The only bad thing about scallop season has always been that it's too short — the dates for many years have been July 1 to Sept. 10. This year, with the state trying to jumpstart waterfront businesses along the Gulf Coast, the shellfish harvest season opened early; today is Day 2 and the season runs all the way to Sept. 25.
The early start means kids out of school get more of a chance to enjoy scalloping with their families, and what a great family sport it is. Thousands of Florida kids have gotten their first taste of the Gulf of Mexico's beautiful, clear inshore waters while snorkeling for scallops with mom and dad.
Scallops are an annual crop, according to biologists with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Institute in St. Petersburg. They are spawned, grow to maturity, lay eggs and die all in a single year, and that means the extra three weeks of harvest is unlikely to have much impact on the numbers. Most harvest takes place in the first few weeks of the season, in any case, and then on weekends only later.
Gathering scallops has been compared to hunting Easter eggs by Homosassa captain William Toney, who runs guide trips for them during the season.
"Basically, they're likely to be just about anywhere over the turtle grass at depths of 4 to 8 feet," says Toney. "You just have to move around until you find that first one, and then there may be hundreds more nearby."
Scallops are one of the few shellfish capable of moving — they don't "fix" to hard structure like oysters and barnacles, but drift with tidal currents. And, they're capable of a slow, strange sort of locomotion, too. By clapping their shells together repeatedly, they can swim in a sort of mad flutter that makes chasing them all the more interesting to families.
The shell of the scallop looks almost exactly like the symbol on the Shell Oil sign. They're typically 2 to 3 inches across at maturity.
The part that is consumed by scallop-lovers, however, is much smaller. On these bay scallops, the muscle that opens and closes the shell is only about the size of a slice of hotdog, maybe an inch long. It's pure white meat, however, and some of the best-tasting stuff that comes out of the sea.
Scalloping is legal anywhere north of the Pasco/Hernando county line north and west to Mexico Beach in the Panhandle. Scallops are around in other parts of the west coast, but the state judges they are not numerous enough for harvest in areas like Tampa Bay, Charlotte Harbor and Pine Island Sound.
The most popular ports for pursuing scallops include Homosassa and Crystal River, Suwannee, Cedar Key and Steinhatchee. In fact, if you haven't already reserved a room in one of those areas, forget it for the next couple of weeks. The limited number of motels and fish camps sell out every year for the early part of the season.
The limit is two gallons of whole scallops or a pint shucked per person, with a boat limit of 10 gallons whole or one half-gallon shucked. (It's a good idea to shuck these little dudes while in the boat, because if you take them home to clean them, the strong odor remaining in your garbage can will make you wish you hadn't.) Adults need a fishing license to harvest scallops, and the boat must display a dive flag anytime divers are in the water.
Scallops are best sautéed lightly in butter, but they're also good lightly breaded and deep fried. Some also eat them raw, sprinkled with fresh lemon juice.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is conducting a survey on scallop harvest, and filling it out can be fun for the kids after the diving is over. Go to http://svy.mk/bayscallops to complete the form. For more on harvest regulations, visit www.myfwc.com.