By Laura Spinale
Crabbing, scalloping & fishing in Florida - anyone can do it! Here's what you need to know, from equipment you need to the best places to go.
It was an unusually blustery afternoon in Florida, the first cold snap of the fall, and my dad and I stood, shivering, on the pier at Crystal Beach near St. Petersburg. A lot of my father's buddies crab here, so I thought we'd try our luck.
Crabbing - in this case blue crabbing - is one way to catch your dinner in Florida. You can also fish, or go scalloping. The bounties of the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean seem endless for those who think seafood just tastes better when you catch it yourself.
I decide to start with crabbing because I've been told, and I've read in innumerable how-to articles, that any idiot can catch a blue crab in Florida.
Any idiot at all.
To catch a blue crab in Florida
While you can catch blue crabs in Florida throughout the year, you'll find them more plentiful in the warmer months. The crustaceans' seeming willingness to climb into your trap renders the sport equally popular among locals and visitors. (In fact, enthusiasts bill crabbing as a great activity for kids.) I'm looking forward to a low-key day ending with the crabs' succulent, spicy/sweet taste.
First, I need to gear up. Which brings me to Wal-Mart.
All the articles I've read on crabbing have said you catch with traps or nets. Beyond the crab traps and crab nets, you need only fishing weights (to weight nets to the Gulf or Atlantic floor); fishing gloves (for picking up the prone-to-pinch creatures); and rope to tie your nets or traps to the dock. Of all these bits of gear, the only one I can picture fully is "rope." So I feel a little unnerved asking the Wal-Mart greeter where the mega-chain keeps its "crabbing stuff." It seems as exotic as asking, "Hey, can I grab an infusion of lamb's blood here?".
"Over in sporting goods," she answers, in a polite but offhand way that makes me feel like an idiot. After a few confused moments in that department, I find myself surprised. Surprised to find all the gear I need, and surprised at how cheap it is - less than $35 to fully outfit two people.
I called Dad immediately. "I got the nets!" I said excitedly. "I got the traps! I got the fishing gloves!"
"Did you get," he asked, "the beer?"
My father grew up crabbing with his brothers outside of Boston. They were, in his word, crazy. They'd jump into the bone-numbing Atlantic, whip off their T-shirts, then use the shirts to pick up the crabs they'd find.
This outing is a bit more sophisticated. I've purchased two crab nets and two pre-assembled traps. All that's left is to tie my bait to the bottom of each (I've been assured that chicken necks work best), throw them over the dock, tie to same, and wait for a tug. As my quickly numbing fingers fumble with the chicken necks, I wonder whether scalloping would have been easier...
Prowling for Scallops
Placed squarely in Florida's Big Bend, Steinhatchee is a Florida contradiction: a coastal town without expansive stretches of white-sand beaches. This has kept rampant tourism at bay, and left Steinhatchee a mecca for fishermen. During the Florida scallop season, you can find anglers in the brown waters of the Steinhatchee River fishing for largemouth bass, cobia, grouper, red snapper. Steinhatchee is best known, though, for its scallops.
You can find scallops - and their tender, white meat - by the gallon where the Steinhatchee empties into the Gulf of Mexico, in an area known as Apalachee Bay. July is the start of the scallop season in Florida, which runs through early September. The sport is particularly popular with families; any child who can swim can catch these creatures.
Scallops live in shallow water, typically around three to four feet, although the mollusks can be found in water depths of six inches to six feet. Still, you may find it best to hire a charter boat. Your captain will take you out to the edges of turtle grass beds, or to areas where several types of grasses mix together. These areas are scallop havens. Upon arrival, all you need is a net or bucket, and snorkel. Dive into the grasses, and once you find the scallops - notable for their quintessential seashell shapes and striated brown coloring - start grabbing.
Those staying at Steinhatchee Landing Resort, an amalgam of 30 Victorian and Conch-style vacation cottages ideally situated on 35 riverfront acres, can cook up their catch once you get back to the resort. (Each vacation home has a grill and an oven.) Cleaning can be a bit tricky. You're stuck cutting off the top shell, removing the innards and, finally, harvesting the meat.
Trimming a bunch of black innards from brown-shelled mollusks isn't really for me. While scalloping in Steinhatchee, I'd be hiring the kids at Sea Hag Marina (who consider cleaning scallops a prize summer job) to do it.
Still, the idea of actually putting on a mask and snorkel and doing something to get my dinner appeals to me more than crabbing, which I've been told is mostly a matter of waiting: waiting for the tug on the line that signals a crab having taken my chicken-neck lure.
Dad strolls from trap to trap every few minutes, peering into the water to try to spot a crab hooked. Sometimes, he yanks on the rope, pulling the traps out of the water for a closer look. I content myself with yelling at the seagulls ("Don't take my chicken necks you [expletives deleted]!") and occasionally re-bait. I worry that the chicken necks lose their efficacy after a spell in the Gulf. I have no basis for this idea. I just believe it.
Snapper in the Keys
Weeks earlier, when driving U.S. 1 from Homestead to the Florida Keys, I know I've hit the weather jackpot. The air feels cool, and the nature around me has taken on that sort of hyper-realistic, photographic quality found when Florida chills out. The blue-green of the ocean seems a little deeper, the grass blades a little sharper, and the palms sway with more gusto.
I'm headed toward Duck Key, at mile marker 61, a chain of five islands that houses Hawk's Cay Resort. This full-service resort has been constructed as a Caribbean town, with accommodations ranging from hotel rooms to villas. Guests indulge in a full-service spa; a dolphin facility that allows you to play with the friendly mammals; and lots of water sports. Go for a snorkel or dive, rent a jet ski or just frolic in the resort's saltwater lagoon pool. I, however, am here to fish.
Around 7 a.m. I sit on the balcony of my two-story villa, listening to the radio. Forecasters predict Atlantic waters with a moderate-to-heavy chop, so I take a moderate-to-heavy amount of Dramamine.
A little before 8 a.m. I head off to the resort marina, to meet up with my party at the Tailwalker. The Tailwalker is a 43-foot Viking Sportfisher, equipped for full- and half-day expeditions. Offshore or in, in deep water or the flats, Tailwalker guests fish for mahi-mahi, sailfish, kingfish, mackerel, grouper and snapper, depending on the season. Lead by boat captains Scott Walker (who's been guiding in the Keys for the last two decades) and Jeff Kosiba, my party heads out to Tennessee Reef. We're on the hunt for yellowtail snapper.
"Shooting fish in a barrel," is how Jeff describes our experience. Even in the Keys - seen worldwide as a fisherman's paradise - this many yellowtail snapper don't congregate around a boat all that often. Part of it may be the time of year - in the Keys, the water naturally gets a little murkier in cooler months. Smart fish find it harder, therefore, to spot the hooks, the lines. And, no doubt, I can thank Scott and Jeff for at least part of our haul. The bait they've chosen is a mix of silver sights and frozen chum, the latter looking, in Scott's words, like "a meal from Fear Factor."
Whatever the cause for this massive school, I'm grateful. I peer at the fish as the boat bobs gently fore and aft. I'm not one of the world's great fishermen (OK, I've fished exactly twice before), but, under Jeff's patient tutelage, I'm learning. I'm catching! The boat dips gently, port and starboard. Letting out the line, waiting for the tug of bait claimed, fighting the fish into the boat. It's a thrill. But this isn't the best part of my trip.
In all, we catch an astounding 24 yellowtail snapper, along with a single, five-pound mullet grouper. All in two hours. We head in. On land, blessedly, decidedly, non-bobbing land, the Tailwalker crew cleans my fish. Later, at the resort's Tom's Harbor House Restaurant, I take advantage of "The Hook and the Cook" offering and dine on the fish I've caught. The chef suggests a sampler platter of snapper blackened, broiled with paprika, and sautéed with lemon butter. Starving, I say yes, yes, and, uh, yes. Maybe it's true, food tastes better when you catch it yourself.
We've been trying to catch the blue crab of Florida for three hours. My dad is in his 70s, and I worry about him, a bit, in the uncharacteristic cold. I unzip the sleeping bag I always keep in my trunk to make a blanket for him, and that, coupled with a few cups of hot coffee, makes us feel much better. It's the best coffee I've had in a long time, and it leaves me thinking about best things.
No matter how sweet the meat, the best thing about scalloping is hanging out with your friends and kids while diving for your dinner. The best thing about the crew of the Tailwalker is they're really nice to you - and will even cart you in after only two hours of a planned four-hour expedition - if you start to puke all over their boat. "Don't feel bad, it's part of our job," Scott will say. "We haul people in all the time." The best thing about crabbing is hanging out with your father, hearing his oft-told tales once more.
The best thing is never what you catch, but who you get caught with.