It might be the worst-kept secret in the Northwest this spring: Razor clamming is going to be epic in 2014.
“We’ve seen three good waves of successful spawning events this winter,” says state Coastal Shellfish manager Dan Ayres. “Clamming is strong now and should remain strong over the next couple of years. The ocean is very healthy and there is a lot of food for razor clams.”
Don’t be surprised if you find yourself swept up in the fervor to unearth a bucket full of meaty bivalves. It’s one of those classic Northwest experiences that everyone should try at least once.
To see how things were shaping up, I dropped by the small coastal community of Grayland in Grays Harbor County, for a late-winter dig.
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While I expected to encounter a few families digging, I found a beach crowded with thousands of diggers — all of them hunched over, walking in slow circles, like zombies.
The experience that followed felt novel, quintessential, challenging, charming and fun, all at the same time.
Here’s what you need to know to get into the action.
Step 1: Decide where to go
The razor-clamming season runs through the end of May on select days. This time of year, you dig on the morning low tide, so you’re not in the dark as you often are during winter digs.
Frequently opened locations on the coast are Long Beach, in Pacific County, and Twin Harbors and Mocrocks beaches (with the likely addition later this month of Copalis Beach), in Grays Harbor County (see map).
Step 2: Get a license
A quick search online identified three stores within a mile of my house where I could buy a license, or you can buy online.
An annual razor-clam license is only $13 but if you’re planning to fish or crab this year, you can combine a clam license with other types of fishing licenses.
Step 3: Plan your trip
You’re going to get wet and sandy, so pack your rubber boots and foul-weather gear. I didn’t have rubber boots, so I wore my hiking boots, but I had to abandon a few good holes when the waves came surging in.
Every digger is required to have a license and bucket, but you can share a shovel or a clam gun. (Which to choose? More on that in a moment.)
Digging begins about two hours before low tide, which gives you four solid hours to reach your 15-clam limit. This is more than enough. As a total novice, it took me about 90 minutes to hit my limit, and most of that time was spent chatting with the locals and shooting photos.
Step 4: Find the dimple
I didn’t know the first thing about digging up a clam, and during the first 30 minutes I wandered among my fellow zombie diggers, trying to locate a dime-sized divot or doughnut shape that indicated a clam. I stared blankly at the sand while everyone else seemed to find a hole every 30 seconds.
For help, I turned to two Grayland residents, brothers Steve and Don Beatty. As waves swirled around our feet, they rattled off a comprehensive litany of clamming knowledge passed down to them by their father and honed with 80 years of combined experience.
Look toward the sun so the light reflects off the sand and look for tiny imprints. Stomp on the wet sand and look for mounds to appear. A razor clam will dig a foot deeper before you reach it, but they always move down and toward the ocean. Razor clams live in groups. As you’re digging, look for other holes to appear nearby.
Step 5: Shovel or gun?
The Beatty brothers demonstrated the two popular digging tools — the shovel and the gun.
To use a shovel, dig adjacent to the dimple, and feel around with your hands until you find a clam. It’s fast but dirty, and those who’ve mastered the technique swear by it, says Steve Beatty.
For 90 percent of diggers, however, it’s the long tube barrel of the so-called clam gun, which uses suction to remove a wad of sand — hopefully with a clam inside. Tip the barrel handle a few degrees toward the dunes and wiggle it as you push. Plug the air hole with your thumb and pull out a slurping wet sand noodle.
If you strike a shell, you’ll feel a crunch, so back out and try again at a steeper angle. “It happens,” said Westport resident Scott Holley. “But they all taste the same when they’re in the pot!”
Step 6: Clean your clams
Like any seafood, it’s best to cook razor clams right away, but they’ll live until you get home if you fill your bucket with seawater. If needed, they’ll survive in the fridge for a few days, or you can freeze them in saltwater.
To remove the clams from the shells, drop them in boiling water for about 15 seconds. You don’t want the clams to cook yet, so rinse the clams in cold water as soon as the shells pop open and the meat will slip out of the shell.
For cleaning technique, I watched a YouTube video (go to YouTube.com and search for “How to clean razor clams”). It took some practice, but by the time I cleaned my last clam, I had the process down to about two minutes.
Step 7: Feel the pride (and eat well)
It’s a lot of effort to dig up a clam. But I felt a notable sense of satisfaction when I walked through my front door with a bucket full of food that I’d caught with my bare hands.
The effort was worth it — just for that feeling alone. But I’m not going to lie, I couldn’t wait to find out how the clams tasted.
I “hunter-gathered” for my family, and they rewarded me with clam deliciousness in the week that followed. First it was clam fritters, followed by a clam dip — featuring ridiculously large pieces of clams — and, finally, a New England bacon clam chowder that melted in my mouth.
Seattle-based writer Jeff Layton, on a quest to see 100 countries, is visiting No. 77 this month. Read about his adventures in Grenada and download clam recipes on his blog, www.MarriedToAdventure.com.