Scallop days are here again

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Michael 'Smudge' Parker
10 December 2015

Scallops are a true delicacy of the sea, and one many people consider hard to access direct so instead settling for clean, hassle free, only several days old, supermarket fare. Why not ditch your EFTPOS card in favour of a day on the water instead?

Scallops, the name for any number of bivalve molluscs to be found on the ocean floor, are identifiable by the fact they’re free-living. Rather than attaching themselves to a rock where a hungry hand can pluck them free, these clever little clams are recumbent on the sea floor, and will clap their shells repeatedly if faced by a predator, allowing them to ‘swim’ erratically to safety. Although this makes them quite good fun for the diver to catch, for many of us diving is beyond our means.

A full drag of mostly live, clean scallops means you are absolutely on the right spot.

A simple way to harvest scallops is to find an scallop-bearing area that is four to five metres deep at high tide, wait for low tide and literally wade out on to the mud flats and pick the scallops out of the sand. Take a small hand rake with you to uncover them, and throw them in a material sack, or a flax kete if you’re going to eat them quickly.

But it's better by boat

Dredging scallops from a boat is a very relaxed, safe and much more productive way to collect a good feed. One word of warning – it’s poor form to dredge in areas where people dive for scallops. Manukau Harbour, for example, is a good location for dredging. If you aren’t sure ask around locally to get some advice.

Don't be surprised to find scallops with a fair bit of weed growth attached to the shell.

Most of the bigger stores will sell an entry level dredge for your boat. You need around five metres of 6mm chain and 20 metres of 10mm rope with the end tied to a stainless steel ring. From that hang two ropes of around three metres long with a loop tied in the end of each one to form a Y-shaped bridle. Put each loop on the rear cleats of your boat. A word of warning, if you only attach to one cleat the boat will slew to the side that the dredge is attached to; quite dangerous for small boats in a less than calm sea. Remember to attach the dredge to the cleats before you do anything else, otherwise it may disappear over the stern!

Before you set out make sure that the rope is coiled so it won’t tangle and there is nothing in the way that will prevent smooth progress out the back end of your boat.

A classic store-bought scallop net which has been repaired at home with the teal coloured line.

There are many different theories about the direction you should tow in relation to tide. It probably doesn’t really matter. Direction is not critical to catch, and you don’t need to tow the dredge for more than a few minutes – especially while you’re prospecting. Once the net is full you are simply disturbing the sea floor for no reason and several short drags will soon tell you if you are in the right spot.

Deploy the dredge smoothly keeping tension on the rope at all times. That keeps it from tumbling or getting tangled up in the chain or rope. Once it is on the bottom, feel for it bumping along the sea floor, which is similar to drift fishing with a heavy sinker bouncing along a stony sea bed. If the rope goes tight and there is just a smooth heavy pull on the rope you will be scooping up mud and you don’t want that. You also don’t want to put the dredge out at speed. Bring your boat back to just off idle and once the whole thing is out increase speed to around three knots. When putting out the dredge, be careful not to wrap the rope around your hand as this could cause injury.

Although, as stated, it doesn’t make a difference whether you drag with, against or across the current flow, retrieval is much easier if you drag against it. The boat tends to come to the dredge that way when it’s time to haul it all in, leaving the only the last verticle lift up to the boat for you muscles to complain. A duck board on the back for the dredge to sit on nicely means no mess comes on board.

Alternatively, a good heavy tarp or towel draped over the gunnel will prevent scratching your shiny boat. A nylon tarp on the deck to place the dredge on keeps the mess to a minimum.

Quality not quantity

If you have a lot of empty shells or other debris with only one or two scallops, you are probably right on the edge of a bed so move 50m either side of where you did your first drag and try again before giving up on that area. A GPS is a fantastic aid to help build a picture of where the beds are clean and bountiful. Once you’re onto the fat scallops, mark the spots so you cover an area, rather than just a straight line from A to B.

Make yourself aware of the regulations for your area before you go as there will be a limit to the number of scallops you can catch, and also the size. Keep a couple of measures on board to make sure none of the small ones get through. You can easily make a measure yourself but there are some inexpensive multi species measures that do the job well.

Counting your catch can be surprisingly tricky. A good technique is to lay them out in pairs and arrange them into rows of ten scallops. It’s then a simple matter of counting the rows. This is how fisheries officers count shellfish catches.

Sometimes you will find things other than scallops in your catch especially if you stray off into areas of sea grass or weed. It’s not uncommon to get starfish, crabs and little sucker fish, or even seahorses in the dredge. Unfortunately, it’s also not uncommon to find beer cans and bottles, bait bags, berley nets and other rubbish. Take your unwanted items home and preserve our remarkable environment.

A scallop in prime condition shows a well coloured row and a nice clean, white meat section. If the rows aren't showing this vibrant orange it is probably still a bit early in the season to get the most satisfactory result in culinary terms.

Cleaning your catch

You need to sort your scallops from the rubbish as soon as you bring your dredge up, and give them a good wash in salt water. Place the cleaned scallops rounded side down, into a sack that has been soaked in sea water. Cover with a damp towel. Place them in a cool spot out of direct sunlight – they should stay alive for several hours.

When you are ready to prepare your scallops you need an oyster shucking knife and a steady hand. First, check the shell is still closed. An open shell indicates the scallop has spoiled. But note that because scallops have corrugated shells, they are ever so slightly open even when alive.

Take the scallop rounded-side down in the palm of your hand. Place the shucking knife in at the hinge and give it a good wiggle so the shell comes loose. Turn the scallop flat side down on a flat surface and place a filleting knife at the lip. Run it against the bottom of the shell so the scallop inside is released. Opening the shell, you will see the main, white meat with some orange roe underneath. Take a spoon and scoop the scallop out of its shell. Remove the frill and the black stomach contents, they aren’t for eating. You may need a sharp knife to trim the stomach sack fully. Don’t remove the roe though.

Running the dredge

In a bowl of cold, fresh water give the scallop meat a good wash. Now you’re ready to cook! We recommend pan frying in a little oil or directly over a BBQ, with a squeeze of lemon – an easy lunch you can prepare at home or on the boat.

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