Steinhatchee – Jim Henley can't wait for scallop season. The Harvard-educated fishing guide likes to catch his share of finfish, but when the summer wind blows, he drops everything to hunt for these tasty mollusks.
"This is my favorite time of the year," said Henley, who gave up a successful career in the financial industry to spend more time on the water. "The scallops are big and the meat is sweet. It just can't be beat."
Henley, a Georgia native, tells his clients that they will be in and out of the water in a matter of hours. "I guarantee they will find all you need to eat and then some more. The scalloping here is that good."
This fishing town of fewer than 2,000, about three hours north of Tampa, was one of Florida's first settlements. Spanish explorer Hernando De Soto and President Andrew Jackson were visitors. Today, Steinhatchee caters to the outdoors crowd.
For most of the year, tourists come to fish the rich grass beds for trout, redfish, sheepshead, black sea bass, mangrove snapper and tarpon. But when summer comes, local fishing guides break out the Bimini tops for their boats and switch to scalloping.
Steinhatchee, Homosassa and Crystal River are the state's prime scallop grounds. In these Gulf of Mexico communities, freshwater rivers flow into the ocean, stirring up the right mix of salt and fresh water for the scallops to thrive.
If rains are heavy, too much freshwater can flood the bay and wipe out a crop. If the water is too salty, they die.
If you are looking to get in on "the hunt," then you will need a boat, mask, snorkel, saltwater fishing license and dive flag. The best time to go is on a slack tide, when the grass blades stand straight up.
Bay scallops are masters of camouflage. It takes a keen eye and steady hand to locate these critters in the thick beds of shoal and turtle grass that flourish in the shallows off the state's west coast.
Once you spot a scallop, get ready for a chase. These mollusks, unlike their clam and oyster cousins, can swim. By squeezing their shells together, scallops expel a jet of water that rockets them across grass beds.
As you approach the scallop, beware of the bivalve's bewitching stare. These animals have a row of purple eyes that can mesmerize even veteran scallopers. So don't be distracted. Many a scalloper has returned home empty-handed after hesitating at the moment of truth.
And remember that while a scallop may look harmless, it is a wild animal trying to survive. The scallop's strong adductor muscle, which provides the delicate meat that you seek, can snap the shells shut like a vise. Scallops will pinch, and it hurts.
When talking about the shellfish, old-timers sometimes say, "The scallops are in." But the idea that scallops migrate is an old fish tale. In fact, scallops stay close to the grass beds in which they were born.
These creatures spawn in the early fall, and it doesn't take many to repopulate an area. One scallop can lay a million eggs that float around for two weeks to a month. The eggs then attach to blades of grass.
If You Go
There are advantages to delaying a scallop search until later in the summer. First, the scallops are bigger, which means more meat for the table. Second, most people think the grass beds have been picked clean. So on a weekday in August, you pretty much have the place to yourself.
Scallop season along Florida's Gulf coast runs July 1 through Sept. 25. It is legal to gather scallops north of the Pasco-Hernando (Aripeka) county line to the west bank of the Mexico Beach Canal in Bay County.
It is legal to land up to two gallons of whole bay scallops in the shell, or one pint of scallop meat each day during the open season. Recreational scallopers may not possess more than 10 gallons of whole bay scallops in the shell or a half gallon of meat aboard any boat.
You may catch bay scallops only by hand or with a landing or dip net. They cannot be sold for commercial purposes.
For more information, go to www.myfwc.com.
Terry Tomalin is VISIT FLORIDA's Boating and Fishing Insider and the outdoors editor for the Tampa Bay Times. He lives in St. Petersburg.