Pinning down the dates for the 2018 bay scalloping season isn’t as easy as it’s been in past years. Essentially, our most popular scalloping areas (Steinhatchee, Keaton Beach and Horseshoe Beach) open on June 16, while northern parts of Taylor County (not including Steinhatchee and Keaton Beach) and Wakulla County open on July 1. The June 16 start ends September 10 and the July 1 start ends September 24.
Bay Scallop: Argopecten irradians
Florida Recreational Regulations
(see map below for details on harvesting areas)
|Wakulla County through northwestern Taylor County AND Levy counties||The remaining portion of Taylor County and all of Dixie County|
|Open Season||July 1 – Sept. 24, 2018||the third Saturday in June (June 16, 2018) through Sept. 10, 2018|
|Daily Bag Limit||2 gallons whole bay scallops in shell, or 1 pint of bay scallop meat per person
Maximum of 10 gallons of whole bay scallops in shell, or 1/2 gallon bay scallop meat per vessel
|Minimum Size Limit|| None
No matter where you go to gather scallops, you’ll have fun. Not only are bay scallops fun to find in the seagrass, they’re excellent at the table. Our Big Bend is one of the few places in the world where a recreational harvest is permitted. And because they are fragile and suceptible to toxins, our clean salty water provides the perfect habitat.
A Scallop Primer
Scalloping is the Big Bend’s alternative to South Florida’s lobster season. It’s a combination of complete madness at boat ramps and marinas, motels filled to capacity, family fun, and some of the best eating around.
If you’re the first boat out of port on the first day of scallop season, you probably need to pay attention to reports from marinas and local newspapers or television as to the location of the best potential areas. If you’re out on the second day of the season, simply look for the “flotilla” of boats.
Once you’re in the scallops’ neighborhood, you’ll need to do a little bit of searching, just to make anchoring worthwhile. Hopefully the water will be clear (Scallops like it this way.) and you can position a couple of ‘spotters’ to look for scallops with their light sides turned upwards. While most scallops are found with their dark sides upward to the surface of the water, a few tend to settle on the bottom flipped over, making it easy for boaters to spot them. If you see a few light or colored shells, that’s a good sign that there are more scallops nearby. If you’re in dark or deep water, you’ll more than likely need to get a crewmember overboard to take a closer look before you commit to that particular spot.
Before you get your crew wet, regard a few rules—some official, some just based on good common sense. All scallopers, unless exempt, are required to have a Florida recreational saltwater fishing license. Scallops may only be taken by hand or with a hand-held net. Your boat must display a dive flag (Of size 20”x 24” or larger, with a stiffener, flown from the highest point of the boat.) or, if you’re wading from shore (That’s possible in some years!) each person must tow a 12” x 12” flag. When approaching the scallop ‘fleet’ keep an eye out for swimmers, divers and snorkelers and keep a legal distance (“Vessels approaching divers-down flags closer than 300 feet in open water and 100 feet in rivers, inlets, and navigation channels must slow to idle speed.”*) Keep a person aboard the boat at all times and instruct your scallopers that his or her word is ‘law.’ Crowds of scallopers don’t seem to scare away sharks, and the word from the Captain to get out of the water should be taken seriously. Also, good common sense tells most people that cleaning scallops aboard and then throwing the offal into the water near snorkelers is well outside the range of good judgment. Most people, that is. Your lookout should also keep a ‘head count’ of everyone in the water and alert folks, particularly children, lest they drift or swim too far from the boat.
If it’s your first time scalloping, you’ll need to make a trip to a local dive or tackle shop and pick up a few necessities. The aforementioned dive flag should be the first thing on your list, and mesh bags second. I’d advise getting bags in bright colors as black ones tend to get lost on the bottom if dropped. If you think you’ll be scalloping in waist-deep water you may not need anything other than a mask and comfortable wading shoes, but when the scallops get deeper where the tidal currents are strong you’ll certainly want to consider investing in swim fins and snorkels for everyone in your party. I also carry a 5-gallon bucket that’s been marked in 2-gallon increments. Individuals are limited to 2 gallons of scallops in their shells. Boat limits are 10 gallons total, even if you have more than 5 persons aboard. Take care to measure your catch carefully, as the FWC is out in force during scallop season, and they take bag limits of this precious resource very seriously. A 2-gallon individual limit will yield about a pint of cleaned meat. Unlike oysters, where you eat the entire animal, scallops are taken only for their abductor muscles (Those which open and close the shell.). Adductor sizes vary somewhat, and limits seem to have a higher yield towards the end of the season.
Scallop catching isn’t hard once they’re found. The hardest part for inexperienced snorkelers is using the equipment, but after a few minutes, even novices get the hang of timing their breaths and dives. While some scallops are easy to see, particularly if their light sides are facing upwards and they’re laying on top of the grass, most scallops are not immediately visible, and are snuggled down in the grass, dark side up. Finding an area with shorter grass and spotty white sand areas is preferred, and if you find yourself in such an area, your catch rate will be faster. Look carefully along the edges of white sandy patches and you’ll probably do better than if you are in grassy dark areas. If you do end up in an area of long ‘turtle grass’ try approaching the grass with the tide running directly towards you. That way, you’ll be able to look under the bending grass and will have a better chance of seeing the scallops. Mid-day times on sunny days help, too. Tides don’t really make a difference as to whether the scallops are there, but picking them will be easier in slow-moving currents. You will notice that scallops move with the tides and that an area you scoured can be re-populated in a matter of an hour or so when there’s current. Pick them up by hand or with a dip net as you find them and pop them into your dive bag, but be sure to pull the bag’s drawstring, as scallops will occasionally swim and escape. Scallops don’t bite so handling them is easy. Take them back to the boat frequently, measure your catch and get them on ice immediately.
It’s worth mentioning the hazards of scalloping. Scallopers should be aware of sea urchins and take care not to grab or step on one. Stingrays are plentiful but harmless unless stepped on and late summer can bring hordes of stinging jellyfish. Be wary, but don’t let these marine threats spoil your trip. On a more serious note is weather. Hot summer afternoons almost always fuel big thunderstorms. Keep your eyes open and keep listening to the radio. Be prepared to haul anchor and run towards safer waters should the sounds of thunder approach.
Scalloping is not big game fishing. nor does it involve specialized skills, knowledge or tackle. Scalloping is a fun day on the water for the entire family. The little kids can swim close to the boat, the bigger ones can pick scallops and look at starfish and small fish, and the adults can scallop, swim or just enjoy each other’s company. Followed by a dinner that night of freshly caught scallops, life “ain’t too bad”!
*For complete boating regulations see: myfwc.com/boating/safety/law_summary.htm
Cleaning Your Catch
Cleaning your scallop catch is a messy job. Plain and simple.
Scallop guts aren’t necessarily fragrant. You’re hot and probably sunburned. And they don’t keep well in an un-cleaned state, so they need to be dealt with. However, the final product is worth all the trouble, so here’s how it’s done:
First, get your catch on ice as soon as it comes aboard. Be sure to cover the shells with ice and let them sit for a while. If you plan to clean your catch aboard the boat, take a break for lunch while they’re cooling, and the shells will open automatically. This takes at least one step out of the cleaning process, and prying shells open is no small chore.
Second, holding the scallop in the palm of one hand, insert your cleaning tool into the shell and cut the muscle away from one half. Then carefully scrape the guts away from around the muscle, discard the guts, and use your tool to cut the muscle into a container. Do it again—and again!
Everyone seems to have his or her favorite scallop-cleaning tool. I prefer a cheap stainless steel tablespoon, its front edge sharpened with a bench grinder. Others use traditional oyster knives, but I think that’s overkill for these small shells. Then there’s the ‘Shop Vac’ method. I’ve seen it done—sucking the guts out of scallop shells with a vacuum cleaner, but I’ve never been in attendance to see the final cleanup of the machinery. I can imagine.
At Steinhatchee, at least, there is a great service provided by freelance scallop cleaners. These folks are usually available at marinas during the height of the scallop season to clean your catch for you. It’s simply a matter of getting your cooler of scallops in line for them to clean. Get there early, as lines get long after lunch and they’ve been known to clean scallops all night long. Prices vary, but the rates (based on weight or volume) are quite reasonable.
Scallop Cuisine 101… Frying and Beyond!
Each bay scallop produces just a small bite of meat, and it’s one that should be savored.
I suppose the most popular way scallops are eaten by Floridians is fried. Fried is fine, but scallops should never be battered. A very light coating of commercial fish breading or plain corn flour (Masa Harina at Latin grocery stores.) and a quick trip into 375-degree peanut or canola oil will produce a tasty result. Don’t drop too many into the oil at a time though, as you’ll end up with a soggy coating. Also, don’t overcook scallops. Let them fry until the centers are barely hot, drain them on paper towels, and get them to the table right away.
Another option is to toss scallops, without flour, in melted butter and then broil them in the oven for a couple of minutes. Try these over a bowl of cheese grits, and you’ll soon add this simple recipe to your file.
Scallops taste pretty good raw, right out of the water. I don’t know actually how safe that is, but you’re eating the muscle and not the internal organs. A quick squeeze of lime juice and a dash of salt and pepper probably make them safer, and they sure are tasty. *
A sophisticated, safer and more time-consuming approach to eating freshly shucked scallops is to ‘cook’ them in a marinade and serve them as a salad. Scallops prepared as a ceviche have been pickled, in a sense, and are delicious.
2 individual limits of shucked scallops (about 2 pounds or 2 pints), drained
For the marinade:
1-1/2 cup fresh lime juice
1 cup fresh lemon juice
1 cup chopped fresh cilantro leaves
4 small Serrano peppers, seeded and very finely chopped
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 small red onion, coarsely chopped
1 tablespoon sea salt
freshly ground black pepper, to taste
fresh cilantro leaves, for garnish
Mix all the ingredients for the marinade in a zipper-style bag. You can refrigerate this marinade for a day of so, if necessary. Two hours before serving, add the scallops and mix. Drain away the excess juices and assemble the ceviche over salad greens or an avocado half. Touch everything off with a garnish with cilantro leaves. Dinner is served.
A meal of fresh bay scallops, no matter how they’re prepared, is perfect way to end the perfect day on the water with the family.
*Eating uncooked seafood has its risks. Always consult a medical professional regarding your personal situation before eating uncooked seafood.