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Cool Digs

Sun., March 29, 2009

Razor clamming a delicious encounter with ocean’s edge

Sometimes the rain is pelting down, a brisk wind is blowing, the surf is pounding, it’s so chilly your fingers hurt and your lantern barely casts a dim light on this tumultuous edge of sea and sand.

You know you’re a hard-core digger when – despite all this – you can spot a “show,” stab your shovel down and remove a wedge of sand, then stick your hand in there and pull out a golden razor clam – seconds before a breaker roars in and sends you running back up the beach.

Digging for the Pacific razor clam is as much passion as tradition on the Washington coast, for decades a minus-tide activity from fall through spring. Tentative seasons have been scheduled throughout April.

These fascinating creatures live in the sand directly below the pounding surf, scattered sporadically from Northern California to the Aleutian Islands, and thrive in Washington primarily on the south coast.

Ranging up to 7 inches long in Washington, these bivalves make their living by sucking in seawater through their siphon, filtering out tiny, nutritious diatoms, and then expelling the water back into the sea.

“I don’t remember not digging clams,” said Brenda Reibel, who lives in Seattle but grew up in Aberdeen and returns to the coast most every minus-tide series that is open to digging. “There’s not been a time in my life I didn’t dig clams. My mother grew up in Grays Harbor County, and she talks about during the Depression, pooling gas coupons, and they would actually plow them up and fill tubs (with) them.”

Back then, people ate razor clams to live; today many people live to eat razor clams.

Clam populations are carefully monitored by the Department of Fish and Wildlife and seasons are set appropriately. The Quinault Indian Nation digs razor clams commercially on its reservation beaches, and splits the available razor clams with non-Indians on its traditional digging grounds to the south. The only non-Indian commercial razor clam fishery in the state is on remote sand spits at the entrance of Willapa Bay.

Other than that, razor clam populations are managed for recreational digging.

Thousands of people in Washington – as many as 30,000 at a time during prime tides – love this activity for a number of reasons. First, although digging can be easy on a sunny day when the surf is mild, it also can be extremely challenging. Second, it is a tangible, hands-on way to experience the magic of the ocean shore. Finally, they’re simply darned fine-eating critters.

“Razors and eggs for breakfast, it’s kind of like the payment for all your efforts,” said Joe Hymer, a state fish biologist and longtime digger from Camas. “It just doesn’t get much better than that.”

But the thing about razor clams is that, unlike most other clam species, they have a foot-like digger and will actually descend while you’re digging them, perhaps as deep as 4 feet. So they can get away.

“They’ll go deeper than my arm is long – I’ve had that happen,” says Dan Ayres, coastal shellfish biologist for the Fish and Wildlife Department.

When they’re deep, pulling them out is not easy. You must get a firm grasp on the shell and then wiggle it back and forth to loosen its hold in the sand. Sometimes when your arm is deep in the hole, a wave can roll in and douse you.

“I saw a woman get her pants ripped off one time,” Ayres says with a laugh. “She got rolled and stood up as bare as could be.”

Getting caught in the surf can be funny, but it also can be fatal.

“There was an incident a couple years ago down on the Long Beach Peninsula where two people went missing,” says Ayres. “The next morning they found their vehicle on the north beach. They did find a woman’s body the next day over by Tokeland.”

Tokeland is north and east of the Long Beach Peninsula, across the entrance to Willapa Bay. Ayres said no one knows exactly what happened, but the woman’s body was found clad in waders with a clam bag attached.

“You don’t turn your back on that ocean,” he said.

Clams are dug in two ways, either with a clam tube or a shovel specific to razor clamming, originally called a clam gun. The tube is a long cylinder with a diameter of about 4 inches, a handle and a hole on top. This is inserted into the sand over a “show,” the telltale dimple in the sand that indicates a clam’s presence.

The top of the tube must be slanted slightly toward shore, away from the surf, since that’s the way razor clams tend to sit in the sand. Once the tube is down in the sand 2 or 3 feet, you place your thumb over the hole to create suction and pull out a core of sand.

If you’ve centered the show right and shoved the tube down far enough, the clam usually will be in the core of sand, which falls out when you take your thumb off the hole. If you’ve done it wrong, the clam often will come out a mutilated mess – and you have to keep it. The rules require that all clams dug must be kept, regardless of size or condition, and the daily limit is the first 15 clams dug.

An experienced digger with a tube can dig a limit in less than 25 minutes when conditions are good, and not bust a one.

Digging with a shovel is the traditional method and requires a bit more skill, but with a practiced hand this way is even faster and every bit as graceful as a fade-away jumper.

You simply insert the blade vertically in the sand a few inches on the seaward side of the show and remove a triangular wedge of sand over the clam by sweeping the blade forward. You do not lever the blade by pulling backward on the handle, or you likely will chowder that clam prematurely.

Once the wedge of sand is removed – maybe two wedges if the clams are running deep that day – you reach in with your hand, scooping out more sand until you feel the shell. Care must be used, and you must scoop the sand from the seaward side of the hole, since the clams sit in the sand with their hinge on the surf side. If you scoop the other way, you may well cut your fingers on the sharp outer edges of the shell.

Digging with a shovel is a bit messier; digging with the tube can be hard on the back. But over time more diggers have gone to the tube.

“It’s kind of like driving a stick or driving an automatic,” Hymer said.

Conditions are important to digging success. When storms create big swells and the surf is up, the clams dig down and don’t show well. To expose the clams’ locations, you also must have a minus tide – or close to it – no higher than about plus-0.5 feet. A digger often can make the clams show by pounding on the sand with the shovel handle, or even by stomping on the sand. Clams are sensitive to vibrations in the sand, which cause them to withdraw their siphon and/or start digging, and this leaves a mark on the surface.

Most seasoned diggers look carefully at these shows. Usually, the larger the show, the larger the clam. Pending tests for natural marine toxins that occasionally exceed health standards, digs may be opened April 10-12 and April 25-27 on specific beaches.

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