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Seize shells on the seafloor: all hands in for the this year's special extended bay scallop season.

What's the big deal about scallops and scalloping on Florida's Gulf coast? First, and foremost, if you've never eaten a Florida bay scallop, you've never really eaten a scallop. Those bagged, frozen imports from South America that are regularly found in fish markets can't compare in terms of taste, and store-bought "sea scallops," though bigger, are often textured much like overcooked pork chops. Our bay scallops are small, tender and best eaten the day they're caught. Preparation can range from sauteing in butter and garlic (served over pasta) to deep frying--just be sure not to overcook them. Actually, they're pretty darned good right out of the shell, raw, or as the basis for a simple lime and hot-pepper ceviche.

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And second, eating your scallops is only half the fun. A summertime scalloping trip to Florida's Big Bend coast is an excellent opportunity to get family and friends together for a fun day on the water.

Recently, someone asked me if I could "teach him how to catch scallops." A more understandable request would have been asking me how to safely operate a boat in crowded waters, review with them the FWC's rules and regulations regarding scalloping--or even show them how to clean and cook the tasty critters. In a nutshell (or a scallop shell, for that matter), scalloping isn't difficult, but there are a few basic things to know before you head out searching for them this summer.

Most years, Florida's recreational scallop season begins on July 1 and lasts until September 10. This year, the season opened June 25 and will close September 25. The decision to add three weeks to the season was made by FWC Executive Order at a commission meeting in April. You may scallop in waters from the Hernando/Pasco County line, at the southern end of the Big Bend, to the Mexico Beach Canal, west of Cape San Bias. Your catch must be landed, cleaned or intact, at ports within these boundaries. Simply put, don't run north from Hudson, in Pasco County, to the waters off Hernando Beach, catch a limit of scallops, and then land them back in Hudson. The FWC knows all the tricks!

There are no size limits that apply to scallops, but there are bag limits. Anglers may keep two gallons of unshucked scallops each (1 pint shucked), up to a boat limit of ten gallons (Vi-gallon shucked). A shucked 2-gallon limit works out to about a pint of those small white morsels, which are actually the muscles that allow the scallop to open and close its shell. Other rules that apply include the need for a recreational saltwater fishing license for everyone participating who would normally need a license, and a dive flag requirement for letting other boaters know you've got divers in the water. It's probably a good idea, even for scalloping veterans, to carefully review the rules and regulations, found online at: www.myfwc.com/fishing/ saltwater/regulations/bay-scallops.

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Bay scallops can be found all along the Gulf coast of Florida, including some areas that are well outside the harvest boundaries. In fact, there have even been sightings of scallops in Tampa Bay in recent summers. While scallops are likely to be found Gulf-wide at depths that are not practical for harvest by hand or with a dipnet, it's certain that what them toward shore in certain areas, to spawn, is a combination of water salinity and clarity. In some areas where darker water is the norm, particularly Yankeetown, Cedar Key, Suwannee and much of Apalachicola Bay, scalloping isn't considered a worthwhile effort. On the other hand, at Hernando Beach, Bayport, Homosassa, Steinhatchee, Ke-aton Beach, St. Marks, Lanark Village, Port St. Joe and Mexico Beach, coastal economies rely on visiting scallopers to make up for slow times and cold winters. And to confuse matters, any of the places within the boundaries might have "off-and-on" scallop harvests, depending upon rainfall, tropical storms or even abnormal river flows.

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If you're new to scalloping, no need to fret over missing the first part of the season--for a couple of good reasons. First, despite attempts by many marinas and editorial outlets to have their spies (usually local fishing guides) pinpoint the largest concentration of scallops, the best information normally follows a week or two of the actual harvest. You'll find that you'll do a lot less running around once the best area is found. Word travels fast and a simple visual scan of the horizon will quickly spot the "fleet" anchored over the best areas.

However, if in subsequent years your Type-A personality requires that you be on the water right at the start of the season, keep in mind that scallops are likely to be found near the grassy edges of sandy potholes, and that they tend to come to the top of the grass when the sun's shining brightly. Early risers should consider using the rosy dawn to catch a close-to-shore gator trout or redfish, and then wait for the sun to get high into the sky before undertaking the search for scallops. Start your scallop hunt by running your boat at idle speed in water that's three to four feet deep, using polarized sunglasses or a 5-gallon bucket fitted with a clear bottom to carefully scan the bottom. Once you see reasonable numbers of scallops nestled in the grass, anchor up, hoist your mandatory dive flag, and get your crew overboard.

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Safety is always a consideration for boaters and fishermen, and scallop season demands special attention and awareness. It's important to recognize that you, or others around you, may not be regular boaters or snorkelers, and may not be accustomed to motoring a boat or diving in what are likely to be crowded waters. Accidents, sometimes tragic, during scalloping season can be avoided by motoring at idle speed--if not avoiding the vicinity altogether--within 300 feet of boats flying dive flags or of swimmers and snorkelers. In recent years, many local marinas have been selling and making recommendations that individual snorkelers tow dive-flagged buoys. This is not a requirement, but certainly a great idea. Make sure, too, that your boat's operator remains alert and tuned-in to his or her task. Even the slightest distraction, including casual conversation, can be disastrous, so let them concentrate on getting everyone out and back safely. And while some in your party may wish to partake of an adult beverage while scalloping, boat operators should under no circumstances participate, remembering that the FWC and local authorities frown heavily on boating under the influence. Scallop season also coincides with Florida's thunderstorm season, and maintaining a visual weather watch (or an ear tuned to the WX channel on your VHF radio) is a good practice. Also, avoid running home too late, as some narrow channels and boat ramps get pretty crowded as storms force boats back to port.

In-the-water essentials for recreational scallopers are snorkels, masks, swim fins, plus meshbags for gathering your harvest. Most folks simply swim along the surface in the clear summer water and dive down only when a scallop is spotted. Depending on the bottom, you'll likely see some scallops "face up," looking at you with a row of brilliant blue eyes around the slightly opened shell. Others will be lying flat, with either the light or dark side of their shell facing upward. It doesn't take much practice to learn to spot them like a pro, and even the kids will become experts after just a few minutes. If the water's not in its usual gin-clear state, you may have to dive down and skim the grass tops, swimming into the current, to get a better view of the scallops. Most scallopers simply pick up their catch barehanded, but many prefer scooping with small bait nets. Scallops don't bite, but will sometimes try to flutter away from an incoming human hand and a net sometimes makes the gathering easier. Once caught and placed in a bucket for measurement, put your catch under ice immediately. This not only keeps them fresh but also makes the scallops open up for easier cleaning later.

REALTED ARTICLE: Cleaning Scallops

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Cleaning a catch of scallops is not nearly as much fun as gathering them. The goody in a scallop is the white adductor muscle, and the rest of the bivalve critter Is discarded. Scallops, even those iced on board, should be cleaned quickly to ensure freshness. Some scallopers clean the catch on their boat, but care needs to be taken to not throw the offal (guts and shells) into the water while snorkelers are about, as there have been instances of sharks being attracted to a scallop chum line. Cleaning scallops isn't difficult and simple tools like oyster knives, sharpened tablespoons and garden gloves speed the messy job. Ashore, most marinas have good standup cleaning tables, and some even have professional scallop cleaners standing by who will, for a more-than-reasonable fee, clean, rinse and bag your catch.
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Author:Thompson, Tommy
Publication:Florida Sportsman
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Aug 1, 2011
Words:1503
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