Come summer, scalloping is one of the most enjoyable water activities you can find. Never done it? You’re in for a treat. Read on to discover how you can experience one of Florida’s best times on the water. You even get to eat the fruits of your labor!
A Bit of Biology
If you’ve ever ordered scallops in a chain seafood restaurant, odds are you were eating sea scallops, the larger relative of the bay scallop, which is the target of our pursuit.
Officially, bay scallops (Argopecten irradians) belong to the “mollusk” family in the class known as “bivalves,” meaning they consist of two hinged shells. (FYI, that seashell on the familiar Shell gas station logo is a scallop.)
Here in Florida, scallops are usually found not far from shore, in the seagrass beds of shallow waters, usually 4 to 10 feet deep.
The upper shell of the bay scallop is typically a dark, mottled grayish-brown color, while the lower shell is white. The rims of both shells are lined with numerous brilliant blue eyes. Once you know what you’re looking for, they’re much easier to find, even when camouflaged by the seagrasses.
When a scallop feels threatened, it scoots backward through the water by quickly opening and closing its shells. This sudden swimming movement is often enough to get them out of harm’s way from a predator, but they’re not too hard to catch.
And how exactly does one catch a scallop?
That’s the fun part.
In some areas, at low tide especially, you can wade out into the seagrass flats and find scallops. But for the most part, you’ve got to get wet. As in, do some snorkeling and diving.
Equipped with a mask, snorkel and fins, you float on the surface and swim along slowly. When you spot a scallop, just hold your breath and dive down to catch the scallop by hand and place it in your mesh bag. (If you’re squeamish about touching the scallop, you can use a small net, but let’s face it, if just touching one bothers you, you’ll never get past the cleaning part. More on that later.)
Just as with fishing, harvesting of scallops is regulated by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), and limits apply. Each person is allowed two gallons of whole scallops or the equivalent of one pint of scallop meat (sans shell) per day. The limit for each boat is 10 gallons of whole scallops or one-half gallon of meat per day. (If fewer than five people are on the boat, the individual limit applies.)
The 2016 Florida scalloping season opens June 25 and runs until September 24.
Play By The Rules
Most people head out on their scalloping mission by boat, so you need a valid recreational saltwater Florida fishing license. (This isn’t the case if you’re just out wading, but you aren’t likely to catch many scallops that way. If you are wading to find scallops, you’re still required to have a 12×12-inch “diver down” flag.)
You are only allowed to take scallops by hand or with a hand-held net. In addition to paying attention to limits, you need to be sure to have the necessary safety equipment on board the boat to comply with state and Coast Guard regulations.
a wearable personal flotation device for everyone on board
a throwable flotation device
a sound-producing device
a diver down flag that must be flown from the highest point of the boat when anyone is in the water
“You need to do your prep work and be safe,” advises Greg Workman, public information officer with the FWC Northwest Region. “Authorities are out there on the water monitoring scalloping areas, and if you don’t have everything required and an FWC, Coast Guard or state officer stops your boat to check, they can terminate your outing.”
Safety is paramount.
This means following some common sense and leaving the consumption of alcoholic beverages until you get back to shore. Just remember, not everyone follows this advice, so pay attention to other boaters at all times. Boat drivers should slow to idle speed when closer than 300 feet to a diver down flag, but not all do, so be on guard.
“You need to be vigilant of boat traffic around you, and when you are boating, watch out for swimmers in the water,” says Workman.
“Make sure to display your diver down flag, and stay close to your boat when you’re in the water. It’s best to leave at least one person in the boat at all times to count heads and keep an eye on things. That person can make sure no one is in trouble and watch for boats around you. If you take care of the safety aspect, the fun will follow.”
It’s easy to drift away from the boat when snorkeling, so lift your head often to keep your bearings and not get off on your own.
Because summer in Florida is synonymous with thunderstorms, consider the forecast when planning your scalloping trip. Once you head out, keep your marine radio on. Weather can quickly turn dangerous on the water, and the last thing you want is to get caught in lightning, so play it safe.
Where to Find ‘Em
There was a time you could find bay scallops all the way from Florida’s northwest corner, down around the tip of the state and up to around West Palm Beach. Sadly, that was many years ago and no longer holds true.
Today, the population of bay scallops in Florida waters is considered fragile. Most populations are found off the Gulf Coast. The legal harvest area is restricted to the state waters from the Pasco-Hernando County line to the west bank of the Mexico Beach Canal in Bay County. It is illegal to have bay scallops in your possession outside these harvest areas. Only recreational harvesting is allowed in Florida; it’s illegal to harvest them commercially.
Among the most popular scalloping destinations are Homosassa, Crystal River and Steinhatchee. You can take your own boat out, leaving from one of the public boat ramps. Other options are to rent a boat or hire a charter.
Once you head out and spot the “fleet” (other boaters on the hunt for scallops), you’ll know you’re in the right spot. Before you drop anchor, you’ll want to idle along slowly, keeping an eye out for scallops below. Some will invariably be light-side up and more visible.
In Florida, bay scallops tend to live just a year, and populations can vary significantly from year to year. An area that was fabulous for scalloping last season may not be rewarding at all the next summer. Scallops are very sensitive to environmental changes and water quality. They seem to prefer clear water and move around from day to day. An area that is plentiful one day may not yield many scallops just a day or so later.
If you’re among the first boats of the season, some due diligence is advised before you leave port. Check with other boaters and the local marina as to the best locations.
Going With A Guide
There are very good reasons to go out with a charter trip, especially for your first scalloping adventure.
“When you go with a charter, the captain will know where the scallops are, and if he’s a good guide, you should be able to ‘limit out.’ Also, you don’t have to get your own license if you’re going out with a licensed guide. If a guide says you need to get your own license, that’s a sign he isn’t licensed himself to carry customers,” notes Captain Rick LeFiles of Osprey Guides (ospreyguides.com), based out of Yankeetown.
Going out on a chartered trip also means you don’t have to worry about purchasing equipment.
“I supply the masks, snorkels and fins. I just tell customers to bring sunblock, a hat and whatever they want to eat,” says LeFiles. “It’s also a good idea to bring a T-shirt to wear over your bathing suit later.”
A good guide will have a boat stocked with all the necessary safety equipment and will be alert to your personal well-being. Although some guides will get in the water to help you find scallops, LeFiles takes his job seriously and thinks it’s best to remain on the boat and keep a protective eye on those in the water.
“At the beginning of the season, there can be as many as 2,000 boats out there, and someone needs to be looking out for the safety of people in the water,” says LeFiles.
If you’re fortunate, your guide may even help clean your catch.
Because scalloping season can get hectic, LeFiles recommends booking your trip two to three weeks in advance. (Most guides require a minimum number of customers; LeFiles needs a minimum of four and can take a maximum of six on his 22-foot Aqua Sport bay boat.) Because LeFiles scallops the Crystal River area, it’s usually about an hour-long boat ride to reach the scalloping grounds. You’ll easily spend three to four hours scalloping and then the hour back in, so allow for at least six hours on the water.
The first weekend of scalloping season is on, or just before, July 4, which means the scalloping grounds will be swarming with boats and people.
“I encourage people to book a trip during the week, if possible, because it can be a zoo out there on the weekends,” adds LeFiles, who regularly gives eco-tours of the Withlacoochee River throughout the year in addition to seasonal scalloping and fishing charter trips.
Clean Your Catch
Cleaning scallops is the least fun part of the whole deal, but honestly, once you get the hang of it, it’s not bad.
Scallops are seafood, and standard precautions must be taken, so clean them as soon as possible. As soon as you catch scallops, put them on ice in a cooler on the boat. After 45 minutes or so, most scallops will pop open, making your job much easier. If you opt to clean them on the boat, do so over a bucket on board—not directly into the ocean, for the safety of people in the water.
You can also clean them when you get back to the dock or hire someone to handle this chore. In some scalloping towns, there are enterprising folks who clean scallops for a nominal fee.
Some people use a Shop Vac (I cringe at the thought of cleaning that…), but it’s not hard to clean them by hand. You can use a scallop or oyster knife, but I’ve always used an old butter knife, and it works fine.
Scallops are different from oysters in that you only eat the muscle that opens and closes the shell. (It’s the adductor muscle, if you want to be precise.)
Here are the basics:
1. Hold the scallop white side down in your left hand (or right hand, if you’re a “leftie”).
2. Insert the tip of your scallop knife to pry open the scallop. (If they’ve been on ice a while, this shouldn’t be hard.)
3. With the top shell open, scrape along the top of the shell with your knife to cut the scallop muscle free from the top shell.
4. Run the knife along the outer edge of the top shell to free the membrane (mantle), and toss the top shell aside.
5. The muscle is the only thing you want to eat, so run the knife around the bright white muscle, removing the darker-colored gut and slippery membrane that surrounds the scallop. You should have nothing but the muscle left attached to the bottom shell. Scrape it free, drop it in a plastic bag.
Keep the meat cold (on ice until you get home and then in the fridge). Eat it within two days or freeze it.
Cleaning those first few scallops can be challenging, but trust me, you’ll get better with practice. And that night when you’re eating those tender, melt-in-your-mouth delicacies, you’ll appreciate them even more.
On The Hunt
I can’t think of a better way to spend a summer afternoon on Florida waters than going scalloping.
I’ve found from personal experience that the group you go out with can make the outing either fabulous or something to be endured. I prefer the former.
That said, you really want to go with a responsible person, someone who is trustworthy about handling a boat and has been scalloping before. (If you don’t know someone, a charter trip is the answer.) I’ve gone with friends who knew exactly what they were doing; I had the time of my life, and everyone got their limit. On a couple other occasions, I was just glad to get back to shore safe and sound.
This sounds like a no-brainer, but don’t clean your scallops on the boat and dump the guts overboard while other people are scalloping. That’s just “chumming” the water. And yes, there are predators out there. This is the ocean, after all.
I’ve seen sharks on numerous occasions while scalloping. When that happens, in my opinion, it’s time to pull anchor and move the boat, but it’s never made me not want to go scalloping. (I’m the person who has cage diving with Great Whites on my bucket list though, so I’m probably not the one to ask.)
Aside from the thrill of the hunt, part of the appeal of scalloping is that you never know what you’ll see. It’s a whole other world once you get in that water. Along with a few sharks, I’ve seen starfish, crabs, sea urchins, jellyfish, a huge grouper and one massive stingray with a wingspan longer than me. Impressive and humbling. I always leave the ocean feeling blessed to have been a visitor.
I think Greg Workman of the FWC describes scalloping perfectly when he says it’s like a “big Easter egg hunt.”
“I was born and raised here, but I never took advantage of the chance to go scalloping until I was an adult,” says Workman. “It’s a great family experience; my kids love it. You get to enjoy your ‘take,’ and the limits are generous enough that you can take them home to prepare fresh. So get out in our Florida waters and enjoy yourself!”
Sautéed Scallops with Cream Sauce
1 lb. freshbay scallops
1 to 2 cloves garlic (minced)
1 cup fresh asparagus (tips only)
1/2 cup fresh green peas
1cup heavy cream
1 cup fresh Parmesan cheese, shredded (set aside 1/3 for garnish)
2 tablespoons real butter
1 pound angel hair pasta
Sauté asparagus in olive oil and garlic over medium heat until tender. Stir in peas and cook two to three minutes. Set aside. › In saucepan, combine cream, 2/3 cup Parmesan and butter. Stir over medium heat until reduced and slightly thickened. › Cook pasta according to directions. Drain. › Sauté scallops in olive oil (about 2 tablespoons). When they turn from translucent to opaque, they’re done. (Overcooking makes them tough and chewy.) › Stir asparagus and peas into cream sauce. Plate pasta, top with scallops and sauce. Garnish with remaining 1/3 cup Parmesan. Enjoy!
To find scalloping charters, hotels and boat ramps, visit scallophunter.com. This website is also a great resource for T-shirts and scallop recipes. If you’re interested in renting, Google “scallop boat rental” in Steinhatchee, Crystal River or Homosassa. For more details on scalloping rules and regulations, visit myfwc.com.