Editor’s Note: We are grateful to author Lauren Braden and publisher Mountaineer Books for allowing us to share this excerpt from the book 52 Ways to Nature: Washington Your Seasonal Guide to a Wilder Year. The book is full of unique and inspiring excursions into nature and all the details you’ll need to ensure a good experience for the whole family.
Please check with state wildlife experts before you head out to dig razor clams to ensure natural toxin levels in clams are at a healthy level for human consumption. wdfw.wa.gov/fishing/shellfishing-regulations
If someone told you the fun of razor clamming is being cold on a rainy beach in the dark with a few hundred other people digging in the sand by headlamp, would you still try it? Some clamming veterans swear the suffering endured to score the region’s most-beloved bivalve is the secret ingredient to the best Northwest clam chowder. Perhaps, but it’s definitely an ingredient to a fun off-season weekend.
So what’s the catch? You’ll drag yourself out of bed well before the crack of dawn (these clam digs happen very late at night or first thing in the morning) and wear more layers than an onion—it’s pretty darn cold on those beaches.
The meaty Pacific razor clam lives low in the intertidal zone of surf-pounded sand. Harvest them at designated beaches during very low tides in cool-season months; state restrictions help keep clam populations healthy. The digs are announced a few weeks in advance by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (usually during low minus tides from November through April; find dig dates and obtain a clamming license at wdfw.wa.gov/fishing). Beaches may close to clamming if toxicity tests show high levels of domoic acid—call the Shellfish Safety Hotline at (800) 562-5632.
Razor clamming is pretty simple—the only equipment you need is a shovel or clam gun (a special suction tube that unearths a pile of sand and the clam hiding within), a mesh bag or bucket to put your clams in (one per person), a headlamp or lantern for night digs, and your shellfish license. Good rain gear is essential, including tall boots or waders. Time your dig to start two to three hours before low tide. Each digger can take up to fifteen razor clams per day. If you find a clam, you must count it, even if it’s small or cracked. Have fun, savor the experience, and if you love it, make a pilgrimage to the coast for razor clamming an annual winter tradition.
Where to go
Washington allows razor clamming during scheduled digs at five coastal beaches.
From the Columbia River north to the mouth of Willapa Bay
In the summer this sandy stretch is all kites and saltwater taffy, but some winters it’s clams, clams, clams. If you strike out, you’ll see razor clams on nearly every restaurant menu in town. Find camping and yurts to rent at Cape Disappointment State Park. The region hosts a Razor Clam Festival in early spring.
TWIN HARBORS BEACH
From Willapa Bay north to the south jetty at the mouth of Grays Harbor
This beach comprises three nice oceanfront state parks—Westport Light and two camping parks, Twin Harbors and Grayland Beach. Twin Harbors has yurts and cabins to rent. The fishing village of Westport has a few marine supply stores to pick up clamming gear, and good chowder can also be found there.
From the north jetty at the mouth of Grays Harbor to the Copalis River
Ocean Shores or Ocean City make a good base and have plenty of beachy motels with kitchenettes to cook up your catch. Camping can be found at Ocean City State Park with 140 standard sites and 29 full hookup sites. The tidelands at the mouth of the Copalis River, at Griffiths-Priday State Park, conceal big, juicy razor clams.
From the Copalis River to the south boundary of the Quinault Indian Reservation
Miles of sand blanket meaty bivalves just waiting to be unearthed. If you want to pitch a tent, Pacific Beach State Park has beachfront camping sites—twenty standard sites, forty-one with hookups, and two yurts. The cute town of Moclips offers some fine places to stay, some just steps from the beach and possibly even offering a fully loaded outdoor clam-cleaning station.
From the South Beach Campground north to ONP Beach Trail #3
Mix in some Olympic National Park hiking with your razor clamming adventure on this northernmost dig beach, at least when you can; low razor clam populations here mean it’s included in dig dates less frequently in recent years. Stay in one of the oceanfront cabins with kitchenettes at Kalaloch Lodge, or find a campsite at Kalaloch Campground (they have 170 to choose from).
How to dig for razor clams
Look for a “clam show”—a telltale dimple in the sand that indicates a submerged razor clam. These form when a clam withdraws its neck or starts to dig, leaving a small hole on the sand’s surface. Stomping around or smacking your shovel on the sand can provoke a clam to show and spurt water. Larger dimples usually indicate bigger clams. Once you’ve settled on a clam show, face the ocean to keep an eye out for sneaker waves while you dig it out. There are two methods.
Clam gun method. Center the tube of the clam gun over the dimple. Slant the top of your tube back slightly toward you. Next, use a gentle twisting motion to work the tube into the sand until the tube is about 6 to 10 inches below the surface. Place your thumb over the air vent, bend your knees, then pull up on the handles. There— you’ve just brought up a core of sand. Is the clam in there? You have to check—it may be concealed within the sand. If the clam does not come up in the core of sand, reach into the hole for it.
Clam shovel method. Insert the blade vertically into the sand about 4 inches from the clam show on its seaward side. Face the blade away from the clam and start removing sand by lifting and twisting the shovel. You’re not digging up the clam, but instead digging a hole right next to the clam, eventually exposing it. Then, you can reach down and remove the clam by grasping the neck or shell. Dig quickly to catch the clam before it burrows away, but take care to not hit the clam with the shovel—this could shatter its porcelain-like shell.
How to prepare razor clams
Keep your clam haul in a bucket with a little seawater until you get to your campfire or kitchen. Wash each clam under running water to get sand off, then put some water to boil. One at a time, use tongs to submerge the clam in the simmering water until the shell pops open, then quickly transfer it to a bowl of iced water to cool. At this point you’ll be able to coax the clams from their shells easily.
The last step before cooking is to separate the white meat of the clam from any dark parts. Slice off the dark tip of the siphon, then cut the clam open lengthwise along the zipper from foot to both tubes of the siphon, opening it flat and cutting off the tan gills, guts, and removing the stomach. What you’re left with are pieces of sweet clam meat, a Northwest delicacy.
One of the tastiest ways to eat them is panko-coated, fried, and topped with a squeeze of lemon and dipped in tartar. Or sauté them in a hot pan with butter, minced garlic, and a pinch of crushed red pepper. Chop up the rest and use the sweet, tender meat for yummy clam chowder. Take care to not overcook razor clams, as they’ll go from buttery to chewy.
Published Dec. 19, 2022