Razor Clamming 101

I have friends who have gone razor clam digging, even bringing along their kids and their dogs, so it can’t be too difficult, right? I’ve seen pictures of people strewn on the beach searching for shellfish with the same intensity as panning for gold so I figure it’s gotta be rewarding.

Heading out for the kill

Our crew heading out for the hunt

So when I recently ran into master forager and author Langdon Cook (befittingly at a mushroom-themed dinner) and he told me about a razor clam weekend he was planning on the Washington Coast with 20 or so people and invited me along, I was all in.

What is a razor clam and why do I want to find one?  The Pacific razor clam is a meaty shellfish that can be found along the west coast from California to Alaska. They’re typically found on surf-pounded ocean beaches and can grow up to six inches.

Aside from the adventure of foraging in a beautiful beach setting, a key motivation for going razor clamming: They’re delicious! Langdon busted out two recipes for razor clam chowders, we made ceviche and we also included our catch in a linguini. They’re also fabulous as a standalone main attraction dish when fried into clam strips.

Can razor clamming really be all that difficult?

Pictured is a coveted mossback. A mossback refers to a fully grown razor clam. Mossbacks are meatier than their young brethren.

What does razor clam digging entail? Do I need to be a razor clam whisperer to be good at it?  Langdon gave us a five minute crash course which I think was sufficient. The technique is not intricate.

Spot a penny-sized dimple (aka – divot) or protrusion in the sand, aim your clam gun directly over it, angle the gun slightly away from the surf, burrow your gun in the sand, and then quickly wrestle it out. The suction from the clam gun brings up the razor clam along with a whole heck of a lot of sand.

The rest is up to your stamina, tolerance to getting wet and the number of deadlifts you can throw down.

The next time I see a buff person rocking the deadlifts at the gym, I'm going to recruit them to go razor clam digging with me. JACKPOT.

The next time I see a buff person rocking the deadlifts at the gym, I’m going to recruit them to go razor clam digging with me. JACKPOT.

Wear clothes you don't mind getting muddy

Wear clothes you don’t mind getting muddy as sometimes the clams fall out of the gun and you’ll have to  pull the clam out of the sand with your bare hands. You’ll want to move quickly as they quickly try to burrow themselves back into the sand at one inch per second (Photo credit: Heather Ota)

Here’s what you need to get your dig on:

  • Permit: You can purchase a permit online. $11 for an annual permit.
  • Rubber boots, the taller the better
  • Clam gun – Some people use shovels, but Langdon says a shovel will likely backfire on you unless you’re a pro.
  • Mesh bagged net to store your catch (preferably one with a ring so you can tie it around your belt and keep it secure)
  •  Waterproof clothing, preferably waders.
Essentials: Permit (which you can get online), clam gun, net to hold your loot, boots and preferably waders that can keep you dry when knee high waves inevitably come your way

Gear central: A snapshot from our back deck

Additional things I learned along the way:

1) Rogue waves are for realz- Get some waders, yo! Rogue waves are imminent or at least they were last Saturday evening. You can stay closer to land to avoid wave sneak attacks, but the mossbacks (aka – the biggest ones) tend to hang back closer to the water.

Deceiving calmness. I took this picture of my man Mark,  just minutes before a rogue wave drenched both of us.

Deceiving calmness. I took this picture of my man Mark, just minutes before a rogue wave drenched both of us.

2) The early stork gets the clam - Unlike a 24 hour diner, there are finite windows when you can go digging. The primo time is one hour before low tide. I was stoked to hear that 6pm was the low tide on Saturday, but not as stoked to hear 6:53am was the low tide on Sunday.

My man and I hit our limits that evening (15 each), but others weren’t as lucky. There were a lot of waves and a storm came in during peak digging.

Photo courtesy of Heather Ota

Photo  credit: Heather Ota

 

I slept in and took a pass on the early Sunday morning digging excursion. That was a mistake. I awoke to triumphant high fives from members from our crew who had scored big time. As the sun was coming up, the shadows made it easy to spot the location of the clams. Many people reached their daily 15 clam limit within 25 minutes as opposed to spending 1.5 hours the evening prior and not reaching limits.

net with a ring is important so you can belt it around

 

3) It’s more strenuous than I thought. The technique of spotting a dimple or donut, throwing down your clam gun, and leaning 10 degrees way from the sea to pull the sucker out, sounds fairly simple. It is, but it becomes physically grueling. As we walked up the steps from the beach to head back to the house, my quads burned as if I had just sprinted up and down the big Queen Anne hill for several hours.

Picture courtesy of Heather Ota

Photo credit: Heather Ota

4) You want Langdon Cook by your side when the apocalypse comes: Langdon is seriously your man for foraging if your main goals are to learn, get results and have a good time. Enthusiastic (yet easygoing), captivating, adventurous, and good-humored are key words to describe Langdon Cook.  As a former reporter, Cook is a gifted storyteller and a good relater, making foraging seem accessible even to someone who mistakes weeds for plants and waters them (yep, that is me).

Check out his website Fat of the Land for details on upcoming classes.

5) It is pretty cool watching a storm pass through. A general inclination is to go inside when it’s storming, but not when there are razor clams to be caught. There is something beautiful about experiencing a storm and watching it pass through like a time lapse.

6)  The hardest part is probably post-clam digging. Teddie, who is on the board of the Mycological Society and was one of the most enthusiastic razor clam diggers from the weekend (he went out all three days), articulates, “I like finding and gathering and then handing them off to someone for processing and cooking.”

Smart man. It takes time to disassemble and clean razor clams and it ain’t pretty work.

This is the point when you seriously consider going vegetarian. Cut the guys out of the shell, then butterfly them and discard the nasty bits. As Langdon says, “This is life. We are all part of the food chain.”

This is the point when you seriously consider going vegetarian. Cut the guys out of the shell, then butterfly them and discard the nasty bits. As Langdon says, “This is life. We are all part of the food chain.”

With one weekend of razor clamming under my belt, I’m excited for my next digging excursion. There is currently a healthy supply of razor clams in Washington state and experts predict the razor clam population will remain strong for the next few years.

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One Response to “Razor Clamming 101”

  1. April 4, 2014 at 1:58 pm #

    You were a hoot to have on the trip Jen! What a great crowd we had this past weekend. Hoping to see you at another class in the future (charter fishing for tuna or salmon?). :)

    Best,

    Jeff

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