We zip along at about 30 knots, not another boat in sight. A glance at the GPS device shows that the little line we’ve been following for the past half-hour will soon end at, fittingly, a pixelated “X” marking a preprogrammed spot.
Boat captain Gianpiero Ruggeri kills the motor, scans the horizon for unwanted company and heaves the anchor overboard. “We’re here,” he says with a wink.
Like all fishing fanatics, my pal Gianpiero has favorite angling haunts. Today’s just happens not to involve rods, reels — or even fish. This time, we’re after Florida bay scallops.
Coveted by locals for their tenderness and briny sweetness, bay scallops rarely reach the mouths of tourists, because they can be harvested only recreationally. A commercial harvesting ban in the 1990s, credited with saving them from extinction, leaves those of us hankering for these tasty bivalves with two choices: persuade someone who has some to share or get in the water.
Fat chance that you’ll find the first. Happily, hunting for bay scallops is loads of fun. And, as I learn one late summer day, blessedly simple.
About all you need are a swimsuit, snorkeling gear and somewhere to stash your scallops, ideally a mesh bag. Because scallops can be found nestled in turtle grass in water as shallow as two feet, you can wade barefoot to collect them. Still, I agree with veteran scallopers like Gianpiero, who prefers to take his boat out to deeper water — maybe eight to 10 feet — and find them while snorkeling.
This Sunday morning, Gianpiero, his wife, Louise, and I launch his boat from Bayport Park, an hour’s drive north from my home in Tampa, and closest to some of Gianpiero’s plum scalloping spots. Though found all along Florida’s Gulf Coast, bay scallops can legally be collected only during a three-month season ending in September and solely from waters extending from the PascoHernando county line, north and west, to the west bank of the Mexico Beach Canal in Bay County.
By the time we reach our first scalloping spot, we are more than a mile from shore. To non-boating types such as myself, we seem disconcertingly far from land. Yet, as with much of Florida’s Gulf Coast, it’s shallow out here for miles, averaging six to 12 or so feet, depending on tides. Our GPS measures nine feet down where we are, about the same as the deep end of most backyard swimming pools.
After Gianpiero hoists a diver’s flag to warn fellow boaters to be careful about people in the water, he and Louise give me a quick tutorial on scalloping. I should swim around and, when I see a scallop, dive down, pick it up and pop it into the bag. Surface for breath. Repeat.
Easy peasy, I think, giving my pals a thumbs-up. On go our masks, snorkels, fins and rubber-palmed cloth gardening gloves, which Gianpiero explains aren’t to protect from snapping scallops (they can’t bite), but rather because water-logged hands are easily scratched by corrugated shells and hitchhiking barnacles. We don’t skimp on sunscreen, especially on our backs, which will be exposed to sun all day.
Gianpiero next hands me a diving knife, sheathed in black rubber. He and Louise each have one strapped to their right shins. “I’ve never seen a shark out here,” Gianpiero says with a laugh. “But I don’t jump in the ocean without a dive knife.”
I follow suit. Tightly cinched on my leg, the knife does add a dash of adrenaline to an activity often described as an underwater Easter egg hunt.
Overboard we go, into bathtub-warm water. We begin swimming slowly at the surface, eyes glued to the sea grass and sand below. Any aquatic swagger my diving knife gave me dissolves a few seconds later, when Louise surfaces from a quick dunk, grinning and holding the first scallop of the day. Back down she goes, returning a moment later with another. Ditto for Gianpiero.
I resolve to look harder, reminding myself to watch for the telltale round shape of a scallop shell, not the color, since they often are partly covered by sand or barnacles. Scallops also give themselves away while actively filter-feeding, their open shells ringed inside with tiny electric-blue eyes, I remember Gianpiero saying.
And then I see one. Or think I do. Only one way to find out: I tip forward and dive. A few seconds later, I surface, triumphant, scallop in hand. “Got one,” I holler idiotically into my snorkel’s mouth piece. Into my bag goes the bivalve.
A dozen scallops later, I feel like I’m getting the hang of it. I’ve learned that scallops don’t exactly flee a hunter’s grasp, as allegedly informed friends had told me before my trip. Rather, the critters snap shut their shells or at most flutter them, propelling themselves a few feet away.
Back in the boat, we empty our sacks into an ice-filled cooler and break for a quick lunch of Cuban sandwiches before pulling up anchor and heading to our next scalloping spot, about half a mile east.
The water here is a little shallower, scallops more plentiful. No longer content to dive for one scallop at a time, I’m snatching two nearly every trip down. Or, as Gianpiero teases me, half of his per-plunge record.
By early afternoon, and our third stop, we’re joined by several other boats, including a family-filled pontoon piloted by a professional guide. Each vessel sprouts a diving flag, meaning they’re also after scallops. Gianpiero spots a mackerel and swaps his snorkel gear for a rod and reel. Louise and I vow to scallop on.
In no time, we’re back at the boat, bags heavy with edible booty. I’ve even managed on my last dive to set a personal record of three scallops.
On board, I ask about the foot-long fish that followed me around, swimming just inches beneath my belly. Most likely a remora, Gianpiero says. As in, the fish that attaches itself to bigger fish such as sharks. “You didn’t see his other ride swimming around, did you?” he says with a laugh. I give my diving knife a reassuring pat.
With dark clouds gathering on the seaward horizon, we decide to quit harvesting and start shucking. Cleaning scallops on board makes for less mess at home, Louise says. “Plus,” Gianpiero adds, “you don’t want to know how bad scallop shells smell the next day in your garbage can.”
We sit, legs straddling the boat’s sides, and get to work. Compared with oysters, scallops are a cinch to shuck. But I soon learn there is a trick to doing it right.
First, try to pick a scallop that’s already a little open. Those who’ve spent the most time on ice tend to open first. Next, in one hand hold a scallop with the darker-hued side of the shell facing up. With a common table knife or spoon in the other hand, pry open the top shell. Wielding the spoon scoop-bowl down, sever the white muscle from the top shell. Gently scrape out the brownish-orange membrane and guts — basically everything that’s not the pearly nubbin you eat — and discard overboard. Sever this morsel from the bottom shell and drop into a small Tupperware container. Pitch shells overboard. Repeat this process until you’re done. Averaging about 30 seconds per scallop, we toil for nearly an hour on our hundred-plus haul.
For those who prefer to shirk shucking duties, there are folks at most area docks who, for a price, will clean your scallops for you. Louise admits that she once sprung for this service after a particularly successful outing that yielded several hundred scallops. Local restaurants will often prepare your scallops for you as well.
By the time I’m home that evening, I’ve worked up a major appetite. Before I’ve showered off the day’s salt and sunscreen, into a skillet go my share of scallops — about two cups’ worth — along with olive oil, white wine and salt and pepper. The chopped parsley barely lands on top in time for my wife, Gail; son, Ewan; and me to pounce. Plates picked clean, Ewan sighs.
“Awesome,” he says.
Frontier and US Airways offer nonstop flights from Washington Dulles, BWI and Reagan National Airport to Tampa International Airport.
The Plantation on Crystal River
9301 West Fort Island Trail,
Crystal River, Fla.
Family-friendly hotel, with a good restaurant and kid-centric amenities such as heated pool, horseshoes and croquet. Guided scalloping trips can be arranged through the hotel, including package deals such as two-night stay at hotel and scalloping trip for four people ($630). For $13.95 per person, guests can have their scallops prepared several ways at the hotel’s West 82 Bar & Grill.
Pine Lodge Bed & Breakfast
649 Hwy. 40 West, Inglis, Fla.
Old Florida charm in four rooms and five cottages, starting at around $110 per night (for two adults).
Steinhatchee Landing Resort
203 Ryland Cir., Steinhatchee, Fla.
Homey, amenity-filled resort of one- to four-bedroom cottages. Rates begin at about $150 per night. Hotel staff can recommend local scalloping charters.
1306 Riverside Dr., Steinhatchee, Fla.
Among the best local restaurants for fresh seafood. For $10 per person, they’ll prepare your scallops, along with your choice of two sides.
Sunset Coastal Grill
602 Monument Ave., Port Saint Joe, Fla.
Fresh seafood and a view of the gulf. They’ll prepare your scallops for anywhere from a few bucks for an appetizer-size portion to about $15 for heartier dinner-size serving.
Osprey Guide Services
6115 Riverside Dr., Yankeetown, Fla.
Six-hour scalloping trip for up to four people runs $300, snorkeling gear and fishing licenses included.
Something’s Fishy Charters
Steinhatchee-based guide Bob Erdman offers fishing and scalloping trips. As with most guides, Captain Erdman caters to kids and adults of all ages. All-day scalloping trips run $350 for up to six people. Bringing your own snorkeling gear is recommended but not required.
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Paul Abercrombie is a Tampa-based writer.