Each year thousands of recreational anglers descend on the Florida Gulf Coast in search of tasty scallops. Hunting down bay scallops along this quiet section of old Florida, is a unique activity that the entire family can enjoy — and 2011 is shaping up to be an excellent season.
In most areas, the 2011 bay scallop population survey conducted by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission shows a significant increase in the number of scallops compared to last year. And when compared to the previous 10 years, 2011 ranks as one of the best.
The bay scallop is as interesting a creature as it is tasty. The scallop is said to have 36 blue eyes, but if you take the time to count, you will find some with many more. As you snorkel along in the shallow water on a sunny day, you’ll spot the neon-blue eyes as the scallop hides in the grass. You have to be quick, as the scallop tries to retreat.
Watching a scallop try to get away or just swim by is one of the most comical sights you will see in the water. They just don’t look like they are made to swim, but somehow they manage. Using a very effective water jet, the small mollusks propel themselves through the water but find maintaining directional control a bit of a challenge. Graceful… no, but effective, yes.
Scallops live for 12 to 18 months and spend most of their life hidden in the grassy bottom, filter-feeding on plankton. As the water warms, their growth rate accelerates and they begin to move higher in the grass making them more visible. Scallops have the unique ability to develop both male and female organs and can lay well over one million eggs during the fall, but only a small percentage live long enough to become full-grown adults.
When to Scallop
Scalloping is legal in Florida State waters in the Gulf of Mexico from the Pasco-Hernando County line (near Aripeka — latitude 28 degrees, 26.016 minutes north) to the west bank of the Mexico Beach Canal in Bay County (longitude 85 degrees, 25.84 minutes west). It is illegal to possess bay scallops on waters outside the open harvest areas.
The Florida bay scallop season typically runs from July 1 through September 10 however, due to the health of the bay scallop population the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission opened the 2011 season one week early on June 25 and extended the season two weeks until September 25. In recent years, the shallow water around Steinhatchee, Florida, (located on the Taylor / Dixie County line) has become ground zero for novice and experienced scallop divers alike.
“Catching the scallops is fun and easy, and anyone of any age can take part.”
The search for scallops takes place over the grassy bottom in two to 10 feet of water. Quite simply, catching bay scallops has become such a popular pastime that locating a productive area is a matter of finding the large pods of boats and working in that general location.
Each person is allowed to haul in two gallons of whole scallops, or the equivalent of one pint of shucked meat, per day. The limit for each boat is 10 gallons of whole scallops, or one-half gallon of meat per day. The individual limit applies when fewer than five people occupy the boat.
What You Need
The equipment required for catching bay scallops is minimal compared to the loads of equipment required for many other oceanic pursuits. You’re going to need a boat, but since this sport takes place in shallow water, smaller boats are generally the rule. A bay-type boat is an excellent choice but a pontoon boat will get the job done as well. I personally use a flat’s boat as it is easy to get in and out of the water due to its low profile and shallow-water running. The flat’s boat helps us access the inside passages when the tide is right. However, it is not uncommon to see people scalloping from jonboats, jet skis or even kayaks all the way up to multi-engine offshore boats. If you don’t have a boat, you can take advantage of the small fleet of skiff and deck-type rental boats available from several marinas in Steinhatchee. Reservations are highly recommended.
A dive flag (compliant to Florida regulations) is required and likely the most important piece of safety equipment you’ll need. Since there are many boats on the water participating in this fishery, and in relatively close proximity to one another, the dive flag is the required method of communication to tell others that you have people in the water. The actual regulation reads: “Vessel operators must make a reasonable effort to maintain a distance of at least 300 feet from divers-down flags on open waters and at least 100 feet from flags on rivers, inlets or navigation channels. Vessels approaching divers-down flags closer than 300 feet in open water and 100 feet in rivers, inlets and navigation channels must slow to idle speed.”
Another good safety idea is to wear a brightly colored rash guard to help other boaters spot you when you are in the water. The only other gear you’ll need is a mask, snorkel, fins and a mesh catch bag to hold your scallops.
Where to Go
The shallow waters around the Steinhatchee River mouth, known as Dead Man’s Bay, are full of areas that make perfect scallop habitat. Studying the nautical chart of this area is a great way to start the scallop search. The first thing you will notice on the chart is a well-marked channel that runs from several miles up the Steinhatchee River and ends several miles out into the open Gulf of Mexico to the west.
The small towns of Steinhatchee and Jenna, Florida, are separated by the river and have several marinas that cater to fishermen and scallopers. Dead Man’s Bay, at the mouth of the river, is an area a few miles across where the shoreline retreats slightly to the east. The entire area is made up of beautiful small grassy points and rocky coves. The beauty of the area is breathtaking and has been unchanged for hundreds of years. That’s something that can be hard to find in the Sunshine State.
Steinhatchee and Dead Man’s Bay are located just south of the Florida “Big Bend” area and there’s very little civilization visible from the Gulf flats which adds to the beauty of the area. Looking a little closer at the chart you will notice several shallow bars, grass flats and natural channels. It is these shallow grassy areas pushing to the west that attract the attention of the scallop fleet.
Traveling either north or south from the end of the Steinhatchee River marked channel you can’t help but notice the flotilla of boats that will be several hundred yards from the marsh shoreline when the tide is up, out to almost two miles offshore when the tide is down. A good area to start your scallop search is in the general location of the flotilla. Looking at the number of boats condensed into small areas, one would think there could not possibly be a scallop left, but rest assured the bay scallops are there and with each new day the fleet finds areas that were previously overlooked.
The drill is simple — find a grassy area where the depth is between two and eight feet, especially one that is “modeled” with several kinds of grass and some sandy areas. Fly your dive flag, put on your mask, snorkel and fins and swim slowly, searching the bottom for your tasty treasure.
Once you spot a scallop on the bottom, look around for others before you dive down and pick it up, scallops tend to form in groups. It is very common to spot one on the bottom and as you pick it up you’ll find two, three or four more that you didn’t notice. It is also helpful to swim into the tidal current as this makes it easier to see down into the sea grass.
Since the boats tend to bunch up together on the productive scallop spots, it is critical that someone keep track of how far from the boat you’ve wandered. It is also critical that you keep a close eye out for divers that may have strayed a little too far from their boat, especially as boats move in the area. Be friendly and help each other out.
Where to Stay
The largest marina on the River is Sea Hag Marina in Steinhatchee. There you will find a full-service marina with a good number of wet slips, dry-rack storage, launching services, a fleet of Carolina Skiffs for rent, a well-stocked ship’s store with parts for all brands of motors and boat/motor repair services. The Sea Hag also has a tiki bar that sells beer and is a great place to relax after a day of snorkeling while the marina’s scallop cleaners shuck your scallops. Using the local scallop cleaning service is a great way to learn the most efficient way to clean scallops. These pros make it look easy, and supporting the local economy is not a bad idea either.
There are several other marinas found along the Steinhatchee River that offer great access and support including River Haven Marina on the Steinhatchee side with dockage, travel lift, ship’s store and rental skiffs and deck boats. On the Jenna, Florida, side of the river there is the Gulfstream Hotel and Marina with floating slips, a pay-to-launch ramp and fuel services.
Paces Cottages located at and managed by the Sea Hag Marina offers reasonably priced vintage cottages. Most have multiple bedrooms and a single bathroom and several come with kitchens. The major attraction to Pace’s Cottages is the reasonable price and close proximity to the marina. On the other end of the accommodations scale is the Steinhatchee Landings Resort. The Landings is a community of upscale private and rental homes. There are private boat slips on the river, a country store that serves a continental breakfast, a very nice pool and a small exercise facility. The Landings was a favorite vacation spot for President Jimmy Carter and family who liked the shallow-water fishing in the Steinhatchee River area.
Dining in the Steinhatchee area is somewhat limited. Keep in mind that this is a small, old Florida town but there are a few restaurants that will satisfy the hunger resulting from a day of diving for scallops. Steinhatchee has one of the most unique pizza restaurants you will find anywhere. The local Hungry Howie’s is located riverfront in what can best be described as an old bait shack. There is a large floating dock reserved for customers so you can visit the restaurant by either car or boat. Pulling up to the local pizza joint by boat is a great way to end your day Steinhatchee style.
There are two primary public boat ramps directly on the Steinhatchee River, one on the south side (in Jenna) and a brand new ramp on the north side (in Steinhatchee) just west of Sea Hag Marina. The new ramp has multiple launching ramps with an impressive amount of floating docks and ample vehicle/trailer parking. Another feature that makes the north ramp attractive is its protected location in a small cove that eliminates the tidal river flow which effects the south ramp. The new ramp will greatly reduce the ramp congestion that has in the past been an issue at the south ramp.
Scallop diving in the Big Bend area is fun and rewarding. The entire family can easily participate in this fishery because the diving takes place in shallow water that is generally calm. The scallops you catch are sweet and tender and make the trip well worth the effort, but in the end, one of the nicest things about visiting the Big Bend area is enjoying one of Florida’s most out-of-the-way places. This part of Florida is so unique from the Florida Keys and Florida’s congested east and west coasts, with their busy fishing spots and big town feel. So when the summer heat sets in and the fishing slows, think about a different kind of excursion and spend some time chasing scallops.
Annual Abundance Survey
Each spring, biologists assess bay scallop populations, surveying 7 to 20 stations at each of 10 to 14 locations. At each station, biologists count and measure scallops within an area of 600 square meters (656 square yards).
Preseason surveys are usually initiated in May, and areas open to recreational harvest are completed before the season opens. The table shows the average number of scallops observed per 600 square meters during the annual surveys.
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