When I was a kid in California, I used to take a train with my grandparents to the central coast. We’d stay in a tiny beach cabin, and spend a few mornings out on the beach clamming, and the afternoons fishing off a pier or some rocks, using clam guts for bait. That night, our little cabin would be full of aromas from the frying fish and the simmering chowder!
The clams we chased in those southern waters were hefty Pismo clams. They had to be nearly five inches long to keep, and they were none to easy to get. Grandpa would rent a long-tined pitchfork with a built-in clam gauge. Then he’d wade out into waist-deep waters, poking the sand. Occasionally he’d hit something hard and scoop up a pretty Pismo. I was too little to help, and he loved to tell the story about how I got away from Grandma, and floated up against him as I headed out to sea!
Reintroducing sea otters to Central California took a real toll on these heavy bivalves. Most seasons were shut down by the 1980s, but the Pismos have made a comeback, so if you are heading down to the warm parts of the coast, rent a pitchfork and have a go!
Raking Up Clams
The first clams I can remember harvesting by myself were a number of little necks and cockle-type clams that were embedded in the gravel beds in the bays north of San Francisco. While the Pismo clams involved soft sand and dodging waves, getting these smaller clams involved a lot of “gardening.” We used rakes and hoes and formed little pit mines in the gravel exposed during low tides. This was a lot of work, but you could pretty easily come up with several dozen nice clams of a variety of species.
Gravel clams are available all along the West Coast. It is a good idea to check at your local sporting goods store to determine species, size and number limits as well. While these clams are a lot of work, they are available in a lot of bays and stay put when you want to dig them up.
Here in the sandy beaches around the Columbia, we have a clam that combines a little of both worlds. These clams are found on sandy beaches and are most available during low tides, but, unlike the other species, they can and will move on you!
Razor clams, named for their straight razor shape and very sharp shells, sit in tidal areas with their siphons feeding right at sand level. The clam body is a few inches under the sand. When they are disturbed, or the retreating tide takes away enough sand around the siphon to show a bit of the tip, they will pull their siphon in and let you know where the are hiding. They will also use their digger on the other end to head for China!
There are lots of ways people collect these clams. “Dry sanders” walk along the upper sands and look for small holes or little dimples in the sand. These folks can be barefoot or outfitted in tennis shoes and any attire they please; the water won’t get them! Clams can be dug up with a small bladed shovel, or, more often, hauled up with a long hollow tube, known locally as a clam gun. The four-inch wide tube has a handle on one end and is shoved into the sand above the hole, down to a depth of a foot or two. Then the load of sand is hauled up as you pull on the handle. When you dump out the contents, you search the sand that slides out of the tube.
“Wet sand diggers” look in the sand that has been washed by the tide. They frequently stomp their feet to aid in the search. This vibration on the beach panics the resting clams. Retreating clams, pulling in their siphons, create a moving dimple that gives away the clam location. Since all clams dug must be kept, diggers try to look for the larger dimples, an inexact science at best! The clams have very soft shells, and usually suffer fatal damage when dug, so any that you dig must be counted on your 15-clam limit.
“Wave watchers” are clam diggers who watch the edge of the waves as they retreat along the sand. As moving waters pass over clam siphons, they will expose some of its tip, creating a little V shape in the water. Clammers look for the V’s and will usually see the telltale dimple as they approach. Sometimes the waves take away an inch or so of the sand and the siphons can be seen above the sand. This is called “necking” and is great news since you can actually see the clam, know exactly where it is, and can get a pretty good idea about its size.
Other clammers, like me, enjoy going out a bit into the water and “pounding” for clams. I look down through a few inches of calm waters and pound the sand with my shovel handle. When I pound close to a clam, it pulls in its siphon, sending a little jet of sand into the water and exposing a hole as it retreats!
When I see a good sized hole, it’s time to move fast—in wet soft sand, a razor clam can dig at a pretty fair rate! I plant my shovel some six inches seaward of the hole, go down on one knee in the water, and pull out a scoop of sand, then I plunge my hand in and dig like crazy. Most times I’ll feel the tip of the retreating clam’s siphon and then dig enough around the edge of the shell to get a grip on it and pull it up.
Often when I’m doing this work, a wave will wash over me. Most clammers who work in the surf wear a full set of waders, with a good raincoat on top! It is an exciting way to dig clams, but has a little more challenge and risk than most!
Clamming requires a license in most states, and most areas also have closed seasons. In addition to these restrictions, there are various types of toxic plankton that can make clam meat unfit and unsafe to eat. Be sure and check locally to make sure that the clams are in good condition and that seasons are open. It may be a bit of work and expense, but clamming is a lot of fun and the results can make for some terrific meals.
Bob Ellsberg’s column, Fishin’, appears monthly in RV Life and rvlife.com.