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Wednesday, Apr 16, 2014
Outdoors

Come out of your shell

Tribune correspondent
Published:   |   Updated: March 23, 2013 at 12:33 AM

It might be almost too hot to fish, but one saltwater pursuit is sure to keep you and your family cool.

The bay scallop season opens Wednesday and continues through Sept. 10, and the way most scallop lovers capture these tasty treats is to get right down there in the water with them.

Snorkeling for scallops has been a favorite pastime for generations of west coast children. The swimming shellfish are typically found in water 4 to 8 feet deep, and they're easy for even a 6-year-old to bag. They swim by clapping the halves of their shells together, and their maximum is about walking speed, so anyone with a small net or even a bare hand can easily pick them off.

Open waters are from the Pasco/Hernando county line northward to the Mexico Beach Canal in the Panhandle. Some of the best-known scalloping areas include Homosassa, Keaton Beach, Steinhatchee and St. Joe Bay.

In general, the scallops are abundant anywhere there is clear water and a lot of turtle grass, the long, flowing grass that provides a spot for the scallops to settle and spawn.

When the season has begun, it's usually not difficult to find where the scallops have gathered. There's likely to be a fleet of boats and divers working on them, and the prime spots sometimes sprawl over hundreds of acres.

The procedure is simple. You motor along and tow one of your crew, wearing dive mask and snorkel, on a float. When he begins to see scallops below, he signals the skipper. The boat is anchored, and the divers go over the side to scoop up the catch.

One important safety precaution: One adult should always stay in the boat to act as dive master, keeping an eye on those in the water. The dive master also can pull the anchor and move the boat to pick up any swimmers who get too far down-current and can't get back on their own power - not a rare occurrence. Another approach is to allow the boat to drift along with the divers. That way, when someone tires or wants to deposit their catch in the boat, it's nearby. Again, one person should stay on board to observe everyone else.

Scallops grow rapidly, and those caught in late August will be considerably bigger than those caught in early July. However, as the season goes on, the good spots become somewhat picked over, so most families head out the first week of the season.

The gear you need is simple - snorkel, mask, fins and a mesh bag to hold your catch, plus a dive flag to be displayed on the boat anytime there are divers in the water. And, anyone who is required to have a fishing license to take finfish must also have one to take scallops; children 15 and under are exempt, as are those 65 and over.

The limit is two gallons per person per day of whole scallops, or one pint of shucked scallops per person per day. There are also boat limits - 10 gallons whole, a half-gallon shucked.

Shucking scallops is a learned art, but it's a lot easier if you drop them on ice before you try it. Chilling them causes the shells to open slightly, making it easy to get the tip of a spoon inside and pry them open. Once the shell is open, scoop away all the goop, except for the snow-white adductor muscle, the little thumb-sized piece of meat that connects the shells. This is the part you eat, and it is delicious, one of the finest treats in saltwater or freshwater.

Scallop meat can be used in ceviche - basically cured in lemon juice, salt, pepper and spices overnight and then eaten cold. But it's also delicious sauteed, dropped into hot butter, sizzled and stirred briefly, then dredged out on a paper towel to drain.

There are a few cautions for those new to scalloping in the area from Hudson northward. Much of the bottom there is solid limestone, so it's essential to follow marked channels until you get into water deep enough to safely run your boat - and this water might be 3 or 4 miles from land.

Also, there are always a few bull sharks around during scallop season. There has never been a reported attack on a scalloper, but particularly in areas where people clean their scallops on the water and dump the shells overboard, the sharks can be a bit more visible than you might like while you're diving.

Other than that, scalloping is a great family outing, one your children will remember when they have children of their own.

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