It is scallop season along this tranquil stretch of Florida known as "The Forgotten Coast."
From July to late September, the tasty shell-food delicacy lures tourists to this lesser-known part of Florida that lacks the amusement parks, night clubs and world-famous beaches found in other parts of the state. This region, which stretches east from the Panhandle's Panama City along the Gulf coast line as it curves south along the state's Big Bend, is known for its shallow and wide bays that give shelter to scallops, oysters and other fragile sea life.
"Scallops need clean water — they don't do well if there are any pollution issues," said Stan Kirkland, regional spokesman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. "What you notice in this part of the state is that there aren't the condominiums and other developments that might cause water-quality issues."
The scallops can be found nestled in turtle grass in about 2 to 4 feet of water, which makes it easy to wade into the water and collect them. But longtime scalloper Ronald Pickett prefers to take his boat out into deeper water, about 10-12 feet, and find scallops while snorkeling.
The best way to eat them is raw and fresh from the bay, he said.
"It is really sweet, it's unbelievable," Pickett said as he gulped down a mouthful of scallop on a recent afternoon. "If you've never eaten one of these, you've never eaten a really sweet scallop. These scallops have so much flavor to them, it is unbelievable."
Florida banned commercial scallop harvesting in the region in the 1990s to prevent their demise. The three-month season is for recreational scallop harvesters only and the state limits each person to two gallons of whole scallops per day. A state fishing license is required, with costs varying based on residency and the length of license.
The season, which runs from July 1 to Sept. 24, is a summertime tourism boon for sleepy Gulf County, said Jennifer Jenkins, executive director of the Gulf County Tourist Development Counsel.
"We talk to people all the time and they just love this. Really and truly, it is like Easter egg hunting in the water," she said.
Local chef and restaurateur Patti Blaylock said most people who eat at her Sunset Costal Grill like their scallops sautéed or fried. Blaylock's favorite scallop dish is a ceviche.
The restaurant cannot offer local scallop dishes because of the commercial harvesting ban, but Blaylock often prepares scallops for people who bring them in by the bucketful.
"Sometimes they don't know how to fix them or what to do with them, so we will prepare something for them and serve it here," she said.
Scallops season provide a big boost to the economy of the town and the region, she said.
"This is one of the only scalloping bays along the Panhandle. It is close to Atlanta and all of south George and south Alabama, even people from Nashville make plans to come sometime between July and September," she said. "They plan a week and they will rent pontoon boats or go out on an organized scalloping trip and they will buy dive flags and snorkel gear. It just keeps rolling. The scallops here are really vital."
If You Go...
GETTING THERE: St. Joesph Bay is about an hour drive east of Panama City on Highway 98 along the state's scenic Gulf Coast. The Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport in Panama City is served by Delta and Southwest Airlines. Tallahassee Regional Airport is about a two-hour drive north of Port St. Joe and is serviced by American, Delta, United and U.S. Airways.
WHERE TO STAY: The cities of Port St. Joe and nearby Apalachicola have a variety of small hotels, bed and breakfasts, vacation rental homes and campgrounds. Lodging information can be found at: http://visitgulf.com/
SCOOPING SCALLOPS: Scallop season runs through Sept. 24. Dive flags are mandatory for anyone who snorkels in the bay, and the catch is limited to two gallons of scallops per person per day or 10 gallons per boat per day. The state requires a valid Florida saltwater fishing license. Fees and information can be found at: http://myfwc.com/license/recreational/saltwater-fishing/