I trimmed up my outboard, cut the motor, and drifted into the channel. The southwest wind blew warm and soft with a light smell of bladderwort drying on the rocks. I lobbed a short 10 feet of anchor rope because I wasn’t going to be there long before getting back after the stripers. My sand flats grocery shopping wasn’t going to take much time at all.
Friends from out of town came for a visit, and landlubbers always like seafood. Tonight we would to eat well. But, I couldn’t help wondering why anyone would buy shellfish in a market. Digging clams and picking oysters in warm, ankle-deep water feels almost too good to be true. This particular Massachusetts sand flat was made by the estuary pouring into the bay, meaning there’s every type of clam and oyster within a half mile poke. All I needed to do was find them.
Where to Find Clams and Oysters
I decided to start in the sand and then muck my way through the mud. The sand holds softshell clams, like steamers and razors, and no one knows about them. Softshells love the wash of current provided by clear, clean, ocean water. They favor the loose, granular sand. The squat-shaped steamer clam shells glimmered like freshly applied, high-gloss white paint. They’re not deep, sitting between 4 and 8 inches below the surface. When they’re hungry, steamers extend their syphon above the terrain and filter food from the water. They squirt water, which is why some locals call them “pissah clams,” but that dimple in skinny water or a spout on a dead low tide tells you where to dig. If you find some in the mud higher up the beach, their shells are a darker purple-black. They taste slightly different, too.
Their razor clam cousins come by the name honestly. They are long and thin and look just like the blade of a straight razor. Their taste is distinct and sweeter, probably due to the fact that they have longer necks and smaller bellies. I find fewer razors than steamers, so perhaps there is something in their scarcity that makes them taste better, too.
You can usually find oysters scattered around flats consisting of a mixture of sand and mud. They’ll all be well below the high-tide line and are as easy to spot as shipwreck flotsam on the water’s surface. No digging necessary; just pick ‘em up, measure ‘em against a gauge to see if they’re the legal, and put ‘em in your wire bushel basket. The saltier the water, the better. That increased salinity is part of what gives the distinct metallic taste.
What separates the men from the boys are the hard-shelled clams higher in the estuary. They like moving water with lower salinity, and estuaries make the perfect home. Though hard-shelled clams are all the same species, they are called by names that refer to their size. Buttons are the smallest, under 2 inches, littlenecks next, then cherrystones, and finally the quahogs, which range from 3 to 5 inches long. The latter get their name from the Narragansett Indian word “poquauhock.” The Pilgrims evidently had a tough time pronouncing that word, so they shortened it up.
Anyhow, hard clams like coves and estuaries, and that usually means mud so soft that you’ll sink knee-deep with every step. It’s tough sledding to a degree, but the real rub comes when you pull your foot from the ooze. Every step brings a wafting aroma of sulphur that reminds me of a frequently used outhouse at deer camp. Mosquitos and greenheads, flies so savage that they remove a hunk of flesh with every bite, almost become welcome—I forget the stench for a bit while swatting them away. Walking barefoot in the summer is fine, but if you’re wearing hip boots in the fall, be sure to add a zip-tie around the ankle of your boot. It’s no fun to pull your foot out of your waders.
But just under a foot beneath the surface are some of the most delicious bivalves you’ll find anywhere. Dig them with a hoe-like scratcher or muck around until you feel them with your feet. Before you add them to your bucket, have a look at the shells. Hard clams have growth rings and can be aged just as you would count rings on a tree stump. Each ring is a year, and if you find a remote, rarely harvested motherlode, you may find some clams that are over 30 years old.
What You Need
If you live on the coast, you’d be crazy not to buy a license, get a scratcher, a bushel basket, a clam and oyster gauge, and go. If you’re on vacation, you can get a license and rent gear from most tackle shops. Seasons and bag limits vary by state, but traditionally bivalve hauls are limited by the half or full bushel. Some states like New York are now issuing specific numbers for harvest. Still, 100 clams will go a pretty long way.
Any spot below the mean zero-tide line is open to fishing and public access, a foundational principle in our country’s public trust doctrine. Fishing includes shellfishing, so provided that a town hasn’t closed off an area, you’re free to dig away. Prime shellfish quality is from September through May. The summer months are when shellfish breed, and while they’re still edible, they’re not as tasty due to reproduction.
Algal blooms like red tide appear on seasonal cycles or following big storms, often leading to shellfish closures for health safety. Check with your state fish and game agency to find spots and seasons when you can dig.
How to Cook Clams and Oysters
Place your soft clams in a bucket of saltwater and add cornmeal or a few drops of Tabasco Sauce. They’ll ingest the meal or hot sauce and begin purging sand. Rinse them off and steam until their shells pop open. Remove the foreskin on the neck, rinse in hot water, and dip in melted butter. A crowd will kill 10 pounds in no time. Fried clams in a restaurant are steamers cleaned, dipped in breading, and deep fried. They’re good that way, too.
If you like raw bar, then mix up some horseradish and ketchup and shuck and serve the oysters, littlenecks, and cherrystones. Add them all to a bouillabaisse or paella or steam and add to your favorite pasta dish. Oysters Rockefeller and Clams Casino are local favorites here, too. Grind shucked quahogs for baked stuffed clams, clam fritters, clam cakes, Rhode Island Clear Chowder (with saltpork and clam juices) or New England Clam Chowder (with butter and cream), or in a pasta and white clam sauce. I guess you can make Manhattan Clam Chowder too, but that really is just red soup.
Clamming and oystering can be a stand-alone activity, but it doesn’t have to be. If you get hot out fishing on the flats, go for a swim. When the tide starts running, toss a fly at striped bass coming up for sandeels. On a sea duck hunt, when the tide is flat low and you’re waiting for it to turn, get out and dig. It’s a great way to keep from getting cold. It’s a lot easier and more rewarding than you might think.