This is a famous fish. If you look back at the old tourism magazines of the early 20th century you will see a lot about tarpon fishing in Florida. As a matter of fact, some say that tarpon fishing was the beginning of the tourism industry in the state. Also known as “silver kings”, they put up a tremendous fight which anglers love, particularly on lighter tackle. It is a sport fish, not sought for food, so catch and release has been the rule for years. But those who seek them will tell you it is worth the fight even if you must release it.
Tarpon have been a popular fishing target for decades.
Tarpon (Megalops atlantica) are large bodied, large scaled fish, with a deep blue back and silver sides. They are a large fish, reaching over 8 feet in length and up to 350 pounds. They tend to travel in schools and are often associated with other fish, such as snook2.
It has always been thought of as a “south Florida fish”. As mentioned, down there it is a popular fishing target for tourist and residents alike. Many charter captains specialize in catching the fish and they have been featured in fishing programs. But you do not hear about such things in the Florida panhandle. Hoese and Moore1, as well as the Florida Museum of Natural History2 both indicate that they are in fact in the Florida panhandle. As a matter of fact, this fish has few barriers and has the distribution of the classic “Carolina fish” group. That includes the entire eastern seaboard of the United States, the entire Gulf of Mexico, and the Caribbean1. The Florida Museum of Natural History indicates they are found on the opposite shores of the Atlantic Ocean and may have made their way through the Panama Canal to the Pacific shores of the canal. Within this range they are known to enter freshwater rivers. They seem to have few biogeographic barriers.
I grew up in the panhandle and remember hearing about them swimming in our area when I was younger. Fishermen said they would throw all sorts of bait at them. Artificial lures, live bait, cut bait, you name it – they tossed it… the tarpon never would take it. Catching one here was almost impossible. The flats fishing charter trips for tarpon in south Florida would not happen here. I remember once diving in Pensacola Bay near Ft. Pickens. We were looking for an old Volkswagen beetle that had been sunk years ago when at one point the water became very dark – almost like storm clouds had rolled in. When my buddy and I both looked up we saw a school of very large fish swimming above us. We were not sure what they were at first but as we slowly ascended, we realized they were tarpon. It was pretty amazing.
An interesting side note here. In 2020 tarpon were once again seen swimming around the Pensacola area but this time they WERE taking bait. There were several reports of tarpon caught off the Pensacola Fishing Pier and inside the bay. Why change over all this time? I am not sure.
The ladyfish (or skipjack) is the smaller cousin of the tarpon, but puts up a good fight as well.
Photo: University of Southern Mississippi
Tarpon belong to the family Elopidae which also includes another local fish known as the “ladyfish” or “skipjack” (Elops saurus). This is a much smaller fish reaching about 3 feet (and that would be a large ladyfish). The scales of this family member are much smaller, but the fight on hook and line is just as large. The characteristic that places these two fish into the same family (and these are the only two in this family) is the hard bony gular plate found between the right and left side of the lower jaw (in the “throat” area).
Like tarpon, it is not prized as a food fish but more of a game fish. It has the classic wide distribution of the “Carolina fish group” – the eastern seaboard of the United States, the Gulf of Mexico, down to Brazil. Like the tarpon, it is found in brackish conditions but is not mentioned in freshwater. Again, few biogeographic barriers for this fish.
Both members of this family provide anglers young and old with a lot of enjoyment.
1 Hoese, H.D., R.H. Moore. 1977. Fishes of the Gulf of Mexico; Texas, Louisiana, and Adjacent Waters. Texas A&M Press, College Station TX. Pp. 327.
2 Discover Fishes. Tarpon. Florida Museum of Natural History. https://www.floridamuseum.ufl.edu/discover-fish/species-profiles/megalops-atlanticus/.
3 Discover Fishes. Ladyfish. Florida Museum of Natural History. https://www.floridamuseum.ufl.edu/discover-fish/species-profiles/elops-saurus/.
By Tory Moore, UF/IFAS Communications & Ray Bodrey, UF/IFAS Extension Gulf County
As boaters across the state take to Florida’s coast to scallop, UF/IFAS Extension and Florida Sea Grant agents ask enthusiasts to keep these tips in mind for a safe, fun and sustainable trip.
Scallops are sensitive to environmental changes and, due to their relatively short lifespan, local bay scallop populations are susceptible to periodic collapses. To enjoy recreational scalloping for years to come, it is important that safety and conservation stay top of mind.
Remember, you are not alone out on the water. Other boaters and scallopers, manatees, sea grasses and other wildlife surround you.
In 2020, the leading cause of boating accidents was motorists failing to pay attention to surroundings according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission boating accident report. Florida leads the nation in the number of registered vessels, and it is important for boaters to be aware of others around them to prevent accident, injury or death.
While in the water, be sure to display a dive flag to grab the attention of boaters passing by.
“We often see folks not using diver down flags,” said Ray Bodrey, UF/IFAS Extension and Florida Sea Grant agent said. “Be safe on the water and be sure to place your diver down flag in your scalloping area so boaters know you are there.”
When boating in shallow areas, watch out for seagrass beds. Wildlife, including scallops, depend on seagrass and protecting the grasses from boat anchors and propellers helps to keep populations healthy. Just a couple of minutes of negligence by a boater can cause a decade of impacts to sea grass. Propellor and anchor scars are preventable by following these simple best practices.
“Seagrass scarring is a big issue in Florida,” Bodrey said. “It takes a long time for seagrass to recover from such an injury. Remember, seagrass is a scallop’s best friend. Seagrass provides a health habitat for scallops by providing oxygen and a camouflage from predators.”
To support future scallop populations, return scallops smaller than 1 1/2 inches. Smaller scallops likely have not spawned yet and since their life span is roughly one year, it’s important that each scallop has the opportunity to contribute to the scallop population.
Consider only collecting what you plan to eat. While many people strive to “limit out,” be realistic about how much you will eat and how much you may or may not want to shuck.
Remember, scallop seasons differ by county. Limits are season – and location – specific. Harvesting scallops requires a current Florida recreational saltwater fishing license unless you are on a chartered trip.
It’s important to be aware of the regulations for the area you are scalloping and follow them. Not only are these regulations law, but they are also important for keeping scallop populations healthy for your future enjoyment.
“Many bays in Florida are struggling to maintain a healthy scallop population,” said Bodrey. “Follow all FWC rules and regulations so that we have a recreational scallop harvest season for years to come.”
Cleaning and cooking scallops
On the boat
Upon collection, place scallops on a wet towel on top of ice in a cooler. This prevents spoilage and water from entering their shells. Drain your cooler frequently to keep bacteria growth at a minimum.
Back on land
You will want to shuck your scallops the same day they are caught. If you shuck your scallops on shore, be sure to dispose of the shells or soft tissues properly. Do not dispose of them in high-traffic water areas near shore or in swimming areas.
Before shucking, make sure to wash your hands and shucking utensils.
Remove any traces of the surrounding tissue as possible, you want to only eat the circular white muscle meat. Scallop meat should be stored in the refrigerator and cooked or frozen within 24 hours of catching and shucking. Frozen scallop meat is best enjoyed up to three months.
For limits, regulations and more, visit the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission website devoted to Bay Scallops. For webinars and information from Florida Sea Grant and UF/IFAS Extension directly tied to the site you plan to scallop, visit the Florida Sea Grant scalloping website.
Summertime in North Florida is an awesome time of year if you like to harvest and prepare your own seafood from local waters. In my area, around Wakulla and Franklin County, scallop season runs from July 1 – September 24. In St. Joseph Bay, another popular scalloping area in Gulf County, the season spans from August 14 – September 24. Therefore, in the spirit of “sharing the love,” here is my recipe for a day with family and friends that you will never forget and will eagerly anticipate repeating each year as summertime approaches.
Two parts: “local knowledge”
– Study boating access points and local water depths/tides
– Talk to locals about the best places to find scallops
– Ask others for their favorite scallop recipes
One part: “the right gear”
– Masks, snorkels and mesh bags are a must
– Dive fins and small dip nets are helpful
– Dive flag on display is required when swimming
– Bring a bucket for measuring your catch
One part: “a little luck”
– Sunny days and clear water are best for seeing scallops down in the seagrasses
– Winds below 10 knots make boating and snorkeling more pleasant
Two parts: “paying attention to the details”
– Know the rules on Licenses, gear, limits and season dates
– Conduct equipment checks on snorkel gear, boat/trailer, and required safety gear
– Boat safely and cautiously near swimmers and over shallow seagrass beds
– Keep young children close, watch the weather, and know local hazards for boaters
– Don’t forget the sunscreen, snacks, and adequate hydration for all
A healthy pinch: of “enthusiasm,” with a helping attitude for first-timers
– From the first one you spot nestled down in the seagrass, to the last one of the day, you will never tire of the thrill
– Reassure first-timers that the seagrass is a fascinating environment, not a scary place, by showing them its wonders (i.e. sea stars, burrfish, spider crabs, and much, much more)
– Teach proper shucking technique with a curved blade to avoid wasted meat
Yield: A full day of memories and an incredible culinary experience.
– A limit of scallops is two gallons (in the shell) per person currently, with no more than 10 gal per boat. Ten gallons of scallops in the shell will allow you to fix a feast of scallops, prepared several ways. We like to marinate some in Italian dressing then grill on skewers, sauté a batch with garlic and butter, and deep fry some with a light breading. Throw in a fresh batch of cole slaw, some hush puppies and laughter around the table to top it off and your day will have been a true success. Oh, I will also say that you will be thoroughly exhausted and will probably get one of your best nights of sleep since last summer’s scallop season.
The sky is clear, the humidity is low, the bugs are gone, and the highs are in the 60s – most days. These are perfect days to get outside and enjoy. But the water is cold and you do not want to get wet – most days. And with COVID hanging around we do not want to go where there are crowds. Where can I go to enjoy this great weather, the outdoors, but stay safe?
As the summer heat fades, the weather is great for hiking! Photo credit: Abbie Seales
My wife and I have already made several hikes this winter and have enjoyed each one. Each panhandle county has several hiking trails you could visit. In our county there are city, county, state, and federal trails to choose from. The Florida Trail begins in Escambia County, at Ft. Pickens on Santa Rosa Island, and dissects each county in the panhandle on its way to the Everglades. You could find the section running through yours and hike that for a day. Community parks, our local university, state and national parks, and the water management district, all have trails.
Some are a short loops and easy. Others can be 20 plus miles, but you do not have to hike it all. Go for as long as you like and then return to the car. Some are handicapped access, some have paved sections, or boardwalks. Some go along waterways and the water is so clear in the winter that you can see to the bottom. Many meander through both open areas and areas with a closed tree canopies.
The tracks of the very common armadillo.
Photo: Molly O’Connor
The boardwalk of Deer Lake State Park off of Highway 30-A. you can see the tracks of several types of mammals who pass under at night.
Being winter, the wildlife viewing may be less. The “warm bloods” are moving – birds and mammals. Actually, the birds are everywhere, it is a great time to go birding if you like that. Mammals are still more active at dawn dusk, but their tracks are everywhere. We have seen raccoon, coyote, and deer on many of our hikes. But the insects are down as well. We have not had a yellow fly or mosquito gives us a problem yet. Some fear snakes, we actually like the see them, but we have not. Many will come out of their dens when the days warm and the sun is out to bask for a bit before retreating back into their lair. You might feel more comfortable hiking knowing the chance of an encounter one this time of year is much less.
One of the many Florida State Forest trails in South Walton.
The Florida Trail extends (in sections) over 1,300 miles from Ft. Pickens to the Florida Everglades. It begins at this point.
But the views are great and the photography excellent. Some mornings we have had fog issues, but it quickly lifts, and the bay is often slick as glass with pelicans, loons, and cormorants paddling around. These have made for some great photos.
Things to consider for your hike.
Good shoes. Many of the trails we have hiked have had wet and muddy sections.
Temperature. There can be big swings when going from open sunny areas to under the tree canopies. Wear clothes in layers and have a backpack that can hold what you want to take off. Some like to wear the fleece vests so they do not have to put on/remove as they hike.
Water. I bring at least 32 ounces. It is not hot, but water is still needed.
Snacks. Always a plus. I always miss them when I do not have them.
Camera. Again, the scenery and the birds are really good right now.
The best thing is that you are getting outside, getting exercise, and getting away from the crazy world that is going on right now. Take a “mind break” and take a hike.
Here are some hikes suggested by hiking guides.
Gulf Islands National Seashore / Ft. Pickens – Florida Trail (Ft. Pickens section) – 2 miles – Pensacola Beach
Blackwater State Forest – Jackson Red Ground Trail – 21 miles – near Munson FL
Falling Waters State Park – Falls, Sinkhole, and Wiregrass Trail – ~ 1 mile – near Chipley on I-10
Grayton Beach State Park – Dune Forest Trail – < 1 mile – 30-A in Walton County
T.H. Stone Memorial St. Joseph Peninsula State Park – Beach Walk and Wilderness Preserve Trail – ~ 9 miles – near Port St. Joe FL
Apalachicola Bluffs and Ravine Preserve – Garden of Eden Trail – 4 mile loop – Hwy 12 near Bristol FL
Torreya State Park – Torreya River Bluff Loop Trail – 7 mile loop – Hwy 271 near Bristol
Leon Sinks Geological Area – Sinkhole and Gumswamp Trail – 3 mile loop – US 319 near Tallahassee
Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park – Sally Ward Springs and Hammock Trails – 2.5 miles out and back – Hwy 20 near Wakulla FL
St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge – Stoney Bayou Trail – ~ 6 miles – CR 59 near Gulf of Mexico
Fall is such a spectacular time in the Florida Panhandle. The crowds are gone and the thermometer rests at a pleasant 50-70-something degrees. It is the perfect time of year to enjoy our amazing environment. Nature has a magical way of boosting our energy levels and immune systems and improving mood and focus. We can all use a heaping helping of that right now.
So where do you start? Here are some ideas.
Take in a sunrise or sunset. The beach is often one of the best places to do this, but anywhere will do. Last weekend, I was at the Okaloosa Island Boardwalk and Pier and the sunset was magnificent. While there, take a walk along the beach, let the cool sand squish between your toes and discover what might be hiding in the wrack. The wrack is that line of seaweed deposited after high tide. Upon close inspection, it contains many treasures including seagrasses, sponges, shells, worm tubes, small crabs and other oddities.
Take a nature hike. I love the nature trails at our local state and national parks, Henderson Beach, Topsail, Blackwater and Grayton Beach State Parks all have great trails. You may see some wildflowers this time of year. Look for animal tracks and resident birds. You may also see some monarch butterflies on the saltbush, resting as they continue their migration to Mexico.
Check out the springs. Morrison Springs and Ponce de Leon Springs in the state park in Walton County are an easy drive. Sit and enjoy the beauty and peaceful nature that surrounds the springs. Dip your toes in the cool water for a refreshing tingle or jump right in if you dare.
If you have a kayak, canoe or paddle board, it’s a great time to be on the water. Look for migrating shorebirds, schools of fish or pods of dolphins. Did you know we have over 60 dolphins that call the Destin area home year-round? You can often find them cruising in the Choctawhatchee Bay, or hop aboard one of our local dolphin cruises to catch a better glimpse.
Finally, our local fresh seafood is available year-round. Plan a picnic with some fresh shrimp or smoked mullet dip. Seafood offers many of the same benefits as time in nature, so double up on all the goodness that fall has to offer. Get outside and get happy!
For some of us this is an annual gathering no different that Thanksgiving or Christmas. The family all knows the gig – “Kids get your things together – we’re heading to St. Joe!”
Scallopers heading out for a day of fun.
Photo: Molly O’Connor
For others, it is something we do when we can – the stars all align with work and we decide “Hey, Let’s go scalloping!”
For some, it is a new thing we want to get involved in. It is a fun family activity. Loading up the car with your snorkel gear, maybe choose camping instead of a hotel, maybe just go over for the day – (note: I do not recommend this option – I have done this and it is a LONG day – you will enjoy it more if you stick around and cook your scallops over there).
For those who have NO idea what we are talking about – we are talking about that great Florida family activity of SCALLOPING.
So, what is scalloping you say?
I guess you know by now that it is fun – and it is. Scallops are small bivalves that live in the seagrass beds. You just have to have a mask and snorkel to go find them – and you don’t have to go very deep. They lay right on top of the grass, their little blue eyes staring at you, and you pick them up. OH! they can swim! – not very well, but they can swim! The fun part is that it is a great day on the water, you get to see all sorts of other cool marine life while hunting, everyone is playing and splashing, and the day ends with a really seafood meal – maybe around a campfire. Good times for sure.
Bay Scallop Argopecten irradians
You may ask – “why do I have to go all the way to Port St. Joe to do this?”
And that would be a good question.
The bay scallop was once found along the entire Gulf coast, and even on part of the east coast, of Florida. There was a commercial fishery for the guy. But, overharvesting, poor water quality, and habitat loss, caused a decline. First, the commercial harvest was stopped. Then areas of the coast, including the Pensacola Bay area, were closed to recreational harvesting. Today there are a few regions in the Big Bend area where you can still scallop. Each region has its own “season” and the closest to us is Port St. Joe in Gulf County. This region extends from Mexico Beach to St. Vincent Island. It opens August 16 and closes September 24.
Because it is a managed recreational fishery now – there are some rules.
– Each person is allowed 2 gallons of whole scallop, or 1 pint cleaned.
– Each boat (if you take a boat) is allowed 10 gallons whole, or ½ gallon cleaned.
– Snorkelers are to have a dive flag and be within 100 feet of it at all times.
– A fishing license is required to harvest unless (a) you are exempt from having to have one (see FWC’s website on who is exempt), (b) you are wading – your feet never leave the bottom.
To clean them you only need a knife or flathead screwdriver to pry open the shell. The adductor that opens and closes the shell is the part you eat. Remove the viscera from around it, keep it cold, and cook when you are done. Fried, broiled in butter, there are numerous ways to do this.
It really is a lot of fun, and they are really good to eat.
Prepared properly: One of the finest meals you will ever have.
The “everything you need to know scalloping” FWC page can be found at – https://myfwc.com/fishing/saltwater/recreational/bay-scallops/.
GO HAVE FUN!