By Melissa Smith
Seared, fried, baked, grilled — you will find scallops prepared just the way you like in almost every restaurant along the coast of Florida. But they taste even better after you have put in the work to catch, clean and cook them yourself.
One of the best things about scalloping is that there is no age limit. From children to elderly adults, everyone can enjoy some time in the sunshine and the sea. “Everybody in the family can do it, which makes it outstanding,” said Capt. Paul Kolacia, owner of Rock Grass Fishing Charters located in Homosassa, Florida. “Not everybody wants to cast a fishing pole all day long, but going out scalloping, unless you just don’t like to swim, people enjoy it.”
Gainesville resident Nita Chester, who has been scalloping since she was 10 years old, said that she finds it very relaxing. “You get to enjoy the water and the wind and the skies, and it’s just beautiful out there.” Now, Chester takes friends out in the Steinhatchee area on her own boat every weekend of scalloping season, which she said makes the activity even more fun. “Every year, probably around November or December, everybody starts coming out of the woodwork, saying ‘Hey, can you book me for scalloping the following year?’ So usually I’m booked up for the entire scalloping season by the time January comes along.”
Know your mollusks
There are two kinds of scallops: bay and sea, named for where the bivalves call home. Sea scallops are three times bigger than bay scallops and are found between 60 and 300 feet deep in the Mid-Atlantic region of the U.S. Bay scallops are found in the shallow waters (4 to 8 feet deep) of harbors, bays and estuaries along the East Coast.
Bay scallops are the type you will find here in Florida. They have dark upper shells and light lowers shells, and they typically grow no more than 3 inches wide. Bay scallops mostly live in seagrass beds and areas that are known as spotty bottom, where patches of seagrass punctuate the sandy seafloor. Here, they are a bit easier to notice, Chester said. “The scallops have a tendency of clinging along the edge of the grass area, and you can see them a little bit better because you’re right next to the sand and it’s open,” she said. “You kind of look into that grass area and find them a lot easier.”
After you know what habitats to look for, you can track down scallop hotspots, which change every season, said Kolacia. This is because when scallops spawn, where the spores end up depends on currents. So each year, they can end up in different areas. “I spend probably two weeks before the season until I find areas that I’m really happy with, that I know I’m going to take my clients to,” Kolacia said. “It’s the same as fishing or anything else — you spend the time on the water to find the spots, because there are definitely areas that, from year to year, are better than others.”
The hunt is on
To go scalloping without a charter, you will need your own saltwater fishing license, which you can get for $17 from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission website or in person at stores such as Walmart and Bass Pro Shops. You will also need a dive flag on your boat, and to be safe, a dive flag in the water with you as well. As for gear, bring a mask, a snorkel, a mesh catch bag to hold your scallops, and a cooler with ice to keep them fresh on the boat.
You will also need a good attitude, because spotting the scallops can be difficult for beginners. “If it’s a client’s first time, I like to get in the water and take them with me,” Kolacia said. “I’ll show them what they’re looking for down on the bottom until they kind of get the hang of it.” Chester said that when she takes her boat out, there are usually only a few people who get good at spotting scallops. The rest, she said, “just end up enjoying the day out.”
But there are a few tips to make the hunt easier. First, go at low tide. This is when the current is not as strong and the water is shallow. “Say we’re scalloping in 6 feet at low tide. At high tide, it would be 8 feet or 8.5 feet, which makes it a little bit harder to dive down to get them,” Kolacia said.
Next, keep your eyes on seafloor below you. “If you look straight down and just float over them, you see them,” Chester said. “But if you’re looking out and trying to find them further away, that’s when people just don’t see them.”
Also, make sure the scallops are a good size. The bigger the scallops are, the better they will be to eat. Chester recommended picking up scallops that are about two inches in width. “And then if you can get anything bigger than that, that’s usually pretty cool,” she said.
And finally, when you find a good spot, comb it over thoroughly. Chester said that once she finds bigger scallops, she will stick to that area for a while. “If you see one or two scallops, there are probably 30 in the same area,” she said. “You just have to look really closely and swim over and over that area, and you’ll pick up more and more and more.”
Enjoying your catch
After you have collected your daily bag limit (2 gallons of whole scallops or 1 pint of scallop meat per person), the real work begins: opening and cleaning your catch.
They can be a little difficult to open, but many people people use butter knives or spoons to make it easier. Just wedge your utensil between the opening of the shell and twist it to break the hinge. Getting the muscle meat out is even more of a challenge. Some people like to clean their scallops right on the boat or when they get to shore. Or you can have locals do the dirty work for you — for a small fee. “Most of my clients drop their scallops off and have them cleaned,” said Kolacia. “It’s not really super difficult to do, and I can show people how to do it, but sometimes when people come up for a one-day charter, there’s other things they want to be doing than spending an hour or two to clean their scallops at the end.”
After they have been cleaned, there are many different ways to prepare your scallops — in pasta, in tacos, over rice or on a bed of greens. But there is one way Chester and Kolacia agreed is better than the rest: grilled on the half shell.
“I take them completely out of the shells, but then I’ll keep a bag full of shells and go home and clean the shells up really good, scrub them really good, let them dry out,” Chester said. “Then I put a scallop inside the shell with some butter and some garlic, and maybe a little parmesan on top. And just put it on the grill for just a few minutes, and everybody loves to eat them.”
Open Season Dates
- Franklin County through northwestern Taylor County: July 1 through Sept. 24
- Southeastern Taylor County and Dixie County: the third Saturday in June (June 16) through Sept. 10
- Levy, Citrus and Hernando counties : July 1 through Sept. 24
- Joseph Bay and Gulf County: Aug. 17 through Sept. 30
- Pasco County: July 20-29