Swimsuits and sandals aren’t the only things in season this summer. From June 27 to September 24, Florida bay scallops line the ocean floor of the Gulf of Mexico, hidden like Easter eggs in the tall grass. Every year, thousands of people hit the water with their snorkels and mesh bags in tow to collect their daily limit of the tasty little mollusks. At the end of the day, your catch will make a tasty dinner – perfect for fueling you for round two of scalloping the next day.
A fun and rewarding activity for all ages, it’s easy to see why families wait to spend their vacation days for a week on the water during scallop season. Unlike fishing, don’t expect to spend the day on the boat waiting for the catch to come to you. Scalloping is a completely hands-on, underwater experience. If you know how to swim, love the water and enjoy eating freshly caught seafood, then scalloping may need to go on your summer bucket list.
Perhaps the best part is that you don’t even need to leave the state. The west coast of Florida offers a goldmine of scalloping locations around the Big Bend, including Steinhatchee, Homosassa and Crystal River. With clear waters and a scallop population on the rise after a rapid decline in the ‘90s, it’s no wonder people from all over flock to these areas for the sole purpose of scalloping. Each town has something special to offer, so no matter where you choose to go, the experience will be a memorable one.
Nestled in Florida’s Big Bend region about 70 miles west of Gainesville, this small coastal community is the embodiment of Old Florida: small shops, marinas, Florida Cracker-style homes and family restaurants decorate the town, making anyone who visits feel like they’re a local. Steinhatchee is often referred to as “Sportsman’s Paradise” because it offers an abundance of hunting, fishing and scalloping opportunities. Local boat ramps such as Steinhatchee Boat Ramp and Jena Boat Ramp are perfect for launching your own boat. If not, websites such as scallophunter.com list several licensed fishing charters you can hire.
One of the most popular places to scallop in Florida is Homosassa – a little town of less than 3,000 people and located about an hour north of Tampa. It’s rich history and fishing industry makes it a go-to destination for tourists. Fishing charters and local boat ramps make it easy to spend a day on the water scalloping, fishing or observing the wildlife. Visitors can stay in quaint bed-and-breakfasts like the Homosassa Riverside Resort and enjoy delicious seafood at The Freezer Tiki Bar – a local favorite.
Just 10 miles north of Homosassa is Crystal River. Located around Kings Bay, the city offers a multitude of opportunities for boating, swimming, fishing and – of course – scalloping. Stay at the Plantation on Crystal River, an eco-friendly resort hotel. When you’re not looking for scallops, you can legally swim with manatees in the river or perfect your golf swing at the onsite golf course. For dinner, try Seafood Seller & Café for some of the best Cajun and seafood around.
For those new to scalloping, while you can bring your own boat, most would recommend hiring a guide. There are a couple reasons for this: first, he or she will know the area like the back of their hand, and can take you to the best spots to catch the most scallops. Most guides will even take you on a tour of the surrounding area, where you can enjoy a scenic view of the gulf’s marine life. Second, the guides are experts when it comes to fishing, so they can answer any fishing or scallop related questions you may have. And finally, most guides will provide you with everything you need for a successful day on the water, including a saltwater fishing license and equipment. If you choose to make the trip without a guide, each person must have a Florida saltwater fishing license to harvest the scallops, which can be purchased on the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission website (myfwc.com) for $17.
Once you’ve anchored at the perfect spot, grab your snorkel gear and get ready to dive. Bay scallops reside in water two to eight feet deep, embedded between the sand and the vegetation. Make sure to use a sharp eye; even though the visibility underwater is
fairly high, the scallops are experts at camouflaging themselves.
Gainesville resident and McLeod General Trades vice president Erik Anderson said he goes scalloping with his family and friends four or five times a season. He offered a helpful hint: if you stop to look in a spot and don’t see any scallops, keep moving.
“They’re usually in clusters,” the Stuart, Florida native said. “A lot of people tend to go to the same area just because it’s where everyone else is. It helps to get away from the crowd.”
With their ribbed, fan-like exterior, scallops look like the stereotypical seashell. Dozens of bright blue eyes line the edges of the shell opening, which help it detect light and movement. In fact, it’s these eyes that tell them when to swim away when they sense danger. Scallops can propel themselves by opening and closing their shells, so when you go to grab one, don’t be alarmed – just be quick! Using either your hand or a dip net, grab the scallop, place it in your mesh bag and continue on until you’ve hit the daily limit: two gallons of whole scallops per person with a maximum of 10 gallons per boat, or one pint of scallop meat per person with a maximum of a half gallon per boat.
As soon as you catch them, it’s best to immediately chill the scallops in a cooler, which makes the cleaning process much easier and faster. And remember – the quicker you clean them, the quicker you can eat them.
“It’s a pretty laid back trip. You don’t have to worry about tides or anything,” Anderson said. “As long as you have a boat, a good group of people who like being on the water, good weather and cooler full of ice, you’re good to go.”