You've gone fishing. Now try scalloping in Steinhatchee, the best place to scallop in Florida.
By Karen T. Bartlett
Little John cuts the engine on his 21-foot fiberglass flatboat and drifts over a sandbar in the clear water of Deadman's Bay. Idling along over beds of thick, swaying eelgrass, he peers intently over the starboard side.
"What? Where?" I finally ask, a patience-challenged city girl.
"Nope, not yet - saw a couple, but not enough," says the professional guide that I've hired for today's adventure in a small north Florida town called Steinhatchee. Little John is a mountain of a man with deep, smiling eye crinkles.
"You should see Big John," he had laughed when I signed up for my first-ever scalloping in Florida trip. Seems every fisherman on the river has a nickname, and I'm just lucky I didn't draw Mean Mike.
It's mid-July, the second week of scalloping season, in a place that locals claim is the scalloping capital of the world. It's also called the best place to scallop in Florida. On good advice, I skipped the first week, when an astounding 200 boats queue up every hour to claim the first harvest. The faithful will scallop every weekend 'til season's end.
At last, John cuts the motor. "See that?" he points.
"No, not really." I guess I'm looking for those bright yellow and orange mollusks that played percussion in Disney's The Little Mermaid.
I'm still squinting into the brown, grassy seabed when John posts his Diver Down flag, pulls on his fins, spits into his snorkel mask, and disappears over the side. Seconds later he surfaces, waving a long-handled net containing a half-dozen sand-brown scallops.
OK, I'm psyched. I slide into the shallow water. One breast-stroke to the bottom, and I come eyeball to - uh, shell - with a big, fat scallop. Easy! I pick it up gingerly, and - whoosh! - it propels itself backward out of my hand like a Pac Man on steroids. If I've made a spectacle of myself with my frantic retreat, John kindly pretends not to notice.
"You have to scoop 'em up," he instructs, deftly slipping the rim of his dip net under an unsuspecting, wide-open scallop and flipping it in like a pancake. The creature snaps closed and lands on the pile at the net's bottom.
Ah, I can do this.
After several successes (honestly, a four-year-old can do it), I'm lazily floating along, marveling at starfish and purple-spotted pinfish, scoring a scallop every couple of minutes. I lower the net to flick in an especially nice one, and suddenly, as if jet-propelled, three scallops zip up from the pile, rocket over the edge and plop back into the murky grass, leaving nothing but a trail of bubbles.
This time I laugh out loud and swallow a big mouthful of saltwater. There's sport in this after all!
Though it can take as little as an hour to harvest the legal limit of two gallons of scallops per person (in the shells) or one pint (shucked) -- it is the best place to scallop in Florida after all -- day-trippers stretch the experience out all day. Some cook their harvest right on board.
Back at the marina, I follow Little John with our bounty of fan-shaped treasures to a shucking station. The station consists of a big shade tree, folding camp chairs, several industrial-size buckets and very sharp knives. On the seawall behind us is a row of ice coolers representing the harvest from a dozen boats.
The regulars sign their names in a book, then stroll over to Roy's Restaurant or Fiddler's Restaurant. They return in a couple of hours for a neat plastic bag of the sweetest bay scallops you'll ever taste.
Scallop shucking is best left to the pros, but if you feel you must: Put the scallops on ice for a few minutes, which causes the mollusks to open slightly. Then with dark side of shell up, slide a very sharp knife into the opening. In one smooth stroke, separate the muscle, open the shell, scoop out and discard the surrounding membrane and remove the perfectly round scallop. It's an art, and a bargain at $4 a pound. Especially after several messy and treacherous attempts on your own.
A quick stop at Maddie's Market for butter, garlic and linguini, then I'm back at my adorable gingerbread cottage at Steinhatchee Landing Resort. My neighbors, John and Kristen Blauser from Dunnellon, have just returned to their adorable gingerbread cottage with young daughters Maggie and Denise. They say cleaning their own harvest is essential to the experience. Kristen deftly knifes open the shell and passes it to John, who slurps out the inedible stuff with his specially rigged Shop-Vac®. Another hand-off and Kristen pops the clean scallop out with a spoon. With all due respect, Merle would be appalled.
Steinhatchee is the kind of Old Florida town novelists and filmmakers seek, and locals want to keep to themselves. It's hidden deep in the Big Bend, that northernmost crook of Florida's elbow. The nearest major city is Gainesville, and it's about an hour and 45 minutes to the east. A good 55 miles from the nearest interstate, Steinhatchee is not the kind of place you just happen upon.
Too bad (and so good). The town is a delicious time warp where century-old fishing camps languish beneath mossy oaks, and weathered docks rock gently in the wake of fishing boats. Unnamed, unpaved roads and endless trails wind through deep palmetto, cedar and cypress forests, where the sun's filtered rays coax forth occasional riots of wildflowers and water lilies.
The Steinhatchee River, with its lush tidal creeks and marshlands, and its mouth, Deadman's Bay, are a fisherman's mecca and a kayaker's paradise. No-frills seafood restaurants serve up the real thing, straight out of the river or the Gulf three miles away. And then there's Steinhatchee Landing Resort, a luxurious magnolia-and-oak-shaded hideaway of pastel tin-roofed Old Florida-style "cracker houses" with a Victorian accent. They have rocking chair verandahs, hardwood floors, fine linens and full kitchens. There are tennis, volleyball and basketball courts, a pool, a children's playground, petting zoo and a dock for boating guests. I lucked into Cottage #26, which features a double-sided stone hearth and fireplace that can be enjoyed either from the king-size bed or the state-of-the-art Ultra Thermo Masseur tub.
Riley, a black cocker rescue dog, rules the place. He's a dog but doesn't have a clue about that. He has a chauffeur/butler/maitre d' named Dean Fowler, who's under the misconception that he's in charge.
Dean, his wife Loretta and their gracious staff provide everything that fishing, scalloping, honeymooning or vacationing guests could ask, including personally guided hikes and explorations (when Riley's in the mood).
Even your dog can join you at Steinhatchee Landing Resort and hike through the surrounding 35 wooded acres. Twelve of the 30 cottages allow pets.
Tips for Scalloping in Florida
- Scallopers need saltwater fishing licenses unless they go with a guide. An annual license for Floridians is about $17; a three-day license for visitors is about $17. The least expensive place to get one is your local tax collector's office. For an additional service fee, you can pick one up at marinas, bait-and-tackle shops and sporting goods stores.
- For water transportation, contact Sea Hag Marina or River Haven Marina.
- Charters and hotel rooms are scarce the first and last weekends of season; insiders start calling for reservations January 1.
- Steinhatchee has had the richest scalloping in Florida in recent years. Other great spots for scalloping in Florida include St. Joseph Bay in Port St. Joe and the Homosassa/Crystal River area.