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Watch your Fingers

Many fishermen think catching scallops is a snap. But the tasty little critters are shiftier than you think.

By TERRY TOMALIN, Times Outdoors Editor
© St. Petersburg Times
published August 2, 2002

There are advantages to waiting later in the scallop season to search for these tasty shellfish.

First, the animals are bigger, which means more meat for the table. Second, most people think the grass beds have been picked clean. So on a weekday in July, you pretty much have the place to yourself.

"We should have no problem finding scallops," said Brian Smith, a local charter boat captain who runs scalloping excursions when the fishing is slow. "I talked to a friend who went out yesterday, and he got his limit in a couple of hours."

We met Smith at the dock of the Gulfstream Motel & Marina in sleepy little Steinhatchee, which is about 21/2 hours north of Tampa Bay. You can find scallops off Homosassa and Crystal River. The season there recently reopened after a eight-year closure.

But we decided to head north to the Steinhatchee, where the scallops were rumored to be "fatter" than usual. The name Steinhatchee means "man river" in the Seminole language. But if those early Floridians had had masks and snorkels, they probably would have called it "scallop river," because that is what this area is known for.

"Look ... I'm seeing them already," Smith said just 20 minutes after leaving the dock. "Get ready to hit the water."

If you are looking for scallops, you'll need a boat, mask, snorkel, saltwater fishing license and dive flag. The best time to go is on a slack tide, when the grass blades stand straight up.

Bay scallops, like other types of game, are masters of camouflage. It takes a keen eye and steady hand to locate these critters as they hide in the thick beds of eel and turtle grass that flourish in the shallows off Steinhatchee.

Once you spot a scallop, get ready for a chase. These mollusks, unlike their clam and oyster cousins, can swim. By squeezing their shells together, scallops expel a jet of water that rocket them across grass beds.

As you approach the scallop, beware of the bivalve's bewitching stare. These animals have a row of purple eyes that can mesmerize even veteran scallopers. So don't be distracted. Many a scalloper has returned home empty-handed after hesitating at the moment of truth. When you move, move quickly. You may not get a second chance.

And remember that a scallop may look harmless, but it is a wild animal trying to survive. The scallop's strong adductor muscle, which provides the delicate meat that you seek, can snap the shells shut like a vise. Scallops will pinch, and it doesn't tickle.

When talking about the shellfish, old-timers sometimes say, "The scallops are in." But the idea that scallops migrate is an old fish tale. In fact, scallops don't travel far from the grass beds in which they were born.

These creatures spawn in the early fall, and it doesn't take many to repopulate an area. One scallop can lay a million eggs that float around for two weeks to a month. The eggs then attach to blades of grass, where they will grow until July 1, when the season opens.

The eggs are sensitive to water temperature and quality. A storm or unfavorable tides can wipe out a year's crop. Overfishing led to the closure of traditional scalloping areas south of the Suwannee River.

But as of July 1, scallop season reopened in the gulf north of the Pasco-Hernando county line. The season will remain open through Sept. 10. The bag limit is two gallons whole or one pint of meat per person per day, with a maximum of 10 gallons whole or one-half gallon of meat per vessel.

At one time, Tampa Bay supported a thriving commercial scallop industry. But since the 1950s, loss of habitat and pollution has caused the scallop population to plummet. But researchers with the Florida Marine Research Institute and the University of South Florida are hoping to rebuild local populations so scallopers won't have to travel so far from home to catch these tasty treats.

In the meantime, Steinhatchee is as good a place as any to find scallops. In two hours on the water, we nearly got our limit.

Back at the dock, the woman who shucked our scallops for $5 a pound was impressed with our catch.

"These are as good as we've seen," she said. "Where did you get them?"

I just pointed to the gulf. "Out there," I said.

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