For many, summer in Florida isn’t complete without a scalloping trip. Generally July through September, this year’s season kicked off June 27 and continues until September 24.
Scalloping boundaries start at the Pasco-Hernando County line and extend north to the panhandle around Mexico Beach. Each year, biologists survey the waters to determine scallop populations and which areas to open.
With the waters off of the small coastal towns of Crystal River and Homosassa Springs abundant with bay scallops, it’s easy to scoop up your share on either a half or full day excursion. We took our sense of adventure along to scavenge for one of our coast’s most delectable bivalves; here, we share the details on two ways of making the trip, with a charter captain and tagging along with friends on a private boat.
HIRING A PRO
WEEKDAY TRIP, 7 a.m. to noon
By Jackie Walling
MONDAY, 5:10 a.m.
I tap snooze until my hazy sleep fog fades enough for me to remember I’m going scalloping for the first time today; suddenly, I have a little more energy.
We leave St. Petersburg with a cooler, packed lunch and some drinks headed for Shrimp Landing in Crystal River, where we’ll meet our captain and guide for the morning. The drive north is easy and peaceful this early and more and more signs of natural Florida appear as we near the coast.
Oranges and pinks are just starting to show in the sky as we approach the dock, and the water is so calm we can read the names of the commercial fishing boats in their reflections. This is where we meet Anthony Altman, better known as Captain Stump.
Shrimp Landing is only for commercial fishing boats, but our captain was given the go ahead to use the dock this scalloping season. Our benefit? We’re about 20 minutes closer than where most have to start their journey, meaning more time for scalloping.
As we carefully climb aboard and settle in, our captain announces, “Next stop, Scalloptopia!”
We slowly idle through the glassy Salt River toward Crystal Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. Low tide exposes oyster shells on the bridge pilings, and mangrove roots stand stoic over the water – it’s easy to see how a boat could quickly run aground without a captain who knows these waterways.
We slow to a stop and Captain Stump announces that we’re in about four feet of water – good depth for scalloping – then jumps in, dives down and, after about a minute, pops up to the surface with a live scallop in hand. “This is what you’re looking for,” he smiles.
He shares some tips: how to tie the mesh bag around our wrists so both hands are free and our collected scallops won’t escape; and a reminder to swim out against the tide and float back toward the boat so we don’t tire ourselves early on.
Scallops need healthy sea grass beds to live, spending the entirety of their lives in them and feeding by filtering small particles from the water. The taller the grass, the harder they are to find, so I start
by looking for scallops in the shorter, mossy seagrass.
Under water, hearing the sea’s signature electric crackle transports me to another world, and as I approach my first scallop, I’m amazed by the two rows of tiny, electric blue eyes (each scallop has about 40 to 60) around the outer part of their shells that focus light and sense my movement. Oddly beautiful, I could stare at the scallop longer if my breath didn’t remind me that I’m underwater. The shell attempts to shut, but I grab it and drop it in my bag before it can open again and propel itself forward to swim away.
Our second and third stops are farther out, but only a few feet deeper.
“We just have to jump in and see what’s going on underneath,” says Captain Stump, who checks each spot we visit first, then stays above water on deck to watch for other boats and keep us close.
It’s nice to swim with a purpose, though sometimes I almost forget we’re looking for scallops since there is so much else to see. Sea turtles are first mistaken for rocks. Among purple and orange-tinted coral, shiny pinfish flash and slot-sized mangrove snapper swim together. Stone crabs scurry and eels poke their heads from their hiding places as I swim by.
We arrive back at Shrimp Landing and learn how to clean our catch. Shucking scallops is nothing like shucking oysters – it’s more like cleaning them, and all you really need is a spoon. Before long we have enough scallops plucked and shucked to take home for dinner later.
I thank Captain Stump and tell him I won’t be a stranger, to which he replies “yes, ma’am,” with characteristic Southern charm. Driving back, I’m thinking about how much scalloping made me feel like a kid – spending days underwater in the pool each summer, pretending I was a mermaid and diving down like a dolphin. I can’t wait to go again.
Captain “Stump” Anthony Altman, Reel Sport Charters, Crystal River; 352-423-3798, reelsportcharters.com. Average cost of a half-day trip with a local captain is around $75 per person, plus tip if you are so inclined.
Clockwise from top left: The tools of the trade are minimal:
snorkel and fins and a mesh bag for your catch. A diver down flag is a must to
alert other boaters of swimmers in the water. Captain Stump (aka Anthony Altman).
Commercial fishing boats on the glassy water at Shrimp Landing.
A starfish – just one of many creatures to be found while scalloping.
The day’s bounty. Early morning calm.
GOING ON YOUR OWN WEEKEND TRIP
By Leslie Stair
FRIDAY, 6:15 p.m.
We leave Tampa and drive an hour and 20 minutes to the Homosassa Riverside Resort, which has a boat ramp and dock, a restaurant and bar, and a gift shop, along with excursions such as air boat rides and tours of the nearby springs. We arrive in time to dine with friends and plan our scallop adventure the next day.
SATURDAY, 6:45 a.m.
Our friend Captain Andy launches his 23-foot Hydra-Sport into the water from the boat ramp and ties it up to the dock. He knows from experience that the ramps have long lines on weekends, so getting an early start can help get you on the water quicker. In addition to the life jackets and extra gas already onboard, we load the boat with our gear – snorkel masks and fins, a “diver down” flag to warn other boaters of our presence, mesh bags and buckets for our scallops, and, of course, water, snacks and sun screen to keep us comfortable – then climb in, making sure everyone has their Florida saltwater fishing licenses, a requirement if you’re not on a charter boat.
Aboard, we slowly motor past the more than 40-year-old Monkey Island. A tiny boat called the USS Primate, a lighthouse, playful habitat, and five spider monkeys (Ralph, Ebony, Sassy, Eve, and Emily) inhabit the small island, a unique, “real Florida” find.
The winding trip through the river to our scalloping location is like being part of a massive boat parade this weekend – typical for the time of year – as pontoons, power boats, fishing boats and even airboats zoom and zigzag around the channel markers out to the gulf. Even with all the visitors, a variety of bird life (cormorants, pelicans and herons to name a few) decorate the lawns of the houses along the river.
When we reach the gulf, it’s easy to identify a hot scalloping spot by the cadre of boats in varying shapes and sizes clustered together.
We throw out the anchor and an eager volunteer jumps overboard to scout the location for scallops. It took our fourth spot to find clusters of scallops tucked away in the sea grass, but we didn’t get discouraged. Water depth can vary, and we hunt for scallops in around four to seven feet of water – the shallower the water, the easier your dive down.
We find a plentiful spot. Once we splash into the warm gulf water, we look in sections of sea grass where scallops like to hide … the white and brown circles are nestled in the grass with a line of blue eyes peering out at you along their rim. Finding one likely means there are more in the immediate area.
Some scallops are feisty and attempt to swim away, propelling themselves by opening and closing their shells. I hear their shells clack shut when I listen closely, and to avoid getting my fingers caught, I pick them up by their hinged side.
After collecting our scallop bounty we join the myriad of boats converging at the mouth of the river to begin the long, winding voyage back. A small, floating boat with a giant white shrimp on top perches at the mouth of the river selling ice cream and fishing bait – two staples on a Florida summer day to be sure – and we catch sight of many smaller boats selling shucking services. This is a great service when you have a big haul, but allow plenty of time, as weekends can be busy.
After depositing our scallops with an onshore shucker, we decide to venture down the river to cool off in the fresh water of the natural spring, usually around 70 degrees. There’s a bit of a traffic jam, as many others have the same idea, and there are boats lining either side of the river near the spring in what seems like one giant party. Music plays, laughter emanates, and boaters leisurely lie on floats and pool noodles to relax and cool off – the perfect way to end a hot summer day.
We cruise towards the boat ramp and wait in line to exit the river and trailer the boat. One hour later, we celebrate a fun and successful scalloping day at a tiki bar overlooking the beautiful Homosassa River while listening to a guitarist strum classic rock tunes before heading back to Tampa.
Homosassa Riverside Resort, 5297 S. Cherokee Way, Homosassa, 352-628-2474, riversideresorts.com (you can also read about the history of Monkey Island).
CLEANING YOUR CATCH
Shucking scallops is nothing like shucking oysters – the shells are much thinner and easier to open and the only tool you need is a spoon.
Here’s how our charter guide Captain Stump does it:
- Hold the shell dark side up.
- Pull the top shell off (you should be able to do this easily with your hand).
- Use your spoon to scoop out everything but the white muscle that you’ll eat.
- If you’re not going to cook on the half shell, use your spoon to gently detach the muscle from the bottom shell.