Scalloping season had just begun along Florida’s Sports Coast and we needed snorkel gear and scalloping kits for this adventure. One of Florida’s ultimate underwater scavenger hunts, scalloping is a summer tradition and this year our family was trying our hands at it: a day on the water in search of the elusive and edible bay scallop.
My family and I were at the Bait Depot in Port Richey preparing for our trip and that’s where we met local avid scalloper, Betsy Rutkowski. Having scalloped the Gulf Coast for many years, Betsy advised the first-timers in my family—wife, Melissa, and our kids Scott, 14, and Emily, 11—to start this adventure humbly. “You have to be patient and look for the tiniest of movements underwater,” Rutkowski explained. We perused the store with Besty as she guided us to the necessary gear while explaining the keys to a successful day on the water.
“You just float and start looking underwater,” she said. “Our kids compare scallop hunting to an underwater Easter egg hunt.”
The typical scalloping kit includes a net, a mesh net and gloves but all you really need is a snorkel, mask, flips and mesh bag. We also bought snorkel gear, a cooler to fill with ice and dive flags, which are required by law. Scalloping season only lasts for 10 days along Florida’s Sports Coast, starting the third Friday of July, but thankfully the locals make it easy for even out-of-towners to get in on the hunt.
We chose a guided scalloping adventure with Captain Mark Dillingham for this first scallop venture, but if you take your own boat, you’ll need to apply for a saltwater fishing license prior to your trip. Captain Mark has been leading in-shore, off-shore and deep-sea fishing for years and has a keen eye for the best scalloping spots year to year. (Be aware if you have a big group; most boat charters are limited to four passengers per boat.) A popular launch spot is at Nick’s Park boat ramp, which provides access to the Pithlachascotee River leading out to the Gulf waters.
Our day began with blue skies and a warm breeze as our boat drifted along the Pithlachascotee River, snaking through the grassy marshlands as we made our way to the Gulf of Mexico. Bay scallops, smaller than the larger Atlantic version, are found in both grassy and sandy areas and it wasn’t long before we approached known scalloping areas.
It takes a bit of detective work and a bit of luck to find the right stopping point for your boat in these areas, but experienced scallopers will tell you if you don’t see scallops when you first stop, be quick to move on to your next location. Talk to boaters passing by or look for people stopped in specific areas for further clues.
It’s just as much fun to meet other groups who are also scalloping and exchange tips on locations and adventures. You can tell by the tips who has more experience scalloping and who understands the methodical approach needed for a successful bounty.
Emily had beaten me to catching the first scallop!
Captain Mark reminded my family to stay focused as our boat made its first stop. Scott and Emily were quick to put on their gear and hop into the water, which was warm and had great visibility.
We learned you can spot scallops, at the right angle, by the reflection of their eyes into the water, which are arranged along the edge of their mantles. Scanning through the seagrass, I finally spotted one hiding among the blades with its shell open, blue eyes shining and dove quickly to grab it. Scallops can swim away, but they are easy to grab once you spot them.
Pleased with my quarry and wanting to show my family that dad’s the fastest scallop hunter, I turned around holding my prize high only to find Emily had beaten me to catching the first scallop!
Among our crew, the friendly competition instead turned into who could find the most scallops. Captain Mark placed his bets on Scott scoring the most, and reminded us that we can only take 10 gallons of scallops back to shore.
Swimming in the grassy and sandy areas along the Gulf floor, the water ranged from three feet deep where you could walk or snorkel to a bit deeper where more diving was needed. Once our mesh bags started to swell with scallops, we each came back from our snorkel efforts to compare who had found the most. We counted aloud as we loaded up the cooler together and, thanks to her keen eye, Melissa proved victorious. Scott, who came in second by only two scallops, called for a recount, but he settled down once we opted to evenly split our bounty.
Once we gathered our scallops for the day, we knew there was work ahead of us to clean and prepare the scallops for eating. Captain Mark told us most people use a spoon, but locals are known to use a wet-vac once the shell is pried open and removed in order to clean off the “goop.” Once cleaned, the meat of the bay scallops is beige colored and needs to be kept on ice.
Just down the road from the dock, we took our spoils to Port Richey Waterfront Park where we could go about cleaning the catches of the day while still basking under the Florida sun. We divided up our tasks to get our scallops cleaned and prepped, and with us all pitching in it wasn’t long before they were ready to cook.
We set about cleaning our catches of the day while basking under the Florida sun.
Following Captain Mark’s suggestion, we took our cleaned-up scallop meat on ice to Gill Dawg Tiki Bar and Grill, a Port Richey restaurant within walking distance from the boat ramp and the park. There, Gill Dawg will prepare your scallops—or any fresh-caught fish—by frying, grilling or sautéing. Daringly, we asked for all three ways and served with pasta. While we waited for the chefs to work their culinary magic, we sat out on the deck and enjoyed the shimmering sunset views of the bayou.
In whatever manner you like scallops prepared, it was a spectacular way for us to end a day of new family adventures and memories. Our scallops were cooked to perfection, delicious and succulent, and knowing that our family had provided the star feature of the dishes made the meal even better! This was a chance for us to enjoy the food we had captured, cleaned and consumed—a phenomenal finale to an unforgettable day.Start Your Scallop Search!