Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Clamming at Clam Beach

A guinea pig in search of clams.
That’s basically what I was May 27, 2005, participating in a pilot project of Open Beaches and Trails, a McKinleyville-based group that lobbies to maintain public access to public lands. The organization also aims to educate the public about responsible beach use and the activities that can be enjoyed in the sand and the surf.
Dennis Mayo of Open Beaches informed me Thursday that I would be the guinea pig for his group’s education program – this time an impromptu lesson on how to catch clams. Mayo put me in contact with veteran fisherman and clammer Aaron Libow, who offered to teach me everything I needed to know about clamming and distill into a single lesson what took him over a decade to learn.
Having never clammed before, I needed all the help and advice I could get.
Outfitted with hip waders, a bag to hold the clams, a standard shovel with a round head and a valid California fishing license, I arrived at Libow’s McKinleyville home early Friday morning. We loaded into his four-wheeler and hit the road.
Our destination: Clam Beach, obviously.
The timing of the lesson could not have been more perfect. Throughout the week there were minus low tides, exposing a variety of sandbars and stretches of the beach where the indigenous razor clams reside.
Minus low tides, Libow explained, are essential for a successful clamming expedition.
Also important are calm seas. The clams reside in the surf zone and when there are heavy seas they hunker down to protect themselves and are not visible. Fortunately, at the end of the week the sea was smooth and glassy – perfect for clamming.
The Department of Fish & Game allows clamming either north or south of Strawberry Creek on alternating years. This year (2005), clamming is allowed on the north end. Next year (2006) it will be limited to the south end.
At the beach that morning there were at least two dozen people clamming, with the largest concentration in the Little River Beach area to the north. Some swear that this area is the most productive, but Libow said clams can be found up and down Clam Beach.
It’s just a matter of having the right tides and the right conditions. But, Libow warned, clamming has a lot in common with fishing. Sometimes you catch your limit, sometimes you catch none. It doesn’t hurt to have a little luck on your side.
To the uninitiated, clamming techniques can appear strange, if not downright silly.
You hold the neck of a shovel with the handle pointed down and tap, or pound, the sand. While doing so, you look for a small hole or dimple to appear nearby. If you don’t see one, you keep moving on, taping every few feet as you scour the beach with your head down in search of the elusive bivalve.
It also helps to stomp your feet. Several times during the lesson Libow stomped as he walked in a circle. With a little marching music it would have been a one-man parade. But the stomping wasn’t for my amusement. Within moments, small holes would appear indicating the presence of clams. And that’s when the action began.
Once a hole is spotted, the next step is to dig. A shovel blade is pushed straight down into the sand at least six inches or more away from the hole. Then the handle is gently pulled back to break the suction of the sand. You drop to your knees, reach under the shovel and start feeling around for the clam, which will try to escape by quickly digging its way back down vertically. The shovel is removed and, depending on where the clam is, you have to dig with your hands as quickly as possible. Clams are surprisingly fast and can be strong enough to pull themselves out of your hand if you don’t have a firm grip.
As the hunt for clams began Friday, we tapped along the beach, but to no avail. There were no holes. No clams. But we weren’t alone. Glancing up and down the beach it was clear that everyone was standing or walking, but nobody was on their knees – a clear sign that clams are not being caught.
We shuffled along tapping and tapping, sometimes in the shallow surf, sometimes on dry sand. The process takes total concentration. Your eyes are trained in a small area around your shovel looking for a hole to appear. Some holes are large and obvious, while others are mere dimples. If you’re thinking about something else or daydreaming, you could easily miss a hole.
When I spotted by first hole, I wasn’t sure if I should even dig. It didn’t look like much of anything. But I followed the directions just as I had been told. The shovel was inserted and gently pulled back. I reached down under the shovel, dug around and latched on to something that felt like a shell. I pulled my hand out and I was gripping a small, brownish-colored razor clam! It was the first catch of the day and a real confidence builder.
As the tide receded, the tapping, stomping and digging continued. Sometimes clams would be caught one after another. Then there would be a lull with extended period of tapping. But within a few hours all of us in the area had reached our legal limit of 20 clams each.
Later, back at Libow’s house, the clams were shucked and cleaned. This is an important part of the process, being that portions of the clams may contain paralytic shellfish poisoning toxin.
Libow said the part of the clam to be concerned about are the brownish gills. Those are removed along with the guts.
The Humboldt County Health Department advises that only the white meat should be eaten. The dark parts, according to the department, could contain the toxin.
Later than evening, the cleaned clams were quickly sauteed in garlic butter and served atop a pile of fettuccine. It was good eating.
Thanks to Open Beaches and Libow for the clamming lesson. I hope to see them out there during the next minus tide.

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