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Cheeseheads return to Cedar Key after a long migration

A shallow draft “bird dog” boat used to set out and harvest clams near Cedar Key, Fla. The engine and helm station are in the bow. Photo by Dan Wilcox

We loaded the truck and boat in a snowstorm on Wednesday last week and drove on slippery roads south to Rochester, Minn. We lost the snow cover in Iowa. A 30 mph tailwind from the north chased us down to Hannibal, Mo. It was still cold with a north wind the next day when we stopped for the night in Elvis's home town of Tupelo, Miss. Pine branches were down near Meridian, Miss., where several inches of wet snow fell earlier last week. A cold north wind followed us south to Pensacola, Fla., where we stayed with friends on Perdido Key.

On Saturday we stopped at Joe Patti's Seafood and bought some large fresh shrimp and frozen scallops. The Pattis are a shipbuilding and fishing family dynasty in Pensacola. The Patti store is a giant place with all kinds of fresh seafood. It's remarkably well-organized to accommodate the crowds of customers. You are given a number and a person behind the long seafood counter bags up your order. We drove through many miles of pine forest and cattle ranches and finally through salt marsh to Cedar Key, Fla., on the Gulf Coast. We were pleased to watch a fine sunset and feel 65 degrees.

This is our fourth visit to Cedar Key, a quiet island community of about 800 residents nearly 50 miles southwest of Gainesville, Fla. There's only one road into town, crossing miles of salt marshes over several bridges. There are no high-rise beach hotels or franchise restaurants. This "Old Florida" community has cottages, single-family homes and working waterfront and aquaculture. Cedar Key also supports an active arts community, sports fishing, bird watchers and kayakers.

Now, on Sunday, the sun is out and the temperature is rising into the 70s. We are renting a house with a great view overlooking the Gulf and the islands. It's a treat to wear shorts again. Our neighbors have stopped by to welcome us. Glynn and Jane are retired teachers from Kingston, Ontario. Their big burly labrador retriever Harold and our golden retriever Jack have enjoyed hours of wrestling already.

Jeff Schleeve, owner of Cedar Key Seafood Distributors, lives next door. Schleeve is a clam farmer. He showed me around their clam growing and processing facility on the canal next to his house. The clams are spawned in a hatchery and the tiny 0.5 millimeter clams grow to thumbnail size feeding on the algae in a series of trays with seawater flowing through them. When the clams get large enough, they are set out in mesh bags staked to the sea floor where they grow to market size in about a year.

Schleeve and his crew use a trailerable "bird dog" shallow draft boat to haul clams out to the leased areas of seafloor where they set out and harvest clams. The boats have a large outboard motor in a well and a helm station in the bow, and a wide flat floor and no transom in the stern to enable hauling in bags of clams. Young crew members wear wet suits to jump into the shallow water to set out and retrieve the bags of clams.

The harvested bags of clams are cleaned in rotating drums to separate out empty shell and debris. The cleaned clams are then sorted by size, bagged and shipped all over the country. We got a bag of clams from Schleeve and look forward to making our own clam chowder.