Harvesting shellfish is a time-honored Northwest hobby. Here's how to do it without making yourself sick.

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I’m new to Washington, and this spring I followed friends to a local clamming beach for my first-ever clamming experience. The problem? My friends didn’t actually know what they were doing, and so neither did I. Later that night, after cooking up clam linguine, I got sick. To make my next expedition safer — and hopefully educate other clamming hopefuls — I spoke with clamming experts for a crash course in harvesting shellfish.

Find an open beach

There is not so much a clamming “season” in Washington as there are sporadic openings and closures of beaches. Some beaches are open to clamming year-round, but clammers still need to check that the beach is open for the particular type of clam you’re hoping to harvest. The simplest resource for this is an interactive map available at doh.wa.gov/shellfishsafety, which outlines closed and open beaches and information about which clams are safe and plentiful in an open area.

There are generally two reasons a beach will be closed to harvesting certain clams: one, for conservation, so that the population of clams remains healthy, and two, for toxins that make consuming shellfish dangerous. Some clams, like butter and varnish clams, hold onto toxins longer than other bivalves, and may be off-limits on otherwise open beaches. Other clams, like razor clams, are so popular that the state carefully monitors their numbers and regulates harvesting to specific dates, which change every season.

Get a permit

Day passes and annual permits can be purchased at the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife. Each person digging must have their own container for collecting shellfish and their own permit.

Daily harvesting limits apply for different shellfish types. Geoducks are limited to the first three dug per day. Horse clams are limited to the first seven dug per day, no matter what condition you find them in. Razor clams are limited to the first 15 dug, regardless of condition or size.

All other clams are limited to less than 10 pounds and 40 or fewer clams, and they must be at least 1 1/2 inches across in order to be harvested. Langdon Cook, author, instructor and lecturer on wild foods and the outdoors, recommends a clam gauge, which can be purchased at local hardware stores. “It’s just a simple little tool that if the clam falls through the hole, then it’s too small,” he says.

Know your clams

There are 10 types of clams available for harvest in Washington state: manila, native littleneck, butter, varnish, cockle, macoma, horse, eastern softshell, razor clams and geoduck. While a beach might be open to manila-clam harvesting, it may be closed for butter or other clams. It’s important to know which clams are safe for harvesting and be able to identify them when you’re digging. The Washington State Department of Health has a photo guide for identifying edible bivalve shellfish. Beginners may have better luck sticking to a single species.

The easiest way to find clams is to look where other people are harvesting them on the beach. Especially in the case of razor clams, when the beach is open, you’ll likely have plenty of company. “The crowds that are on these beaches can be quite amazing,” says Dan Ayres, coastal shellfish manager at the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. “It’s not at all unusual to have more than 1,000 people per mile of beach in some areas.” Otherwise, you’ll need to be familiar with the kind of habitat the clam species prefers, how far down the shore they live, how deep under the surface they reside, and what their “show” — the types of indentations they leave in the sand after retracting their siphon — looks like.

The tools you’ll need depend on the type of clam you’re after. Manila clams are near the surface, about 2-4 inches into the sand, and a metal-pronged rake can be used to scrape them from their beds. Razor clams are around half a foot beneath the surface and move quickly when disturbed, so are best harvested with a razor clam shovel or a “clam gun.” Horse clams and geoducks can be more than 2 feet underground and often require a bucket-sized tube to maintain the walls of a dug hole.

Have a bucket to store harvested clams short-term on the beach, something like a damp towel or bucket of ice to keep them cool when you hit the daily limit. When you’re done harvesting, always refill any holes you’ve created.

The Washington State Department of Health recommends that clams harvested from mid-May through September be cooked thoroughly in order to avoid vibriosis, an intestinal disease caused by shellfish. Each clam has different purging, cleaning and cooking requirements, so it’s helpful to know how you plan to eat your shellfish before collecting them. Many clams can be stored fresh in the refrigerator in a damp washcloth, but you’ll want to be familiar with the requirements of the clam you’ve collected. Razor clams, for example, must be cleaned soon after harvesting, which requires separating them from their shell and removing their siphon, gills and digestive tract.

A few more helpful tips for your first clamming expedition:

Know how low the tide is. It can affect your clamming success. Arriving about an hour before the lowest tide will give you the most time.

Stay dry. Gloves can be useful for protecting your hands when you’re digging, and waterproof shoes keep your feet dry.

And especially when you’re on the oceanfront coast: Be on the lookout for sneaker waves.