Scalloping In Florida – St. Joe Bay
The late morning sun is lighting up the sandy and grassy bottom of St. Joseph Bay as I drift along under my orange and white “diver down” flag floating behind me. My mask and snorkel allow me to keep my eyes on the bottom as I drift along. My shadow causes clouds of tiny fish to scatter and reform as I slowly move above them. I see a few larger, almost catching size, speckled trout and the occasional flounder or crab as I quietly drift along. My eyes are focused, not on these fish, but on the bottom. I’m looking for something else. It’s summertime, which means it’s time to go scalloping and as long as you know how to, there are plenty of places to scallop in Florida.
As I move across a grass bed that looks exactly like the many beds I’ve already crossed this morning, I see what I’ve come to collect, shells, most almost hidden in the grass, but a few lying in open, sandy bottom areas.
The water is only five feet deep or so and it’s an easy dive to the bottom where I reach for and grab these small-shelled critters – bay scallops.
I’ve located the mother lode of scallops for this day, it seems. All over this grass bed and surrounding sandy flats, scallops are gathered thick and I can collect all I want. It takes me only a few dives over this grass bed to collect my limit of scallops. Then, I can start my swim-wade back to the anchored boat where the rest of my family is gathering to deposit their scallop catches.
These clear waters of St Joe Bay, the quiet of the morning and the pleasure of being in the cool, not yet too warm water of the bay is almost perfect this morning. The only thing that will make this day better is considering how fine these scallops we’ve gathered this morning will taste when they are cleaned, prepared and sautéed for supper.
Scalloping along the coast of Northwest Florida and St. Joe Bay in particular is one of those decades-long family traditions in this place that continue to draw families and friends from long distances to gather and collect these extremely tasty shellfish. Even though some years are better than others, every year is its own reward for those who are willing to wade a bit, swim a bit, dive a bit and grab the scallops.
Where and When to Find Scallops
St. Joe Bay is a great place to scallop in Florida, and if you know how to it can be a popular family sport. Part of the reason for this is the fact that scallopers don’t need to get up before dawn like anglers often do for the best results.
Scallopers need bright light coming in from a high angle for best seeing underwater. This means that scallopers can wait until 10 a.m. or even later for the best scalloping. This allows family members who are not early risers to take part in a very productive scallop hunt.
By the way, scalloping is very popular with most kids. Kids love to splash, dive and find these tasty little shellfish.
Scallopers can find scallops in all parts of the bay. Sometimes the grass beds will hold the most scallops. On other days, the sandy open potholes are best. It just takes some looking and exploring, but when the first scallop is found, several more will almost always be fairly close by. Scallops tend to cluster together. Since they are capable of moving through the water pretty quickly, they can move from place to place overnight to find conditions that suit them best.
Wonderful St. Joe Bay lies just southeast of Panama City, Fla. It’s a large bay of clear water with mixed grass bed and sandy open areas, making it a great place to scallop in Florida.
Scallop seekers can either access the tasty bivalves from a boat or by simply wading from the shoreline until the water is deep enough for the scallops to appear. This can be in water from eight feet deep or more to water knee deep or even less. Where scallops are found changes from day to day. Much of the St. Joe Bay shoreline is open for access by scallopers, but some sections are privately owned so scallopers should respect that.
Waders may have to wade a half-mile or more to reach good scalloping water. While wading, they need to be aware that St. Joe Bay is full of stingrays. By shuffling their feet instead of lifting their feet up and down, anglers might avoid contact with stingrays.
Amanda Nalley, a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission public information specialist, points out another advantage of wading for scallops – the cost. She says, “If you are wading in St Joe Bay and you are truly wading (not putting your head under water, your feet remaining on the bottom), you are not required to have a saltwater fishing license and can just get the no-cost shoreline license.”
Another point that Nalley provides is that the average size of bay scallops in St. Joe Bay varies quite a bit. Scallops here grow very fast. Early in the season, scallops tend to be smaller. As the late summer season moves on, the scallops grow bigger. Toward the end of the season, the scallops will be as big as they get.
A very important point for to keep in mind when scalloping in Florida is that driving to Port St Joe during scallop season and assuming you can find a place to stay would be a mistake. Visitor housing in the area is limited to motels and condos. Even the massive T. H. Stone State Park on Cape San Blas fills up with reservations months ahead of the season. It is best to make housing arrangements and reservations long in advance. Some cancellations do occur, but they are rare.
Another point that makes St. Joe Bay scalloping so popular is the very limited list of equipment needed.
Amanda Nalley says, “The only equipment you really need for scalloping in Florida is something to put your scallops in and an appropriate ‘diver-down’ flag to let others know you are in the water. Many use a hand-held net to carry the scallops when in the water and a 2-gallon or larger bucket to carry them in on a boat. (This can also help keep to the bag limit.) I’d also suggest a mask and snorkel, at the least, so that you can easily see what you are looking for. For footgear, some prefer water shoes. Others prefer no shoes. Flippers can help, especially when there is current. Sunscreen is pretty important too, especially since you will be face down in the water for quite some time. For shucking the scallops, at minimum you will need a knife or spoon and a container to put the cleaned scallops in.” Before planning your scalloping trip, always be sure to check with the FWC for current scalloping regulations.
This article first appeared in the June 2017 print issue of Great Days Outdoors Magazine. For more great hunting and fishing content for the deep South, subscribe to Great Days Outdoors print and digital editions or click the image to download this issue.