Don Chancey spotted a window in the weather. • "I think we might be able to run out there, find a few scallops and get back before the storms roll in," the charter boat captain said. "It is worth a try." • The seawall at the Plantation on Crystal River was packed with boats Monday morning. July 1 is the traditional start of scallop season, but this year, Gov. Rick Scott opened state waters two days early to boost local economies.
"We've been packed," said Michael Mancke, director of sales and marketing for the resort that caters to boaters, anglers and divers. "Everybody has been getting their limit."
Chancey, a Homosassa fishing guide who hangs up his rods and reels during scallop season, planned to run south out of the river mouth and avoid the crowds.
"I've been seeing a lot of scallops the last couple of weeks while I have been fishing," he said. "I know just where to go."
You'll find scallops throughout the Gulf of Mexico, but you can only harvest these prized shellfish from the Pasco-Hernando county line to the west bank of the Mexico Beach Canal in Bay County.
These tasty mollusks need the right mix of saltwater and freshwater to survive. If rains are heavy, too much freshwater can flood the bay and wipe out a crop. If the water is too salty, they won't survive, either.
The state's prime scallop grounds — Steinhatchee, Homosassa and Crystal River — have the perfect combination of fresh and saltwater.
These fishing towns go scallop crazy during the summer months as locals and tourists flock to the coast in search of the treasured bay scallop, which cannot be bought or sold on the commercial market.
There's only one way to get fresh scallops, and that's where Chancey comes in.
"I prefer a low tide and a sunny day," he said as we anchored up on our spot, about 2 miles from the river's mouth. "But sometimes you just have to make the best of what you have."
High winds, scattered thunderstorms and poor visibility posed a challenge to Chancey's crew. Ideally, it's best to hunt scallops on a slack tide, when the grass blades stand straight up. That's because bay scallops, like most wild creatures, are masters of camouflage. It takes a keen eye and steady hand to locate these critters as they hide in the thick beds of eel and turtle grass that flourish in the shallows.
Once a scallop is spotted, the critter often tries to run. These mollusks, unlike their clam and oyster cousins, can swim. By squeezing their shells together, scallops expel a jet of water that rockets them across grass beds.
After an hour scouring the grass beds at three locations, Chancey's scallopers found several dozen shellfish. But a wall of thunderstorms barreled down from the south.
"We better get moving," he said. "I would hate to get caught out here. I don't mind rain, but I can't stand lightning."
When Chancey reached the river mouth, he noticed that the pack of boats to the north had yet to pick up their anchors and head for port. As the storm approached, several boats tried to run for it, but one by one they disappeared behind a gray curtain of rain.
"We've got enough for lunch," Chancey said. "It's always better to be safe than sorry."