproduce each year for there to be a sustainable harvest.

There are key necessities for scallop populations to be abundant _ plenty of grassy bottom and enough salt, 20 parts per million or higher is the needed measurement.

Scalloping has been good along the lower Nature Coast.

Much of the activity is happening between Crystal River and the Homosassa River. Residents familiar with the shallow waters are finding the going a bit easier than non-residents.

"Many out-of-town people find running our craggy Homosassa coastline a bit unnerving," guide Mike Locklear said. "Most have heard about the shallow, unmarked rocks."

Those willing to be patient and learn about the area will fare well.

I was invited to ride out to the action on a boat run by local resident Mike Birdsong.

I had some trepidations when a dark cloud and lightning appeared. Birdsong assured me that if it got rough, we'd seek cover in a hurry.

Unless it got bad, he said, folks would be out there regardless of the weather.

"The scalloping has been that good," Birdsong said. "The best areas are spotty bottom with a mix of sand and grassy patches."

We met up with locals Paula and Skip Zelaya. Onboard their 16-foot skiff was their friend, Jodi Harriman, a third-time scalloper. They were just beginning to shuck their catch when we arrived.

"How's it going?" Birdsong said.

"On a good day, you can get a limit an hour," Paula Zelaya said.

Harriman pointed out how tough it was snorkeling against a full-moon, incoming tide.

"We came on into the shallows," Zelaya said. "Though the scallops are smaller here, they are easier to catch.

"The right knife is needed to perform the job of shucking well," she said.

Zelaya moved quickly from mollusk to mollusk, extracting the small and tender muscle from its shell.

"True scallop knives are hard to find anymore," she said. "They have a slight bend in the blade that makes opening scallops easy."

Some people use clam or oyster knives. Some folks try common household butter knives, and others have been known to use spoons. Whatever instrument works best for an individual is the one.

Scallop season officially closes Sept. 10.

The daily bag limit is two gallons of whole scallops or one pint of meat per individual per day. Additionally, vessels may not possess more than 10 gallons of whole scallops or a half-gallon of meat at any time.

If you have a question comment, call Capt. Mike Scarantino, (352) 683-4868.

Paula Zelaya (above) shows the type of knife _ with "a slight bend in the blade" _ needed to shuck a scallop, such as the one held by Jodi Harriman (right). Much of the activity for people pursuing the tasty muscle is happening in spotty bottom between Crystal River and Homosassa River. "On a good day, you can get a limit an hour," says Zelaya, an area resident.

Scalloping has been good along the lower Nature Coast since the start of the season earlier this month. Grass beds north of the Homosassa River yielded this hefty harvest.