A Florida native goes scalloping for the first time

Pasco County's scalloping season runs from July 17 to 26. A local tried his hand at catching some for the first time.
Tim Gayson chats with his wife Kolby while she prepares to dive into Florida's Gulf Coast to catch scallops on Saturday, July 18, 2020.
Published July 22, 2020

Tim Gayson was quiet as the boat glided along the winding Pithlachascotee River. His wife, Kolby, stopped chatting with the captain to ask him how he was doing.

He said he was taking it all in.

A Tarpon Springs native and current Pasco resident, Tim had experienced plenty of Florida’s outdoor adventures –– fishing, kayaking, exploring beaches and hiking little-known trails. But he’d never been scalloping.

Scalloping was banned in the waters off Pasco County for 25 years due to over-harvesting. By 2018, the scallop population had rebounded, and the county introduced a 10-day mini-season. This year’s season began last Friday and runs through Sunday.

As communications manager of Pasco’s tourism agency, Florida’s Sports Coast, Kolby had been scalloping several times to market the county’s newest outdoor attraction.

But Saturday, she decided, was for her husband.

The two set foot on Mark Dillingham’s boat at Sims Park boat ramp at 8 a.m. Mark, a charter captain for over 20 years, became Kolby’s go-to scalloping captain during the 2019 season.

About 45 minutes passed until the boat reached the mouth of the Pithlachascotee. “Hold onto something,” Mark said. He punched the throttle and the boat planed up on the water as it sped into the Gulf.

The Gulf of Mexico was already dotted with dozens of other vessels like Mark’s. Red dive flags on each boat fluttered in the wind.

Once the boat slowed, Gayson dragged his hand across the water’s surface. “Temperature feels good,” he said. Waves lapped up against the boat in response.

Soon after, it was time to dive. Tim lathered sunscreen on himself and his wife before securing his snorkel and flippers.

Kolby jumped into the water first, and Tim was right behind her.

As high tide approached, the water was nearly 6 feet deep. Tim floated on the surface, peering down to search for scallops, nestled between blades of seagrass on the sandy bottom.

Sometimes the scallops would make their way up to the tips of the seagrass, their fluorescent blue eyes flashing at passing swimmers, making for an easier catch. This morning, however, their dark brown shells blended in with the silt.

But Mark said earlier that some swimmers just have an eye for them.

Not two minutes later, Tim disappeared under water. He surfaced, beaming through his snorkel. The first scallop of the day shone in his outstretched hand.

After slipping the scallop into a mesh dive bag, Tim dipped his head back down, but over the next few minutes, anxiety crept in. He noticed he was breathing heavily, fighting the plastic in his mouth and dragging in all the oxygen he could get. He was getting frustrated, and it was inhibiting his scallop search.

Relax, he told himself.

His breathing slowed. He allowed himself to float comfortably in the silence. Then, he started spotting scallops in droves.

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After an hour, Tim swam back to the boat, a full bag of scallops in hand. Mark dumped them into the boat’s livewell, counting them as they tumbled in: about 20. Kolby caught 15.

Tim wasn’t feeling competitive, though. He was enjoying lying atop the water and moving with the current. Catching scallops was just a bonus.

Sometimes the scallops fought back.

“One of the scallops clamped down on my finger,” Tim laughed. “That didn’t feel too good.”

A few minutes later, Kolby burst out of the water screaming. “That one bit me HARD,” she said, scolding the catch in her hand before shoving it into her dive bag.

Tim wasn’t deterred by the scallops occasionally clamping down. In fact, he decided to forego his dive bag and hold the scallops in his hands.

He couldn’t help but find more scallops than he could hold, however. Fifteen minutes later, he dumped his haul into Kolby’s bag with an unintelligible grunt and floated away.

By 11:30, Kolby had dried herself off and begun drinking water. It was time to head back. But Tim kept swimming. After two hours of snorkeling, he hadn’t taken a single break.

As the temperature neared 90 degrees, a few puffy white clouds dotted the sky.

About 20 scallops later, Tim circled back to the boat and bobbed in the water. He didn’t seem to want to get out.

“He just won’t stop,” Kolby laughed. “Babe, you okay?”

“Huh?” Tim said as he pulled off his mask and grinned.

“He’s going to sleep good tonight,” Mark said.

Soon, the couple would shuck their two gallons of scallops and toss them on the grill, smothered with butter, garlic, and parmesan cheese.

This was about more than a nice dinner, though.

“I’m so excited I finally got to share this experience with you,” Kolby told her husband.

“Mmm,” Tim murmured, lips turning up the corners. But he wasn’t looking at her. Once again, he was gazing out onto the water, at the waves and the boats and the boundless blue sky.

Taking it all in.