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Surprising bounty of shellfish for many in South Florida

For some, last week was a delightful quinella of crustaceans and mollusks.

As for lobster: with only a week between the annual two-day miniseason for sport divers and the opening of regular harvest season Wednesday, some believed the bugs might be harder to find in their usual shallow-water caves and ledges.

But an unofficial check of scuba and free divers showed several were able to catch their limit of six — some while swimming off the beach to depths of 15 to 30 feet.

“We limited,” free diver Tamray Kam said Thursday after a half-day hunting trip off Hollywood Beach. “I’ve never seen this many big ones.”

Others reported scoring “visual” limits — that is, finding the requisite number of lobsters, but not being able to bag all of them because the animals were too quick and scooted deep into ledges out of reach.

“You can tell they’ve been hit hard,” said Patti Hanley of Hollywood, who, together with a companion, caught six in a three-hour beach dive Thursday.

Deerfield Beach lobster guru Jim “Chiefy” Mathie — a well-known author and lecturer — picked up 17 on a two-tank dive with four friends in 35 to 75 feet of water off the North Broward/South Palm Beach coast Wednesday. Well short of their limit, the group was forced to discard at least a half-dozen egg-bearing females and about the same number of “shorts” — with carapaces measuring three inches or less. They went back out Friday and did much better, bagging 29 in 45 to 65 feet of water south of Hillsboro Inlet.

Some lobster hunters, exhausted by the rigors of diving, have turned to bully netting — a very effective way to bag dinner without even getting wet.

Idling along the flats of south Biscayne Bay and the Keys at night in small boats equipped with bright, underwater lights, bully netters find bugs foraging for food in the moonlight. Wielding a long-handled net, fishermen can scoop up a limit in just a couple of hours.

Divers and bully netters are expected to remain in hot pursuit of their favorite crawling quarry for about the next two months. Historically, that’s the period when half of Florida’s landings occur, even though the season doesn’t end until March 31. Some get discouraged by cooler water temperatures, others by lower catch rates.

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But lobsters aren’t the only hard-shelled entrees ripe for the plucking right now. Bay scallops, which were difficult to find last season in the Big Bend burg of Steinhatchee owing to heavy rainfall and excessive run-off, are available in good numbers in lush grass flats three- to six-feet deep.

Steinhatchee fishing and scallop guide captain Bob Erdman led his party of four women to a limit harvest of 10 gallons of mostly large shellfish in a half-day snorkel trip Monday.

The usually tiny, double-shelled mollusks measured nearly the size of a woman’s hand and were encrusted with barnacles and algae.

Erdman said he believes they are the remnants of last year’s hatch because of their size and weathered appearance.

“They’re monsters,” he said.

The Steinhatchee scallop bounty comes as a pleasant surprise to some because preseason surveys conducted by scientists with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute showed lower-than-usual counts in the region.

“We may have proven that wrong,” Erdman said. “It’s been gangbusters since the 28th of June. We haven’t had a problem.”

His party was thrilled. The group took the catch to Fiddlers Restaurant and chowed down that night — blackened, fried, ceviche and pasta — and even had a couple of pints left over to take home.

And barring any major wet weather, the harvest should continue to be plentiful through season’s end Sept. 24.

Imagine the menu possibilities with fresh scallops and lobster — palate-tingling, especially when you catch all of them yourself.

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