Scalloping Florida’s Nature Coast: A Delicious Adventure

At one time, the West Central coast of Florida supported a robust commercial scallop industry, with 400,000 lbs. of bay scallops being harvested in Florida in 1957. By 1992, the commercial harvest was near zero. Fishery groups banded together and worked to restore the scallop populations to healthy levels and by 2005, most years showed a healthy level.

Today we get to enjoy scallop season along Florida’s Gulf coast from the Pasco-Hernando County line north to the edge of Gulf County each summer and I encourage you to participate. Scalloping is truly an adventure of a lifetime for all ages.

It was early – much earlier than I like to wake up. The alarm was scheduled to go off in 7 minutes, but I was ready to greet the day. I had been counting down for weeks and today I would experience my scalloping adventure!

Jade Palmer was the brave soul who jumped in my car at 6 a.m. meet our captain at 7 a.m. sharp in Old Homosassa. We had chosen a private charter for our adventure, although there are many options.

Out to the Scallop Grounds

As part of our charter, everything we needed to hunt for our shellfish: snorkel, mask, fins, a bag to put our bounty in and instruction in the technique that was most likely to yield the most scallops was included.

We enjoyed the sunrise as we eased up the Homosassa River, headed out to the scallop grounds.

After we settled into the open boat, we ventured into the Homosassa River. The water’s surface was smooth as glass and we glided away from civilization. The captain opened the engine up; the air was fresh, the water still, and the sunrise was breathtaking to behold. We drove past several inlets, channels, and tiny mangrove islands that broke the surface irregularly. At one point a mullet fish flew alongside the boat!

Our charter was navigating the Salt River out toward the Gulf of Mexico. We traveled for half an hour with the world to ourselves. As the engine hummed, Jade and I enjoyed the beauty of the sun rising over Florida’s Nature Coast.

Diving for Scallops

After donning our masks and fins, we eased into the warm Gulf waters to begin our underwater hunt for scallops.

The boat slowed to a stop amidst lush sea grass beds. With the Crystal River Power Station in the distance, all around us was peaceful and serene. This is the environment that scallops thrive in and Florida’s Nature Coast has it in abundance. Our Captain put up the dive flag to warn other boaters that we were swimming about as required by Florida law.

We donned our snorkel, masks and fins, lifted our legs over the side of the boat and dropped into the clear salt water, enveloped in the balmy brine.

Scallops are usually nestled in the seagrass beds or right alongside them. The shells are grey-green or tan colored with many neon blue “eyes” around their edges.

Looking down, there was a scallop sitting upright in the grass below. With a deep breath, I bent at the waist and dove with my arm extended to pluck the grey-green shell from its nest below. I joyfully placed it into my net bag and looked around for Jade. She was floating peacefully turning her head back and forth to find her prize.

Suddenly Jade submerged, then quickly came back to the surface, showing her catch.

Coming to the surface with scallops in hand. Image courtesy of Visit Crystal River.

We swam into the current so that when we got tired, it was an easy float back. The current was tricky to see from above the water, but below the surface, the sea grass flows back and forth with the current and the sparkle of sunlight breaks through the water, creating a whimsical pattern.

Fish were swimming with me, under me, by me. Soft corals and sea anemones were embedded in the grass. The life was stunning. It was such a magical experience to be in that giant “aquarium” that I forgot the purpose of my snorkeling several times and just relaxed in the sea.

Suddenly another scallop would appear below bringing me back to focus. Our captain had explained earlier that if you find one scallop, there are often more in the vicinity. He claimed to have brought up at least ten in a single breath.

Captain Sean shows off his bag of scallops! Sean operates Mellow Mangrove Charters. Image courtesy of Mellow Mangrove Charters.

On multiple occasions, I attempted to gather multiple scallops in a single breath, but inevitably ended up breathing in sea water and dropping the other mollusk or kicking up the sand which reduces visibility and thusly, how many scallops I could find, so I resigned myself to being a single scalloper for my adventure.

Back to Shore

Too soon, we have reached our limit of 5 gallons of scallops and must return the dock. There are many boats dotting the Gulf waters now, most with happy snorkelers on their annual “hunt.”

In the twinkling of an eye, we were called back to the boat. It was time to return. With our captain’s help we had amassed 5 gallons of raw scallops and would now head back to the dock for cleaning and cooking.

Many boats dotted the vista now, each with a dive flag and snorkelers searching for the prized Gulf bay scallop. It was about 10:30 a.m. “That’s why we leave at 7 a.m. promptly,” Captain Red said, “It gets crowded out here, especially on weekends.”

Jade and I looked down at the scallops and watched them jostling and spitting in the five-gallon bucket. It was entertaining.

We gave each other a high five and sat down while the Captain took up the boats anchors. The waters had stayed serenely still.

“The quiet water helps with visibility,” Captain Red said, “It’s a lot easier to see the scallops when the water is clear.” We agreed and were very happy with our adventure’s harvest.

Local Boys offers dockside cleaning of your fresh caught scallops in Homosassa.

As we pulled up to the dock at MacRae’s, Local Boys Scallop Cleaning was there to clean our catch. The $5/gallon to clean them was more than worth it to me. This seasonal enterprise, owned by Cletis Huggins, and operated by the Huggins family is available throughout the entire scallop season. When asked what they do with the shells, Cletis replied, “We save them up all day and then boat them over and put them back in the river.” All part of the natural cycle.

Enjoying the Feast

We made arrangements ahead of time with Oysters restaurant in Crystal River to cook our fresh-caught scallops for us.

After tipping our captain, we picked up our cleaned scallops and headed up to Oysters in Crystal River to have our fresh catch cooked. I called William Bunch, Oysters owner and Chef, to alert him that we were coming. He welcomed us when we arrived and took our freshly caught and shucked scallops to the kitchen for processing.

After agreeing on having some scallops blackened and some fried, Jade ordered clam chowder and I ordered gumbo. We enjoyed the soups and relished in our adventure as we waited for the main course.  William went back to work his magic.

The magic of the sea and the beauty of the day had us giddy as we waited impatiently for Chef William to cook our scallops.

Giddy from our adventure, we reminisced about the water’s beauty, the adventure of the hunt, and the wonderful feeling of communing with the sea life in the Gulf.

We had seen dolphin, osprey, mullet and who knows how many fishes swimming around us. Jade commented, “The water, the sea life, and waving sea grass made this experience more than I could have imagined. The scallops are a bonus – and I can’t wait to eat them!”

Chef William and co-owner Pamela Bunch in front of a sign at Oysters Restaurant.

In time, William came back with two large bowls of our catch, one blackened and one fried, along with plates for each of us with heaping sides of macaroni and cheese and his delicious hush puppies.

The scallops were so tender, succulent, flavorful… and satisfying. Wow! We ate them all.

Scallops on the Half Shell

Scallops on the Half Shell: easy, quick and delicious!

Now it was time for a nap, so I dropped Jade off and that night I went back to my kitchen.

We still had a lot of scallops left, including about 4 dozen we had the Huggins’ clean “on the half shell.” I placed all my scallop shells on cookie sheets and preheated my oven to 450 degrees. After melting ¼ cup of butter, I gently brushed some on each scallop in its shell. Then I sprinkled blackening seasoning on and placed them in the preheated oven for 3 minutes.

Delicious, nutritious and fun. I ate every one of them while they were hot. The fork was leaving too much scallop on the shell, so I switched to a spoon and enjoyed every morsel.

Although this picture is bad, I wanted you to see the “dynamic duo” with our fresh catch! We were having so much fun and the sun was beating down on us, so we didn’t check the pictures until it was too late. Scalloping took all our attention. Look at that bounty!

Hopefully this article has helped to whet your appetite for a scalloping adventure. It is so fun and easy!

Things to Consider when Scalloping

There are several scallop tour operators on NatureCoaster.com. Click here to check the Scalloping Tours listings. Then just give one a call and book your trip before September 24. That’s the date scalloping season closes for 2017.

Recreational Scalloping is a blast. If you choose to go on your own, remember to get your Florida Saltwater Fishing license and use a dive flag.

There many ways to go scalloping, from frugal (wade out in the gulf) to top-shelf (charter your Captain) and in-between (take your own boat or better yet – join a group charter). Whatever way best fits your budget, you are sure to enjoy the experience of floating in the Gulf, hunting for each scallop and then bagging your catch. And, of course, consuming these delectable gems.

Many local restaurants will cook your catch. Call ahead to make sure they can accommodate you.

The dock at MacRae’s of Homosassa is the only place I know of that has a scallop cleaning service. Many captains will clean your catch for you. Some have a set price and some will do so for a tip, but make sure you are clear about your expectations before booking your charter.

If you are going to rent a boat to participate in this endeavor, discuss your plan to use the boat for scalloping with your marina before you rent.  You will need:

  • a saltwater fishing license
  • snorkel, mask, fins
  • to show a dive flag
  • a mesh bag to store your scallops while you are catching them
  • knowledge of where to find the scallops.
  • a cooler and ice to store your bounty on the vessel and while you travel
  • sunscreen and lots of drinks for your time on the water
Jump in and get Scalloping NatureCoasters! Visit our Scalloping Tour NatureCoasters and tell ’em why your’re there. You’re gonna LOVE it!

Weekdays are much better for scalloping if you can get out then. Weekends can be crowded and the more people stirring up the sand, the lower visibility for finding your prize.

Jump in and get Scalloping NatureCoasters! Visit our Scalloping Tours listings and schedule your adventure today – and tell ’em NatureCoaster.com sent you.