BY FAY SPLETT – Active Living Magazine The Florida Keys: a tropical atmosphere that’s sure to appeal to fishing and diving enthusiasts, sun worshipers, seafood lovers, and eco-minded travelers. Stretching …
Join A Live Summertime Easter Egg Hunt in Florida’s Big Bend
Small, weird-looking, but very tasty –even raw–and very easy to capture. Only available in the summer and early fall and never in a seafood market. You and your family must be hunter/gatherers to harvest them. They’re bay scallops– the premier mollusk of Florida’s Gulf coast Big Bend region. And there’s still plenty of time left to catch your share.
“So far, the season’s been excellent,” said Steinhatchee charterboat captain Bob Erdman. “Limits every day in three to four feet of water.”
Erdman wasn’t kidding. Last week, he and wife Carole guided my friend Kyle Stewart and me to gather our boat limit of eight gallons. It took us a little bit longer than last year because the region’s scallop counts are down, but that just extended the fun.
The captain opted for the scallop grounds about five miles north of the mouth of the Steinhatchee River. His reasoning was simple: thousands of hunters have been plucking the grass beds to the south since the season opened on June 16, so hunting north might produce bigger shellfish.
As usual, Erdman was right. Snorkeling above the mixed turtle and manatee grass with mask and fins, I didn’t spy as many of the little flying saucer-looking animals as last summer, but the ones I found were definitely larger with barnacle-encrusted shells.
“Those may be last year’s scallops,” Erdman said.
Harvesting them couldn’t be easier. You just reach down and pick them up. Their weak escape attempts consist of clapping their double shells together clumsily. This is basically an underwater Easter egg hunt where the ‘eggs’ sometimes try in vain to get away. Kids as young as five can do it.
Best places to hunt are in mixed patches of sand and grass where the grayish-white shells are easiest to spot. Sometimes they’ll be nestled in the sand; other times, you’ll find them perched on blades of grass. Erdman advises scouring the bay bottom closely for the ridged shell’s profile.
The hunt itself is entertaining even if you don’t spot scallops every two minutes. You’ll encounter schools of mullet and pinfish, sea stars, and occasionally a stingray. I came upon a small ray while hunting; it bolted in the opposite direction when it saw me.
A few safety tips: boats must display a red-and-white diver-down flag while scalloping and divers must stay within 300 feet of it in open water and within 100 feet in a river, inlet or channel. Boaters must slow to idle speed when they draw close to the flag.
The bag limit is two gallons of whole scallops or one pint of meat per person, with a maximum of ten gallons whole or 1/2 gallon of meat per vessel. The season runs through Sept. 10 in the Steinhatchee area. If you plan to hunt in the St. Joseph Bay area to the north, the season opens July 25 through Sept. 10. In the popular Homosassa – Crystal River area, the season opened July 1 and closes Sept. 24.
To book a scalloping trip with captain Bob Erdman, call 352-356-2554. Rental boats and accommodations are available at Good Times Motel and Marina (352-498-8088) or Sea Hag Marina & the Shacks at Sea Hag (352-498-3008). Both facilities also are staffed with scallop cleaners who charge $7-$8 per pound. Have your scallops prepared and served with an array of sides at Kathi’s Krab Shack (352-498-0605) or do it yourself. Hint: cook them anyway you want– just don’t overcook them.
For a complete rundown on scallop seasons and regulations in Florida, go to MyFWC.com/Fishing and click on “Saltwater Fishing”, then “Recreational Regulations” and “Bay Scallops”.