It's that crook in the arm of the state where panhandle becomes peninsula and white sandy beaches give way to marsh and limestone rock, Florida’s Nature Coast.
Flocks of white pelicans often zip past in winter and great egrets dot marshy expanses, white as snowflakes. Ospreys are common sights soaring over shorelines, patrolling waterways, and standing on their huge stick nests. The hunting osprey is a picture of concentration, diving with feet outstretched and yellow eyes sighting straight along their talons.
The Apalachee Bay--where saltwater from the sea and freshwater from rivers and uplands mix-- supports one of the richest and most productive eco-systems in the world. In the spring spotted seatrout, redfish, bluefish, Spanish mackerel, ladyfish, and jack crevalle can easily be caught around the rich grass beds.
However once the calendar flips to summer, local fishing guides pop up Bimini tops on their working skiffs and switch to dipping for delectable, palm-size scallops. Three hours north of Tampa, Steinhatchee ("river of man") is midway between Apalachicola and old Suwannee River herself. And, it's decades closer to the uncluttered "Old-Florida" of lazy rivers and even lazier days hidden in the shade of the old moss-draped oaks.
Steinhatchee is a quiet village of less than 2,000 folks-- that is, until scallop season arrives. Then hordes of hunters descend all along the Florida Gulf Coast for bay scallops coveted for their tenderness and briny sweetness. The bivalve mollusks grow and live in tidal flats and shallow seagrass beds (4-10 feet deep) and can legally be collected in 2015 from June 27th through end of September 24. The succulent bay scallops rarely reach the mouths of tourists since they can be harvested only recreationally. A commercial harvesting ban is credited with saving them from extinction in the 1990s.
If you are looking to get in on "the hunt," you will need a boat, mask, snorkel, saltwater fishing license ($17), and a dip net. Snorkelers are required to display a “divers-down” flag (red with a white diagonal stripe) while in the water. Boaters must stay at least 100 feet away in a river, inlet or channel. In open waters, boaters must stay 300 feet away from a divers-down flag.
Studying the nautical chart of this area is a great way to start the scallop search. The first thing you will notice is a well-marked channel that runs several miles up the Steinhatchee River and ends several miles out in the open Gulf of Mexico to the west. The best time to go is on a slack tide, when the grass blades stand straight up.
Bay scallops are masters of camouflage. One side of its shell is dark and the other is light in color. Light side up in sand and dark side up in grass. It takes a keen eye and steady hand to locate these critters in the thick beds of shoal and turtle grass that flourish in the shallows here.
Did you know bay scallops have eyes? Indeed, they have roughly 40 of them along the edges of their shell openings. And the strangest part, the eyes are the prettiest cobalt blue in color. As you snorkel along in the shallow water on a sunny day, you'll spot their neon eyes as the scallop hides in the grass. Their eyes don't see a sharp picture, but they do sense light and dark. You can often see them react as your hand approaches to snatch one.
Once you spot one, get ready for a chase. Unlike their clam and oyster cousins, scallops can swim. With the ability to open and close its valves rapidly, the creature can travel to avoid predators such as sea stars, crabs, and whelks. By squeezing their shells together, scallops expel a jet of water that rockets them across grass beds in a zig-zag motion. However, maintaining directional control is a bit of a challenge. Still, snorkelers have to be quick as the scallop tries to retreat.
The adductor muscle inside the bay scallop is the score. Surrounded by viscera, the muscle meat is firm and translucent, ranging in color from ivory to pinkish-white. Shaped like the cork of a wine bottle, it is this adductor muscle that gives the scallop swimming power.
Scallops live for 12 to 18 months and spend most of their life hidden in the grassy bottom close to thier birthplace and filter-feeding on plankton. Scallops also have the unique ability to develop both male and female organs and can lay well over one million eggs during the fall, but only a small percentage live long enough to become full-grown adults.
Around Steinhatchee, visitors will find only a handful of restaurants. Accommodations range from simple fish camps, marinas and riverside motels to Steinhatchee Landing. The latter offers a collection of 50 Victorian and Southern-style cottages surrounded by giant oak trees, blooming magnolias and rows of pines. Overlooking the tranquil Steinhatchee River, it's three miles upstream from the Gulf of Mexico and not far from several natural springs and state parks.
The cottages are done up in friendly "Cracker" style with painted clapboard, front porches, tin roofs and a few curlicues of gingerbread. They range from one-bedroom cozies to four bedrooms, big enough for family reunions or small retreats. Former president Jimmy Carter and his clan have used the Landings as a family retreat.
Travel over to the Salt Creek Shellfish Co. that overlooks the tidal influenced creek curving through pine forests and salt marshes. This local seafood spot offers huge fried combination dinners with choices of scallops, shrimp, oysters, gator tail, frog legs, crab fingers, softshell crab, crab cake, fish, and quail. Steamer pots of oysters, crabs, shrimp, or in-season stone crab claws are tough to pass up.
After a morning of searching for scallops, the Sea Hag Marina is a great place to grab a beer or two while the marina's scallop cleaners shuck your catch. The scallops are put on ice for a few minutes, which causes the mollusks to open slightly. Then with the dark side of shell up, a very sharp knife is slid into the opening. In one smooth stroke, the shucker separates the muscle, opens the shell, scoops out and discards the surrounding membrane and removes the perfectly round scallop. They make it look easy.
Another favorite destination is Fiddler's where they will clean and grill up your scallops. Try a chilled ceviche of bay scallops, lime, avocado, cilantro, and hearts of palm served in scallop shells atop a bed of rock salt. Or better yet, have them naked-- seared in butter for maybe three minutes. Caramelized on the outside and soft within the center, it's truly nectar from the sea.