Steinhatchee (pronounced STEEN-hatch-ee) resides in Florida’s so-called “Big Bend” region, where the state goes from vertical to horizontal. It crops up along the eponymous river that dumps into the Gulf of Mexico’s marshy-mellow shoreline and has forever been known for its fine fishing. Since recreational scalloping became viable a couple of decades ago, a different summer pastime brings the shellfish crowd.
How To Catch a Scallop
Jim Henley regaled me with fishing stories during the slow ride downriver on the Steinhatchee River from Steinhatchee Landing resort, past fishing lodges, restaurants, and scenic river homes. Usually Henley does fishing charters in the morning and scalloping in the afternoon, when the scallops flip from their grey sides to easier-to-spot white sides as the day warms up. In late August, however, the waters are warmest; the scallops have grown larger and moved to deeper waters.
In Your Bucket Because…
- If you can snorkel, you can do it.
- Bay scallops taste their sweetest right out of the briny.
- Suited to even kids, but it helps to have a love of boating and snorkeling.
Early in the season, charters look for water a couple of feet deep. In these gulf waters, the depth remains thin for a mile or so from shore. Scallops favor spaghetti-like eel grass over fettuccine-like turtle grass. Often they congregate around what Henley calls “bomb holes” — sandy clearings. He dropped anchor first in a couple feet of water, water smooth as a drum head that morning.
He gave me lessons on grabbing the scallop “by the lips.” He warned that they might try to swim away or pinch, but it “dudn’t hurt,” said he in his south Georgia accent. And there I made my first triumphant catches.
Bit by the Scalloping Bug
We later moved to four-foot waters, which deepened to about six as the tide moved in. At the second spot, I drifted with the current, and that’s when I found the most. Usually when you see one, you see a couple or more. Because it now required a deeper dive, I’d sometimes get greedy and try to grab two at one dive. The first time I did that, the second one slipped from my grasp. I went down a second time, and it was ready for me. It grabbed my finger. I yelped. Just as Capt. Jim predicted I would.
After a while I took the time to get to know the mollusks I grabbed. If I held them for a bit, they’d open their shells so I could look into their incredible cobalt-blue eyes. (I didn’t count, but it looked like more than eight to me.)
Sometimes, when I first saw them open, they looked growly and all fleshy. Once, one scallop shot up at me from the bottom, snapping its shell as if to defend itself. I had to admire its pluck.
After two hours of playing in their world, I would have started feeling a little guilty about ending these small lives, if not for the knowledge that they all die as soon as the waters get cold in the late fall.
Two gallons of in-shell scallops per person is the limit, which we reached in little bottom time. The captain opened one on board for me, and I enjoyed some scallop sushi, sweet as sugar.
Shucking tourists’ scallops is something of a cottage industry in Steinhatcheee; you see homemade signs advertising services throughout the small town. Take them up on it; it’s a labor intensive job. Capt. Jim hooked me up with his favored shucker and had the cleaned scallops sent on to the Fiddler’s Restaurant, a town favorite with the worn-in look of an old-time fishing lodge.
That night I had the chef cook up enough for me and two local ladies who joined me. I instructed a scampi style preparation, and they were the most wonderful bay scallops I ever tasted.
- Steinhatchee lies about 3.5 hours north of Tampa.
- Scallop season runs July 1 through Sept. 10.
- Snorkeling skills are required, but Capt. Jim will help out the uninitiated.
- Steinhatchee Landing is the prime spot for accommodation on the Steinhatchee River. Staff can arrange your scalloping expedition, kayaking, and other other available activities.
- Information: Capt. Jim, 423-330-0101; Steinhatchee Landing, 352-498-3513; Fiddler’s Restaurant, 352-498-7427