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More to explore than just scallops

By ED WALKER
Published July 1, 2006


Great catch

Have you caught a nice fish and want to show it off? Mail a photo of the fish to the St. Petersburg Times. Such pictures usually accompany the Outdoors Notebook. If you have made a great catch, send a copy of the photo to Terry Tomalin, Outdoors Editor, St. Petersburg Times, 490 First Ave. S., St. Petersburg, FL 33701.

Scallop season opens north of the Hernando-Pasco county line today and many local outdoor enthusiasts will try to grab their share. These tasty bivalves are fun to catch and provide another reason to get into the water on a hot day. One of the best spots over the past few years has been the big shallow grass flat just outside the mouth of the Homosassa River. When the wind is light, you can usually spot scallops from the deck of a boat moving at idle speed. Once you see a few lying in the grass, put the dive flag up and send a snorkeler or two over for a closer look. If you have found a good spot, then it's time to drop anchor. In most cases you will be able to find your limit in less than 5 feet of water, but in some seasons past there was better hunting in 8 feet or more.

Check all regulations regarding this popular pastime before heading out. Fishing licenses are required, dive flags are imperative, and the daily limits are 2 gallons whole or 1 pint of meat per person per day, no more than 10 gallons whole, or half gallon meat per vessel at any time.

Since take a limit on scallops has been relatively easy over the past few seasons, many snorkelers have moved a little deeper afterward to try free dive spearfishing. The water off Homosassa is well-known for its shallow rocks, good visibility and great grouper fishing. By packing a few spear guns you may add a grouper, snapper, or hogfish to the day's catch. Heading west 4 to 5 miles from the scalloping grounds will put you in an area that has decent-sized rock outcroppings in less than 20 feet of water. Watch for bait pods on the surface or old lost crab trap buoys, both of which can indicate the presence of some structure below. With continued good visibility, checking these potential hot spots only takes a diver a moment or two.

Spear guns with lines attached to the shafts are the best choice for most free divers. A float line connecting a buoy to the gun completes the rig. This setup allows you to return to the surface if the fish makes it into a hole in the rocks or your breath runs short. Once you have your breath back, you can retrieve a "rocked" fish. The line rig is also helpful should something bigger, like a cobia or kingfish happen to swim by. If one of these large pelagic species is speared, the gun, and float line can be released, which helps keep spears from tearing out.

Hogfish are relatively easy to shoot, seldom caught on hook and line, and one of the best fish to eat in the gulf. This makes them one of the most sought-after species. They can be found around hard-bottom areas with lots of sea fans or sponges. Hogfish will also hang around the ledges and rocks preferred by gag grouper. The minimum size is 12 inches fork length but most conscientious hunters only target those over 14 or 15 inches.