by Charlie Courtney
When July and August roll around, the hot midday sun makes fishing miserable in Big Bend waters. However Big Bend anglers have two cooler alternatives that still let them harvest the sea's bounty, scalloping and shrimping.
Scalloping is a cool activity in the midsummer's heat because you actually get into the water and swim after them. Scalloping out of Steinhatchee is very good at this time of year. In fact this is the only time of year you can catch your own scallops, since scallop season is open only from July 1 until September 10 and only from the the Pasco/Hernando County line to the Mexico Beach Canal. Scalloping is closed over the entire Florida peninsula from the Georgia state line to the Pasco/Hernando County Line and the Florida Panhandle west of the Mexico Beach Canal.
The folks at Sea HagMarina in Steinhatchee (352-498-3008) can help you get started if you have never done this before. You will need to buy a recreational saltwater fishing license before you catch scallops, and you are limited to 2 gallons of whole scallops per person with a maximum of 10 gallons per boat. If you clean the scallops before returning to the dock, the limit is 1 pint of scallop meats per person with a maximum of 1/2 gallon per boat. Unless the scallops are running large, the 2 gallon whole scallop limit cleans out to considerably less than 1 pint of meats. The only equipment you need are a mask, swim fins, and a snorkel, plus a mesh bag for your catch. It does help to have a boat to get you to where the scallops are, but you can often hitch a ride with experienced friends. If not, boat rentals are available in Steinhatchee.
Most scallopers run out the Steinhatchee channel to the Gulf, or at least to marker 11, and then go either north or south for several miles until the inshore waters become clear. Favorite spots include 6 miles north, 2-3 miles south, 4-5 miles south (Rocky Creek) and 6-7 miles south (Pepperfish Keys). Then they slowly motor inshore to a water depth of 3 feet or so while staring at the bottom looking for scallops (it helps to wear polarized sunglasses). The immediate vicinity of any large collection of boats is usually a good place to begin, for at peak scallop season 100 or more boats will be on the best spots. Don't worry about all those boats. Scallops have been abundant in recent years and limits easy to come by. Just keep moving around until you find an area that has not been picked over, all the while maintaining a good lookout so you don't run over any snorklers who often stray well away from their anchored boats.
Scallops seem to prefer areas of bottom covered by the thin, round-bladed manatee grass more than the flat, broad-bladed turtle grass. Patches of brown algae and the edges of oldpropellor scars also are favorite hiding places. Once a few scallops are seen laying on top of the sea grasses, drop the anchor, put up a dive flag (it's the law), and go get 'em. Scallops are easier to find when the sun is high overhead. If a tidal current is running, swim up current so you can look down, end-on between the blades of the sea grasses that have been pushed over onto their sides by the current.
Once you are done catching them, cleaning your scallops can be a chore. River Haven and Sea Hag Marinas have excellent cleaning facilities, and often they can find someone willing to clean your catch for a small fee that is well worth every penny. One hint -- if you choose to clean your own, chill them first. We put our scallops on lots of ice in a big cooler as soon as we catch them. Chilled scallops will open their shells, making cleaning easy, whereas warm scallops will very effectively demonstrate the original meaning of the English verb "to clam up."
To open a scallop, use a scallop knife or sharp spoon to cut the muscle that closes it. Hold the shell dark side up and hinge away from you. The muscle will be on your right, not far from the hinge. Insert the knife or spoon between the top and bottom shells from the right side, just in front of the hinge, and cut the muscle away from the inside of the top shell. Open the scallop and discard the top shell. Then scrape off and discard all of the innards except the sweet, white muscle about the size of the last joint of your finger. Do this by gently scraping off the dark innards, starting from the hinge side of the muscle and scraping over the muscle towards the front. Properly done, this will peel the innards from the muscle, leaving it attached to the bottom shell. (Some people accomplish this step with the aid of a small Shop-Vac. Reportedly they simplify clean-up of the Shop-Vac by thoroughly spraying its inside with Pam.) Cut the muscle from the bottom shell and ice it down promptly. Have an experienced scalloper help you get started -- once you learn the trick, cleaning scallops is really quite easy. Finally, look up a good recipe and enjoy! If you need more help, I have prepared An Illustrated Guide to Cleaning a Scallop to show how it is done in greater detail.
The annual shrimp run on the St. John's River usually begins in July, peaks in August, and may continue through September, with the shrimp getting bigger in the later months. This is a great time to do something different, and hone your skills with a cast net as well. Most recreational shrimpers work out of Green Cove Springs or Palatka, depending on just where the big schools of shrimp have been found. You have a choice of (1) staying cool (and staying up late) by casting your net into shallow water over baited sites at night or (2) sweating a lot, doing away with the messy bait, and getting home at a reasonable hour by throwing your net into deeper waters during the daytime. Either way it's lots of fun, and both methods are very productive when the shrimp run is at its peak. You will need a recreational saltwater fishing license to catch shrimp even though the St. John's River is fresh this far up river. The limit is one five gallon bucket of shrimp (with heads on) per boat. Up-to-date information about just where the shrimp are running in the St. Johns can be obtained by calling our friends at The Tackle Box in Palatka (904-328-9311) or Gainesville (352-372-1791). The folks at the Palatka store may have the more timely information since they are at the center of the St. Johns shrimp run.
Night shrimping has the advantage of taking you out from under a fiery sun and putting you on the river during the cool evening hours. After nightfall, shrimp come up out of the deep river channel onto the shallow (3 feet deep) grassy flats to feed. Because the shrimp can spread out over a considerable area of grass flats, it's necessary to attract the shrimp to your boat with a light and bait. A typical bait is a mixture of rock salt, flour, and shrimp meal made into meatball-sized patties. Most people use a Coleman lantern or its equivalent for a light source.
Go out onto the river at dusk and pick out a shallow, grassy spot. I prefer to run straight across the river from the Governor's creek boat ramp in Green Cove Springs. If you are not sure where to go, inquire at local bait shops or the place where you buy the fixings for your shrimp bait, such as the Ace Hardware in Green Cove Springs. Alternatively, look for other boats anchoring up and putting out lights. Once you find a spot, anchor up very securely so that your boat will not swing off the baited site. Two anchors, bow and stern, often are necessary.
As soon as it starts to get dark, hang your light so it shines on the water. Then throw out a dozen or so baits all around your boat not any further away than you can throw a cast net. Periodically make test casts until a shrimp or two appears in your net, indicating that the evening run has started. Continue with frequent casts, pausing only occasionally to re-bait your site, until you have your limit, it's well after midnight, or you are exhausted!
Now all you have left to do is find the boat ramp somewhere on the far side of a dark river, drive home at some awful hour, and clean 5 gallons of shrimp. Loran or GPS makes quick work of the first task, lots of coffee helps with the second, and if you iced down the shrimp soon after they were caught, it's O.K. to put off cleaning them until you've had some sleep. Clearly you don't try night shrimping if you have to go to work the next day!
If you prefer to keep banker's hours, then daytime shrimping is for you. During the day shrimp concentrate in the deep river channels in nearly 20 feet of water. Often the schools can be spotted with a good quality fish finder. Alternatively, you can look for a gathering of boats whose occupants are crazy enough to repeatedly throw cast nets in the heat of the day! Often you can see this fleet at work as you cross the Highway 17 bridge in Palataka.
The secret to catching daytime shrimp, after you have located them, is to have modified your cast net so that it opens fully while sinking to depths of 20 feet. This means two modifications: (1) extending the length of the retrieval line so the net will reach bottom without being pulled closed and (2) applying duct tape or lawn furniture webbing to the net, just inside the lead line, to cause it to fan open as it sinks. Once you have done this and have located the shrimping fleet, drift along the edge of the river channel in about 20 feet of water while watching your fish finder and periodically making test casts. When you start to bring up shrimp in your net, anchor and have at it! Just be sure to bring lots to drink and keep an eye out for afternoon thunderstorms.