It takes me all of 30 seconds to find my first scallop.
The empanada-sized bivalve is lurking in about 3 feet of green-blue water, beneath waving tendrils of turtle grass. I reach down and pluck it from the sandy bottom, then tuck the prize into a mesh bag looped around my wrist.
In the next hour or so, I fill my sack with scallops. So do the two other people snorkeling alongside me during this scalloping adventure off of the coast of Pasco County, Florida. At this rate, we’ll eat well tonight.
Scalloping was the highlight of my recent trip to Florida’s Sports Coast, but I found plenty of other outdoorsy fun, from exploring a park known for its saltwater springs to strolling the beach of a small island looking for seashells.
Scalloping on Florida’s Sports Coast
I climbed aboard a 25-foot bay boat captained by Curt Romanowski of Florida Backwater Charters at Anclote River Park in Holiday. From there, it took about 5 minutes to reach the shallow grass beds where the scallops hide, about a half-mile offshore.
“It’s like Easter egg hunting in the water,” Romanowski says as we whir through the water.
And he’s right, only these Easter eggs wear coats of green fuzz, hide in underwater beds of seagrass, and sometimes use quick blasts of water to propel themselves in a hasty attempt to escape. Bay scallops have 20 pairs of bright blue eyes with which to watch you, and they’ll scuttle away in a hurry if you’re not careful.
Scalloping season in Pasco County is short – July 15-24 this year, although it varies annually depending on availability. But in a good year like this one, you’ll easily catch your limit in just an hour or two.
A family activity
“It’s a good family trip because everybody can do it,” Romanowski says. “You get in and everybody swims around having a good time. Then it becomes a little competition.”
Most of the scallops I found were resting on the bottom, although a few were clinging to grass, and one went swimming past me. They’re easy to collect but watch your fingers to make sure you don’t get pinched.
“What you’re looking for is a shell that looks like the Shell gas station logo,” Romanowski says. “Sweep your head side to side, then reach down and grab them.”
Related: Discover history and simple pleasures in Baffin Bay
Weekends can get crowded on the water during the season, with hundreds of boats angling for position. Weekdays are less chaotic. Be sure to stay close to your boat and pop your head up now and then to check your surroundings. Other than that, it’s just a matter of keeping a sharp eye out for the filter feeders, whose shells range in color from cream to orange or brown.
More than just scallops
I spotted other marine life too, including a puffer fish the size of a tennis shoe and a handful of quarter-sized starfish.
Once you pull the scallops out of the water, put them in an iced-down cooler. You can either clean them on the boat (we ate a few raw) by using a spoon to expose the sweet, thumb-sized chunk of white meat, or bring them back and clean them at home. Romanowski says a shop vac makes quick work of it.
We ate ours that night.
“I like them left in the half shell,” Romanowski says. “Put a little garlic butter, parmesan cheese and Italian breadcrumbs on them and put them on the grill.”
The scallop limit in Pasco County is 2 gallons in the shell or 1 pint of meat per person, with a maximum of 10 gallons in the shell per vessel.
Explore a salt marsh on Florida’s Sports Coast
If scalloping isn’t your thing, consider visiting Werner-Boyce Salt Springs State Park, where you can kayak through small inlets and bayous in a salt marsh, or hike to a series of small salt-water springs.
Salty Dog Kayak Rentals will rent you a single or tandem kayak, or a canoe that seats three, but they’re only open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursday through Sunday. Once onboard, you’ll find 4 miles of coastline to paddle.
We missed that window, so we struck out to explore the grounds on foot. Take bug spray, because the biting insects like the park too.
Related: A guide to the best kettle ponds on Cape Cod
The terrain reminded me of the last 50 miles of the Texas Water Safari paddling race between San Marcos and Seadrift on the Texas coast – narrow watery channels beneath overhanging trees and brush. Look for dolphins, crabs and the occasional manatee or sea otter. Signs remind visitors that alligators can be present too.
Most of the springs here are shallow and murky. Recreational scuba diving isn’t permitted, but researchers have found that the park’s namesake springs, which is just a few feet across at the surface, plunges to a depth of 328 feet.
No swimming is allowed, although you can kayak to Durney Key, where swimming is permitted, from the park.
Hop aboard a boat
Windsong Charters & Boat Rentals will deliver you from New Port Richey to Anclote Key State Park, where you can swim in turquoise waters or stroll down the beach on an unspoiled barrier island.
I hitched a ride on a pontoon boat named Ponty Saurus, one of the company’s fleet of 20 watercrafts. With Captain Larry Zuccole at the helm, it took about 45 minutes to reach the park 3 miles offshore, where he tossed out a small anchor and set his passengers free to explore. As we motored out, we could make out the historic lighthouse, built in 1887, in the distance.
The 11,773-acre park is made up of four islands – Anclote Key, North Anclote Bar, South Anclote Bar and Three Rooker Island. It’s popular with birders, who go to spot 43 species of birds, including bald eagles and osprey. Anglers come to fish for sea trout and snook.
The main island, named for the Spanish word for anchor, is 14 miles in circumference. After a quick dip in the sea, I walked to the northern point, rounded the bend, and found enough palm-sized seashells to fill a dump truck.
Admission is free, and the park is open 8 a.m. to sunset. Overnight camping is allowed, too. Bring everything you need, including drinking water – the only on-island amenity is a composting toilet.
If You Go
American Airlines offers non-stop service to Tampa International Airport. From there, it’s a 45-minute drive to New Port Richey
I stayed at the Homewood Suites by Hilton Tampa-Port Richey, 11115 U.S. Highway 19 in Port Richey, Florida, but a variety of hotels are available. The Hacienda, a bright pink historic hotel built in 1927, sat abandoned for 20 years, but is undergoing renovations and will open in downtown New Port Richey this September.
Gather scallops during the 10-day season in July, paddle a kayak or canoe, hike, or visit an island. Admission to Salt Springs State Park, 8737 US Highway 19 North, is $4 per vehicle with up to eight people.
Eat & Drink:
For casual rooftop dining, try The Social, 5650 Main Street in New Port Richey. Whiskey Joe’s, 7835 Bayview Street, serves gumbo, grouper, and burgers with a view of Millers Bayou. (We watched manatees!) Try Craft Street Trinity, 3216 Little Road, Trinity, for salmon, salads, pasta, and hand-crafted cocktails. And don’t miss a stop at Cotee River Creamery & Desserts, 6345 Grand Boulevard, for a scoop of key lime pie ice cream.