By Terry Tomalin
When scallop season rolls around on Florida's Gulf Coast, it's time to dust off your snorkeling gear and make sure that swimsuit still fits.
You'll find Argopecten irradians scattered throughout the Gulf of Mexico, but places where freshwater rivers flow into the ocean are where the scallops are thickest.
These tasty mollusks need the right mix of saltwater and freshwater to survive. If rains are heavy, too much freshwater can flood the bay and wipe out a crop. If the water is too salty, they won't survive, either.
The state's prime scallop grounds -- Steinhatchee, Homosassa and Crystal River -- have the perfect combination of both fresh and saltwater.
If you're looking to get in on “the hunt,” then you'll 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, like other types of game, are masters of camouflage. It takes a keen eye and steady hand to locate these critters as they hide in the thick beds of eel 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. When you move, move quickly. You may not get a second chance.
And remember that a scallop may look harmless, but 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 doesn't tickle.
Scallop season along Florida's Gulf Coast varies by location.. 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 details on Florida seasons, zones and bag limites, visit myfwc.com.