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Scallopalooza!

How about an Easter egg hunt in July? That's exactly how lots of folks along Florida's Big Bend describe our annual recreational bay scallop harvest, which lasts from July 1 until September 10 this year. And while scallops exist along other stretches of Florida's Gulf coast, they're only legal "game" from the Pasco/Hernando county line to the Mexico Beach Canal, which includes the entire Big Bend region. You'll likely see scallops on the shallow grassflats in Tampa Bay, Sarasota Bay and Charlotte Harbor, but you'd better not pick one up!

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Scalloping isn't hard work and offers lots of entertainment for folks of all ages and abilities. It's mostly a wading or snorkeling experience, and there's no need to invest in expensive gear to participate. A mask, fins, snorkel and a mesh bag are all you need to make up a scalloping "kit." Sunscreen helps, too, as you'll see lots of sunburned backs back at the dock the price paid for swimming face down in the search for scallops.

Scallops are usually not hard to find. Marinas and tackle shops at Big Bend ports usually have a network of spies, disguised as anglers and fishing guides, scouting their flats a few weeks in advance of the season's opening day. If you're the first boat out on any given day, follow their instructions. If you're heading out later in the day, usually a decision made regarding the time of the lower tide, just scour the horizon and look for the "fleet." At Homosassa, try the flats to the north and south of marker No. 6 in the main channel. This has been a productive area for the last few years. At Crystal River, look around the Gomez Rocks area, south of marker No. 1, at about 28-52.172'N, 8245.222'W. To the south of Steinhatchee, the flats just off Rocky Creek at near 29-36.187'N, 83-25.890'W have been good recently, but the scalloping up north has been better. The shallow hump west of Big Grass Island, near 29-43.634'N, 83-37.278'W, has been downright overrun with scallops for the last two years. It's about 2 1/2 miles offshore and is easily reached from either Steinhatchee or Keaton Beach. As you approach any area you're hoping to snorkel, be careful and keep a lookout for folks in the water. Prudence, not the law, says that swimmers should have an individual float tethered behind them, but you'll often see flipping swim fins well away from anchored boats. The law does state that anchored boats with snorkelers display a dive flag and that vessels under way nearby give those boats a wide, 300-foot, berth at slow or idle speed.

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There are several methods to finding a productive stretch of grassflats. While scallops may be in cuts and trenches, often as deep as 8 feet, that's an uncomfortable and tiring place for youngsters (or oldsters) to manage. On lower water, you'll probably find plenty of scallops in less than 5 feet. Some folks use a 5-gallon bucket with a clear bottom to inspect the bottom while running at idle speed, but I prefer putting a couple of snorkelers (usually the kids) overboard to check out the area after I anchor. Sunny days tend to make the scallops lie on top of the grass, but often they'll be nestled among the strands of turtle grass, making the search difficult. But they'll also gang up along the edges of white sand holes in the flats. "Ganging up" is an appropriate term, as the reason the scallops are close to shore is that they're spawning and friendly toward each other.

Once found, it really doesn't take long to gather a limit of scallops. Each snorkeler may harvest 2 gallons of whole (in the shell) scallops or 1 pint of scallop meat. Your boat is limited to 10 gallons of whole scallops, regardless of the number of folks you have aboard. I suggest you put your catch on ice immediately after you bring them aboard. You'll find they're easier to shuck later on in the day. Shucking scallops is an easy process, done with an oyster knife or sharpened tablespoon. And in some towns and at larger marinas, you'll find folks willing to shuck your catch for a fee.

For a complete overview of scalloping rules and regulations, click on www.myfwc.com/fishing/saltwater/regulations/bay-scallops/ or pick up a copy of Florida Sea Grant's informative brochures about Taylor or Citrus County scalloping at local marinas and tackle shops.

HUNTING

It's just too hot to hunt in July, but you've always the option of scouting new areas in advance of the fall hunting season. Use those hot days to scout your favorite WMAs for deer and hog hunts and start looking for doves flying over fields, headed toward their roosts, in the afternoons.

RELATED ARTICLE: * BEST BET BIG BEND

Scallop season means busy times at St. Marks, Keaton Beach, Steinhatchee, Horseshoe Beach, Crystal River and Homosassa. But that doesn't mean that fin fishing takes a back seat. Stretches of coastline with darker water don't seem to attract scallops, so ports like Yankeetown, Cedar Key and Suwannee offer less-crowded boat ramps and shorter waits at restaurants. And all the flats along the Big Bend will be alive with seatrout, and redfish will be cruising the close-to-shore points and creek mouths.
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Title Annotation:ACTION SPOTTER
Author:Thompson, Tommy
Publication:Florida Sportsman
Date:Jul 1, 2012
Words:897
Previous Article:Line 'em up.
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