Annual scallop season brings opportunity: Snorkel and catch your own dinner

Head up to Florida's prime scalloping grounds and try your hand at harvesting fresh Florida bay scallops. [Scroll down for our how-to infographic].

HOMOSASSA - Standing on the dock at MacRae's, the quintessential Florida fish camp, the old-timers who gathered at the picnic tables were happy that the scallops were in.

The season had been open for a few days, and the best way to sample the state's sweetest, most succulent seafood is to go out and catch it yourself.

These grizzled old salts plan their summer schedules around the annual scallop season, and by all indications, 2015 should be a banner year. (The season ends Sept. 24.)

But I didn't have the heart, or courage, to tell them they had some of their scallop facts wrong. Scallops don't migrate from deeper water. That's a myth. In fact, they don't travel very far from the grass beds in which they were born.

Adult scallops spawn in the early fall, and it doesn't take many to repopulate an area. A single scallop can lay more than a million eggs that will float around for two weeks to a month.

These eggs are sensitive to changes in water temperature and quality. If rains are heavy (years of numerous hurricanes), too much freshwater may flood the bay and wipe out a scallop crop. If the water is too salty, they won't survive, either.

By late October or early November, the scallop eggs attach themselves to a blade of sea grass where they will stay, feeding by filtering the water. They grow to the size of a dime, then a quarter, until summer, when they are big enough to be spotted by a snorkeler cruising a few feet above.

The whole "scallops are in" thing most probably stems from the fact that unlike oysters and most species of clam, which are sedentary mollusks, bay scallops are good swimmers. These creatures simply squeeze their shells together and expel a jet of water that will rocket them across a grass bed.

Because scallops are generally found in waters 4 to 8 feet deep, most scallop hunters stay on the surface until they spot one or two, or better yet, three or four. Then they take a deep breath and drop down to nab the scallops before they skedaddle.

These tasty bivalves are faster than you think. To catch your limit, you must be quick and careful. These creatures have been known to pinch a finger, hand or worse.

Years ago, I got a call from a man who did not realize that he had forgotten his scallop bag until he was several miles out into the Gulf of Mexico. With no place to store his catch, the man placed the scallops in his swim trunks, a painful mistake he did not make again.

You can buy farm-raised bay scallops in the supermarket, but they don't taste anything like the real thing. To get the good ones, you have to strap on a mask, snorkel and swim for them.

Turn them into a meal: