Caked with sand from head to toe, Keith Akada of Seattle was down on all fours feeling for the world's largest bivalve buried in 3 feet...

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WHIDBEY ISLAND — Caked with sand from head to toe, Keith Akada of Seattle was down on all fours feeling for the world’s largest bivalve buried in 3 feet of sand.


“I can feel its shell,” shouted Akada as he gripped the geoduck (pronounced goo-e-duck) and hoisted it up for all to see.


The geoduck is one of the oldest and most impressive clams. It can weigh up to 10 pounds and live as long as 140 years.


While the geoduck won’t win any beauty contests, it is by far one of the most tastiest clams in the shellfish kingdom.


For the past few years, Victor Mizumori of Redmond had been urging me to go on a geoduck trek.


I had gone clamming and oyster gathering many a time, but never sought out a geoduck except at a seafood store or restaurant.


Last Sunday we headed out two hours before low tide to pursue the behemoths of the shellfish family.


With all of our savvy clamming gear (two strange-looking metal cylinders, wood planks, golf carts, crusty shovels and plastic buckets), we trudged about half a mile onto the sandy flats.


Our first part of the “experience” was to look for shows, the brownish tip of the geoduck’s neck poking out of the sand.


Curtis and Eric Marr of Seattle found the first shows and marked them with white flags.


I went over to take a look and you could see where the neck had disappeared, leaving a depression in the wet sand.


Then came the grunt work.


We had two custom-made metal cylinders that resembled a hollowed-out garbage can. The wall of the cylinder surrounds the clam and prevents wet sand or mud from collapsing inward.


Two people shove the cylinder into the sand around the show and then start scooping sand out of the interior with buckets and shovels.


Then someone goes head first into the cylinder to feel around for the hunkered-down geoduck.


Most of the geoducks we came across were buried in the sand about 3 to 4 feet deep.


The big myth is that the adult geoduck digs down to escape when pursued. The retraction of the long neck fools one into thinking the clam is escaping downward. A burrowed adult geoduck’s siphon can stretch about 39 inches into the sea bed.


Sometimes, when the sand was a little less forgiving, we’d put wooden planks across the top of the cylinder, and two people would get on top and jump up and down. This was to sink the cylinder farther into the sand to get it down deep where the geoduck was hiding.


Another technique for those who don’t have a metal or plastic cylinder is to dig a trench about 2 feet deep, leaving a column of sand to support the siphon. Then expose the siphon by knocking away the sand and continue to dig until you reach the shell.


The geoduck’s name originated from a Native American word meaning “to dig deep.”


Its gaping, oblong shell is whitish with concentric rings. The siphon and neck of the geoduck cannot be withdrawn into the shell like its cousins, the Manila or razor clam.


The geoduck feeds on phytoplankton (single-celled marine algae), mostly diatoms and flagellates.


Age and growth studies have shown that geoducks grow about 1 inch per year in shell length for the first four years of life. The growth rate slows down after that. The average size of 2.2 pounds is attained in six to eight years.


Geoducks reside along the West Coast as far south as Baja California, but harvestable populations are found only in Puget Sound-Hood Canal, British Columbia and southeast Alaska.


Puget Sound’s bays and estuaries host the highest density of geoducks in the United States.


“Abundance of geoducks historically has gone up, and their population is fairly steady,” said Bob Sizemore, a state Fish and Wildlife shellfish biologist in Olympia. “Public-access areas are where the bulk of people tend to dig, and usually those areas are fairly slow to recover.


“When you get below that intertidal area beyond the zero [feet] to minus-2 [feet] down to about 80 or 90 feet, that is where the bulk of the population exists.”


The trend of increasing biomass in recent years is due to additional areas being surveyed, which state fisheries began in 1967.


Biomass estimates taken in 1998 showed 159,200,000 pounds of geoducks inhabited the sand and mud flats of Puget Sound. This year, that figure increased to 180,824,000 pounds.


State and tribal fish managers take a very conservative approach to the fisheries.


“The recreational harvest is very minimal,” Sizemore said. “But the last I saw it, it was on the order of 4,000 or 5,000 pounds per year.”


During our recent outing on the sandy flats we ran into three other people trying their luck at geoducks for the first time.


They kept getting horse clam after horse clam.


They came up to us a few times asking what to look for and how deep were the geoducks.


Finally, after about two hours of digging and as the tide started to come in, we could hear them screaming at the top of their lungs and slapping high-fives with each other.


We chuckled, knowing they finally struck geoduck gold and finally had the “experience” I got from my first outing.


Guidelines to follow when pursuing geoducks:


• Before going to a beach, check the marine-toxin hotline at 800-562-5632 or www.doh.wa.gov/ehp/sf/biotoxin.htm for information on red tides and beach closures.


• For beach locations and emergency closures go to state Fish and Wildlife’s Web site at wdfw.wa.gov/fish/shelfish/beachreg. The regulation pamphlet also lists public beaches that are open for shellfishing.


• The daily limit is three geoducks per person with no minimum size limit.


• Avoid grabbing a geoduck by the neck or siphon. If you inadvertently break off the neck, be sure to take the siphon and the body in the shell.


State Fish and Wildlife imposes a penalty for discarding dismembered clams.


• Rinse clams well with seawater, then keep them moist by putting them in a wet gunny sack or covering them with a wet cloth.


• Before leaving the beach, refill the holes you’ve dug.


• Be sure to have a valid state Fish and Wildlife shellfish license, which must be worn visibly when digging.


• Minus low tides are usually the only time you’ll find geoducks. Next best tides are: Tomorrow, minus-1.4 feet at 9:51 a.m.; Monday, -1.7 at 10:30 a.m.; Tuesday, -1.9 at 11:07 a.m.; Wednesday, -1.9 at 11:43 a.m.; Thursday, -1.8 at 12:17 p.m.; Friday, -1.5 at 12:52 p.m.; July 9, -1.1 at 1:27 p.m.; July 18, -1.7 at 9 a.m.; July 19, -2.7 at 9:49 a.m.; July 20, -3.4 at 10:38 a.m.; July 21, -3.7 at 11:25 a.m.; July 22, -3.5 at 12:12 p.m.; July 23, -2.7 at 12:58 p.m.; and July 24, -1.5 at 1:44 p.m.


How to clean a geoduck


• Blanch the geoduck in boiling water for 10 seconds, then submerse it in cold water with ice cubes.


• Using a knife, carve the clam away from the shell or simply pop off the shell with your hands.


• Separate the viscera from the meat of the neck (siphon) and breast (mantle). Peel the skin from the siphon and mantle. Wash thoroughly to remove any sediment and sand.


• Cut the siphon by inserting scissors or a knife into the lower siphon hole and cutting up toward the top of the neck. Wash inside of siphon.


• The breast meat below the siphon can be split down the median line and cut into small lengths.


Mark Yuasa: 206-464-8780 or myuasa@seattletimes.com