My most memorable seafood experience along the casual dining chain restaurant trail I plotted for my review series didn’t involve Outback Steakhouse’s coconut shrimp, Olive Garden’s shrimp scampi or Red Lobster’s tuna poke (although I really liked that tuna poke.)
Because I had free hours to fill before the restaurants on my list flung open their doors, I had the chance to go scalloping in Crystal River, Fla., on the second day of scalloping season. And it was spectacular.
When I first came across a flyer at the Florida Welcome Center announcing the start of scallop season, I thought of the Hamilton lyric delivered by King George: “I wasn’t aware that was something a person could do.” I’d always assumed you needed cold water and a big boat to harvest scallops. But the pamphlet suggested the average scallop fan could collect a gallon of bay scallops with no more than a snorkel and a netted drawstring bag.
That wasn’t precisely true, as I discovered when I tried to rent a kayak to paddle out to scalloping grounds. The richest scallop lodes are a few miles offshore, so what I was proposing was akin to pogo sticking from Charleston to Summerville. The desk clerk at Fun 2 Dive, which specializes in taking tourists out to swim with manatees, kindly booked me on a five-hour scalloping trip with its captain instead: I paid $75 for the ride, equipment and fishing license.
“We look forward to scallop season all year,” she told me. “It’s like looking and finding and hunting.”
Pollution, algae blooms and heavy rain have shrunk Florida scallops’ habitat, but scalloping is still legal along the crook of Florida hugging the Gulf of Mexico. As pastimes go, it's very much like looking for shells on the beach, except it's a fairer fight.
The idea is to swim in the vicinity of your boat until you spot a dense crescent of 50 vibrant blue eyes, looking like the rows of lights that a century or so ago heralded nickelodeons. Then you dive for the scallop, attempting to clasp it before it slips back beneath the seagrass or closes your finger in a scolding pinch. If you’re lucky, and your lungs are strong, you might stay to snag a few more scallops you didn’t notice from seven feet above. Scallops tend to stick together.
At the start of the season, scallopers do too: Superstitions and science about where scallops gather result in enormous flotillas of scallop seekers, all of them intent on taking home a pint of meat to blacken, fry or grill (for tourists, restaurants perform the same service.)
Now, though, the scallop sites have emptied out: There’s a widespread belief that all of the scallops have been claimed by this point in this season (the fun wraps up on Sept. 25), but some old-timers say this is the best time to hunt: Scallops are bigger and sweeter, and there’s little human competition for them.
So if you don’t have Labor Day weekend plans, Crystal River is six hours away via Interstate 95. Just be sure to download my chain restaurant reviews before you go.