In Search of Peconic Bay Scallops

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In Search of Peconic Bay Scallops

It happens on the first Monday of November every year, and every year it catches me and my partner Capt. Ed with too little time to get ready. To be sure, we always make it out to the scallop grounds - wherever the little critters may be - but that last week of October is always a rush of dredges to mend, boat "stuff" to fix or change, and crews to obtain.

The 2010 season wasn't any different except for the fact that we'd actually rebuilt a boat for this year. As usual, we went down to the wire getting Old School (one of our two boats) on her trailer and driven out to a halfway point to our intended dredging area with but a day to spare. Old School is an (at-least) 50-year-old Garvey-style clam boat we've used for several years that was desperately in need of an overhaul. We pulled her out of the water late in 2009 and started working on her over the winter. "Working" became a nearly complete rebuild, and winter stretched through the summer into the fall and the opening day of the 2010 season. But that indeed is a looong story better left for another time.

The oh-so-delectable Peconic Bay scallop (Pecten irradians) spawns from August to October (and thus, the November season opening). It takes a scallop about 35 days to look like a miniature one, and it reaches maturity fast. Scallops have a lifespan of roughly two years.

Peconic Bay was once rife with the critters, but the brown tide of 1985 literally decimated these filter feeders, and it's only the past five-or-so years they've been making a solid comeback of sorts. This has been due to several factors, including the scientific and aquaculture work of several different organizations - private and governmental - and an increased awareness of the pollution man has wreaked on the Bay's bio system (as well as local efforts to amend that pollution).

Originally breeding in seagrass (zostera marina) — another bay resident that has suffered devastation — the scallops have adapted to take up residence in other types of coverage, mainly a "seaweed" called codium fragile, and have been thriving though their numbers are still far from what they once were.

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Unlike sea scallops, bay scallops are taken by hand dredging. A dredge weighing about 25 pounds with a maximum three-foot-wide mouth is pulled (usually three or four to a side) by a small boat. Most of our dredges have a 10-pound window sash taped on to make it dig better. The bottom of the dredge is composed of about 40 1.5 inch diameter metal rings linked together and connected to the top of the dredge by a mesh bag, into which the object of all this work — the scallop —is supposed to flutter calmly into.

As each dredge fills it is hauled handover- hand, flipped and dumped on a table (called a culling board) where the scallops are separated from all manner of detritus, human and natural. The process is then repeated all day long or until you reach your limit (10 bushels per man, 20 bushels per boat), whichever comes first. Commercially, a license is required, and there is no dredging on Sundays; recreationally you can take up to one bushel without having a license on state lands...and still never on Sunday.

The day starts at sunrise, which this year was 7:19 a.m. We (Old School and her sister-ship, Outlaw) reached Robbins after a 45-minute night sail from Laurel. We weren't the last to arrive, nor the first; at least three dozen boats sat around us, while another "fleet"— if the amount of running lights was an indication — formed on another side of the island.

The air temperature was in the 50s, the breeze was — as mariners say — fresh, but the clouds cleared as the day went on, and the day did turn sunny. At the stroke of 7:06, all you heard were traps splashing into the water and engines revving to idle as the season began.

The first haul is the one most awaited. Will there be scallops, and as importantly, will there be a viable quantity of them? You dredge like a farmer harrowing a field at a slightly faster than walking pace. Well...at least in theory. Most can't wait, and pull the first dredges after soaking less time than they probably should. As the day goes on the soak periods get longer as the deckhand tires from hauling. There's a reason why baymen have big shoulders. This is one of them.

Like everyone else, we pulled the first pass too soon, but the dredges came up with scallops — lots of scallops — and the game was on. Some passes would pull what seemed to be a halfbushel per dredge, others less, some more, but always scallops showed on the culling table.

For the first two hours the action is relatively furious, but wanes as the sun rises, the bags and baskets fill, and the crew tires. There may be time for a quick bite and a chug of coffee, even a Gatorade or water around the 10 a.m. mark, but the engine only stops if it stalls or needs gas, and the hauling never stops — ask anyone who's done the hauling!

This has been a good season, and by all accounts — from baymen and scientists — it seems as if this will remain so, with scallops to be had until the season closes in March. Oh, they won't be anywhere near as plentiful, but we all have our "secret" spots, so there should be plenty of tasty little critters to get everyone through the holidays and into the New Year — just in case, buy enough to freeze for New Year's Eve!

Our two boats all but maxed-out by around 2 p.m. and we settled down for the long, wet, cold, tiring 90-minuteplus slog back to Riverhead where the shucking process would start. Maybe next year we'll have bigger engines to make it a faster trip...but we probably won't know that until November 6...the seventh is opening day.

My, those little critters do taste sweet, though, so I guess I'll be out there again, no matter what.

Rules and Regulations

For permit information, contact the NYSDEC Marine Permit Office at 631-444-0470. No recreational permit is required for state lands. For other information contact the Bureau of Shellfisheries at 631-444-0475.

  • Recreational limit: one bushel
  • Commercial limit: 10 bushels per permit; 20 per boat. Permit is $50.
  • Size limit for bay scallops: 2-1/4 inches mid-hinge to mid-bill.

Getting Them Ready

Get a scallop knife, it has flex in it. Slide into the shell and scoop around, then cut out the cream-colored abductor muscle. YouTube has a good video on how to do it. Search "how to shuck long island bay scallops" and select the first video that shows up (as of the time of this writing). Put them in a freezer bag and freeze...they'll taste almost the same as if they just came out of the bay.

Time to Eat

Scallops are too good to cook, just pop them in your mouth. But, if you must, you can bread them and quickly sautee them in oil.

  • Granulated garlic
  • Chopped onion powder
  • Carapelli extra-virgin olive oil
  • Rienzi Italian-style bread crumbs, fine
  1. Mix the garlic, onion powder and olive oil. This is the sauce, so it's not a lot; it's more or less greasing up the frying pan and a bit more.
  2. Dip the scallops in Rienzi Italian-style bread crumbs (fine).
  3. Get the olive oil mix just to a boil (I believe gourmands call this a sautee!).
  4. Put the scallops in the mix and keep flipping/moving them around until the bread crumbs just show browning.
  5. Chow down.

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