It's official: this week the FFWCC agreed to a permanent extension of the scallop season to September 10, citing scallop populations that have held up well for the past several years under the experimental 10-day extension to the July-August season.
The extension is welcome to those who pursue Florida's only "swimming" bivalve shellfish because the size of these tasty creatures is far larger by September than at the season opening July 1. Scallops are an annual crop, growing from microscopic "spat" to full size—about 3 inches across the shell--in one year.
The season is open only in counties north and west of the Hernando/Pasco County line, and the westward limit is the Mexico Beach Canal east of Panama City. Scallops are present along the west coast in many other areas south to Naples, but not in sufficient numbers to permit harvest presently.
A restocking effort on Tampa Bay over the last decade has had fair results, with the average numbers increasing in most years as bay water quality improves. Scallops thrive only in clear water with lots of turtle grass on bottom.
Scallops "swim" by clapping their shells together and forcing out a jet of water. The swimming is erratic and seems without direction most of the time, but getting up off bottom allows these creatures to migrate with strong tide flows, an advantage that non-swimming shellfish like oysters and mussels do not share.
Their mobility also makes them fun targets for kids to capture. They're typically found in 4 to 10 feet of water, and snorkeling families harvest them by the millions each summer.
Some of the best areas, from Homosassa to Horseshoe Beach, have fishing guides like Captains Red Ed Brennan and William Toth who specialize in scallop trips during the season.
For boaters who want to try it on their own, the routine is simple; launch at one of the well-known jumping off spots at Homosassa, Crystal River, Suwannee, Cedar Key, Horseshoe Beach or Dekle Beach, and proceed out to depths of 4 feet—then look for the flotilla. Scallops draw a crowd, and you may see a dozen boats on a hotspot. A pair of binoculars can be helpful in spotting the fleet.
Equipment needed is remarkably simple—a dive flag to make your boat legal, snorkel gear and a mesh bag to hold your catch. (Adults also must have a saltwater fishing license.)
Scalloping is generally safe for kids who are good swimmers, but anytime you go over the side in open water there are a few hazards. The biggest is being pulled away from the anchored boat by tidal currents—always require your divers to hunt up-current from the boat. That way, when they get tired, they can simply ride the flow back to safety.
An alternative is to let the boat drift along with the divers—that way, nobody has to swim far to climb back aboard, and some simply trail long ropes from the stern to tow their divers along.
Either way, an adult stays in the boat to keep an eye on everybody and pick up anyone who might need help. (Never break this rule—there have been drownings and near drownings resulting from divers swept too far from the boat to get back.
Sharks? Yep, there are a few around, but most you'll see in scallop territory are harmless (if left alone) nurse sharks. The occasional bull shark does show up around mullet schools, though—if you see a bull, identified by the blunt nose, it's not a bad idea to get the divers out and move to another area. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred bulls leave people alone, but if you're in the unlucky 1 percent, it's not good.
Only the shell muscle is eaten in scallops. Clean all else away with a spoon and cut the white muscle away from the shell halves—it's about the size of a man's thumb in a full-grown scallop.
Scallops are great any way you cook them, but best is lightly sautéed in olive oil and served with a squeeze of fresh lemon—one of the great treats and great traditions of summer in coastal Florida.
For limits and other scallop rules, visit www.myfwc.com.