Tuesday, July 24, 2012


Recently, my husband and I visited the beautiful Oregon coast.  When the tides are predicted to reach a minus level, one of our favorite things to do, is dig for Oregon's largest clams called Gapers.  They are also known by several other names including blue, Empire, and horseneck clams.  

The tides are the rise and fall of the ocean and the inlets.  These occur about every 12 hours due to the rotation of the earth along with the gravitational forces caused by the moon and sun.  When a 'minus tide' occurs, the level of the water is to go below the zero foot mark on a tidal scale.  With that, when the water is lower (or out further), the more the clam beds will be exposed making it an ideal clam digging excursion!   

To find out what the tides are going to be, it is best to either purchase a tide book, which can be found at most sporting good stores or online.  

One of the best website's I've seen is    

Just across the bay from Charleston, is our favorite spot.  It is commonly known to the locals as "Clam Island".  We like to arrive here about an hour before the minus tide occurs so we'll have plenty of time to dig before the tide starts coming back in.  As a word of precaution, always keep an eye on the tide!  It's easy to get caught up in what you're doing without realizing what is going on around you.  

At a minus tide, things that are normally underwater, 
will now be exposed.
This muck is where you'll find your clams.

Very few items are needed to harvest these deliciously, strange creatures.  For each of us, all we bring is a shovel, a large bucket, a pair of sturdy rubber coated gloves, and our waders.  You can get away with wearing a pair of tall rubber boots, but with waders, you can kneel on the sand while you're fishing your clam out of the hole without getting wet.  They're also nice to have when you might have to cross water that is a little deeper. Something waterproof for your feet is a necessity.

So how do you harvest them?  First you have to know where in the sloppy, sandy soup you need to start digging.  You'll want to look for slightly oval holes in the sand that are about the size of a quarter.  A good rule of thumb, the bigger the hole, the bigger the clam.  To see if a clam is "home",  gently probe your finger into the hole.  Be careful not to have your face directly over the hole as this could result in a small saltwater shower!  If you see something retract deeper into the sand, you've found yourself a clam.
Slightly oblong clam hole.

Next step, is to start digging.  Because the neck of the clam isn't always perfectly vertical, you'll need to dig a fairly large sized hole around the clam and not directly above.  Working in a circle around the clam hole, use your shovel and remove scoops of sand.  Discard the sand behind you as you go.  Be sure to keep an eye on the trail of the neck as it retracts further into the sand.  Some diggers place a wooden dowel in the hole to track the angle of the neck.  Take your time and dig carefully.  Necks can easily be cut off and shells can be broken.  You might have heard that you have to dig fast to 'catch up' to the clam.  Not so.  It's actually the neck of the clam that you are following, not the clam itself.  The clam is wedged in the sand 12" or more below the surface.
If you look closely in the middle of the hole between the water, you'll see the tan colored sides of the clam peeking out through the mud.

Once you've located the main body of the clam, be careful not to nick the shell with your shovel.  Once the majority of the clam is exposed, I like to get on my knees and dig the rest out with my fingers.  Don't worry, they don't bite!  When the clam is free of the sand, give it a brief wash in a near by water source and put it in your bucket!  That's it!  

When we get our limit, we like to give them a final bath before we leave the site.  If you can, find some water and wash them off as best you can.  Oh, and be sure to check your harvest regulations to make sure you're staying within your limits!
A nice harvest!

Ok, so now you have your bucket full of these things, now what?  The labor of love begins.  It's time to clean them.  When possible, we like to fill the bucket with fresh water and let them sit for an hour or so.  This encourages the clams to 'puke' out some of the sand that they still have in them and is slightly less of a mess while cleaning.
Here are the fresh water soakers.  This guy just happened to be posing for the picture.
Not everything has a pretty smile.

Now that they have soaked a bit, it's time to get started.

We like to set up a make shift workstation which includes the following:
  1. A folding table, preferably plastic.  Two sawhorses with a piece of scrap plywood on top works well too.
  2. A couple of chairs.
  3. A couple of plastic cutting boards.  We use plastic for easy clean up.
  4. An old cookie sheet.  This is strictly reserved for jobs like this.  It will never see the oven again.
  5. Two decent sized fillet knives.  
  6. Two buckets.  We use the buckets we collect the clams in.  One to hold all of the clams in fresh water.  The other is lined with a heavy garbage bag for scrap.
  7. A clean, decent sized container.  
  8. A couple of larger sized, heavy duty kitchen garbage bags for the discard of guts, shells, and muck.
  9. Quart or gallon sized freezer Ziploc bags.  These are used to house your finished product for the freezer.
Our morning catch set up on the workstation
(Yes, we caught some black sea bass after we found our clams!)

Pull one of the clams out of the bucket.  In one hand, hold the clam firmly while gently running the tip of the knife around the lip of the clam.  Do this on one side, then flip it over and do the other side.  The main idea here is to cut away the attached part of the clam that is closing the shells together.

Use a fillet knife with caution!

Once the meat is cut away from the shell on both sides, gently pry the shell open.  Once  open, gently pull out the innards and cut any remaining pieces that still might be attached.

Once you have the innards removed, discard the shell into your garbage bag lined bucket.  There are basically three parts of the innards that you want to keep.  The neck, the leg-like looking pieces that are attached to the neck, and the foot, which is located on the opposite end of the neck.
On the left are the neck and the leg-like pieces.  The gut bag and foot are being removed.

Cutting off the 'foot' off of the end of the gut bag.

The foot is a small triangular piece.

Foot removed from gut bag.  Discard the gut bag in the waste bucket.

Place the meat on the cookie sheet as you clean each one.

Garbage bag lined bucket with shells and muck on the left.
Clams to be processed sitting in fresh water on the right.

After all of the clam meat is out of the shells and on your cookie sheet, individually rinse each one well under fresh water and place into a clean container.

Fill the clean container with relatively warm water and let them soak for about 10 minutes.  After soaking, remove one of the necks and place on clean cutting board.  You may have already noticed that the brown covering on the neck is starting to come off.  This is a good sign.  With the back of your knife, scrape the length of the neck to remove all of the brown covering.  This should be very easy to remove.  If it's not, let it soak longer in the warm water.  Next, cut off about a 1/4 to 1/2" from the top of the neck.  There will be a color distinction.  The very tip is usually a dark purple color.  Cut down toward the base of the neck from the tip until you see flesh color.

At this point, if you haven't already, we like to cut off the leg-like meat from the base of the neck.  Next we cut down the length of the neck to open it.  Rinse under fresh water until all residue, brown covering remnants, and sand are gone.  Place into clean container.

Continue to wash the leg-like meat and the triangular foot piece under fresh water until clean and free of any residue.  Place into clean container with the necks.
This is the meat you will get from one clam.
From top to bottom:
leg-like meat, triangular foot, neck that has been cut lengthwise and opened.

At this point, it's time to divide the meat up into meal size portions and put them into your freezer Ziploc bags.  We like to vary our portions depending on what meal we will use them for.  The larger portions are used for clam chowder and the smaller portions are used for the pan fried meals.

Before we use the meat in a meal, it gets punished using this barbaric looking tool to tenderize it.  It is a plunger with razor sharp blades.  It can be quite chewy if you choose not too.  Then we cut the pieces into desirable sizes depending on the meal.

Yes, harvesting and cleaning your own clams are quite a bit of work.  Is it worth it?  If you love fresh seafood...absolutely.  Enjoy!

"When the tide is out, the table is set."

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