The city of Okeechobee will celebrate its centennial on Jan. 21 but it got things started early with the Dec. 17 opening of an exhibit driving home the vital importance of its namesake lake. The Smithsonian …
The Hunt for Edible Underwater Treasure
by Sue Cocking, Guy Harvey Outpost Travel Journalist
[Steinhatchee, FL.–] Looking down through my dive mask at the patchy grass bottom about four feet deep in the Gulf of Mexico, I spied what looked like a miniature flying saucer. Hard and roundish, a little smaller than my palm, it sported a row of tiny blue lights in the small crack between top and bottom. As I reached down to pick it up, it snapped closed and bounced clumsily in a vain attempt to escape. I stuffed it in a mesh bag and kept swimming, looking for more targets. Boy, did I find plenty– and so did my snorkeling companions.
Our party of six, guided by Steinhatchee charter captain Bob Erdman, was hunting for bay scallops — small, wonderfully tasty mollusks that are plentiful in Florida’s Big Bend region Gulf waters in summertime. You can’t buy bay scallops at a seafood market; the only way to eat them is to harvest them yourself, which is both fun and very easy– so easy that many liken it to an underwater Easter egg hunt. Kids as young as kindergarteners can harvest them.
You simply snorkel on the surface in four to six feet of water over patches of grass and sand and you will spot the shellfish either sitting on the bottom or perched on blades of sea grass. That row of UFO-like blue lights? Those are their eyes, and they quickly snap their double shell closed to propel themselves backwards when they see you overhead. But they’re not that quick, so you don’t usually lose too many. Think of it as lobstering lite.
The recreational scallop season opened June 25 and runs through Sept. 24, so you have plenty of time to try it. The harvest area extends from the Pasco-Hernando county line to the west bank of the Mexico Beach Canal in Bay County. However, St. Joseph Bay in Gulf County is closed to scalloping until Aug. 22 due to a previous red tide outbreak.
Steinhatchee — a tiny burg located about an hour’s drive west of Gainesville–is this summer’s scalloping capital. Pre-season counts conducted by scientists with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission showed an average of 189 scallops per square meter in local waters, compared to 55 in the Homosassa-Crystal River area; 28 in the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge and only two in St. Joseph Bay.
“Fantastic!” Erdman said. “It’s the best season in several years. We’ve been getting our limit in less than half a day.”
That proclamation held true for our group too: ten gallons of whole scallops in 2 1/2 hours of snorkeling in an area south of the Steinhatchee River. We sat around in the shade of the boat’s Bimini top and enjoyed some post-hunting snacks before heading back to the dock at Good Times Marina.
Lots of scallopers clean their own catch, but it’s a tedious process that takes hours and potentially wastes the thumb-sized nuggets of meat if you don’t know what you’re doing. So we hired the professionals at Sea Hag Marina to do the job for about $8 per pound. They did not disappoint. We brought nearly six pounds of scallop meat to Fiddler’s Restaurant that night where it was fried, broiled, blackened and turned into pasta– and we had plenty of leftovers.
There’s no wrong way to prepare bay scallops– except to overcook them. If you can think of a recipe– any recipe–you can make it with these tender mollusks. They are great for ceviche and one of my friends eats them raw.
Guy Harvey Outpost hopes to plant a flag in scalloping country soon, so look for updates at the Guy Harvey Outpost web site. For a complete rundown of scallop rules, equipment and techniques, go HERE.
Sue Cocking chronicles the Guy Harvey Outpost travel and adventure experience in regular blog posts on GuyHarveyOutpostNews.com/. For 21 years, Cocking covered the full spectrum of outdoors adventure opportunities in South Florida and beyond for the Miami Herald, including fishing, diving, hunting, paddling, camping, sailing and powerboat racing. She is a certified scuba diver and holder of an IGFA women’s world fly fishing record for a 29-pound permit.
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