The perfect blend of water, land and weather of the Pacific Northwest Coast combines to create some of the most diverse habitats for intertidal marine life in the world. Hundreds of animal and plant species live along these shores in coexistence.
This article, focusing specifically on shellfish, will help you find and catch these buried treasures of the Pacific Northwest. Nothing beats a seafood feast of your own freshly gathered clams.
Clams do not have legs to run away, yet they are not always easy to catch. Location, technique, and timing play important roles in whether or not you come home with a daily limit of these resourceful and adaptable creatures. Let’s go over all the important facts so you can be successful and safe while clamming.
Where to find clams
Searching for clams in the right region of the beach is imperative to success which is why we’ll start with a quick discussion on tidal zones. The intertidal zone is the shoreline area which becomes submerged in water at high tide and exposed at low tide.
Clams reside mainly in the middle to subtidal zones depending on the species. At the end of this section there is a table that summarizes these locations and beach types with regards to the clams found in Washington State.
Middle intertidal zone
The middle intertidal zone, or mid-intertidal zone, is the halfway point between the shore and low tide.
Low intertidal zone
The low intertidal zone contains the most abundant and diverse marine life. The beach and tide pools here remain wet and only during extremely low tides are they exposed to drying out in the sun. Several clam species are present across several tidal zones.
You will either get wet or need rubber boots or waders to enter the subtidal waters. Just as it sounds, this is the portion of beach that always remains underwater. You can dig for clams here but it is more difficult depending on the depth of water.
Clams live in a variety of habitats which in turn determines how and where you dig for them. Let’s take a quick look at four types of beaches you may encounter while clamming.
Sandy beaches are the most commonly sought locations for digging clams. Slight dimples, donut holes and keyholes are easiest to spot on a smooth, sandy beach. The clams found here are well adapted to surviving the pounding surf and low tide exposures.
Mudflats are more prevalent in sheltered locations like bays and estuaries. Depending on the specific location, mudflats can be extremely dangerous. Some contain deep, sticky mud that falsely portrays a compact surface when the tide is out. Heed the posted warning signs and do not walk on this type of mud. You can sink so deep that you won’t be able to get out before the tide returns.
Shallow mudflats or muddy sections of beach are safe to dig in for clams. Always be cautious and check the area you are walking into. You can find eastern soft shell clams, manila clams and geoducks in mudflats.
The perfect gravel beach is covered in small rocks and pebbles layered on top of a coarse sandy beach. You can see portions of sandy areas between the rocks and the dimple holes of the clams.
Cobblebeaches are covered in rocks that are bigger than gravel pieces yet smaller than boulders. You want to find the areas where you can see between the rocks to the sand/gravel below. You can’t dig for clams when rock after rock is in the way. Find the transition line between the solid rocks and the surf. These beaches may produce good oyster beds since oysters attach to submerged rocks, piers and other hard surfaces.
Clams present in Washington State
In Washington, there are 11 saltwater clams and 1 oyster species that have legal seasons and can be safely harvested for consumption. Each is found at different depths and locations on the beach which is why we’ve created any easy reference table to get you started in the right direction.
|Bent-nose Macoma clam||4-6″||sand, intertidal & subtidal zones|
|Butter clam||18″||sand, gravel, cobble, mid-intertidal to subtidal zones|
|(Eastern) Softshell clam||8-14″||sand, mud, estuaries|
|Geoduck||2-3 feet||mud, sand, gravel|
|Horse clam, Fat Gaper||1-2 feet||sand, gravel, cobble, mid to low intertidal, extends into subtidal|
|Horse clam, Pacific Gaper||1-2 feet||sand, gravel, cobble, low intertidal zone, extends into subtidal|
|Manila clam, Japanese Littleneck||2-6″||sand, gravel, mud, upper intertidal zone|
|Native Littleneck clam, Pacific Littleneck||4-6″||sand, gravel, cobble, mud, mid-intertidal zone|
|Nuttall’s Cockle, Heart Cockle, Basket Cockle||1-2″||sandy, sheltered beaches, gravel, cobble, sometimes on surface|
|Pacific Oyster||on rocks||intertidal to subtidal zones, on rocks, piers and other hard, submerged surfaces|
|Razor clam||6-12”+||sand, intertidal coastal beaches, +3 foot to -2 foot tides|
|Varnish clam, Purple varnish clam, Savory clam||up to 14″||sand, gravel|
Best clam digging beaches in the Puget Sound
There are hundreds of beaches in the Puget Sound with excellent clamming. Not all are easily accessible though. Some require a boat while other may involve a strenuous hike.
However, the challenge of finding your own beach to experience the joys of clamming should not stop you from going. Check out our article on the 7 best beaches for clamming in the Puget Sound where we showcase top notch clamming opportunities that are available in Washington State.
Check before you dig
As filter-feeders, shellfish concentrate numerous toxins and pollutants that are dangerous for human consumption. Before digging for clams, it’s important to always check for beach closures due to pollution, Vibrio bacteria and biotoxin/red tide warnings. Some areas may also be closed due to shellfish population management or are marine preserves/conservation areas.
There are two state agencies responsible for recreational shellfish harvest closures. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) is responsible for conservation closures and season adjustments. These closures are designed to protect intertidal shellfish populations.
The Washington Department of Health (DOH) is responsible for human health-related closures in response to potentially life-threatening environmental conditions, which result from PSP/ASP/DSP, Vibrio bacteria or pollution.
For current clam, oyster, and mussel beach seasons you can check:
- Shellfish Emergency Rule Change Hotline, 866-880-5431
- WDFW customer service desk, 360-902-2700
Razor clam seasons on the Pacific coast occur only after clam samples have been tested by the DOH and are found to be safe for human consumption. The WDFW sends out emails regarding approved razor clam digs as they approve them.
It’s sad to say but garbage, sewer, oil and other toxic waste spills into the Puget Sound around metropolitan areas. In our modern world, pollution is always present and when levels get unsafe, beach closuresare initiated to keep us from getting sick from contaminated, self-harvested shellfish. Filter-feeders, like clams, take in water to feed regardless of its content.
Vibriosis is an intestinal disease caused by vibrio bacteria. Vibrio bacteria naturally live in small numbers in coastal waters and river inlets. Fish and shellfish can become colonized and when not properly cooked, the bacteria can spread to the human consumer. May through September poses the highest risk as temperatures are warmest during this time.
To prevent exposure, it is important to keep shellfish cold after harvesting to minimize bacterial growth. You should only eat well-cooked shellfish and do not re-rinse cooked pieces with saltwater. Vibrio is killed by cooking shellfish until the internal temperature is at least 145°F for 15 seconds.
For more information, please visit the Washington State Department of Health website.
Biotoxins & red tides
Red tides get their name from the algal blooms floating on the surface of the water. Individually, algae contain small amounts of toxin but during large reproductive blooms, the toxins concentrate in the bodies of filter-feeding animals such as clams, mussels, oysters and other shellfish.
The toxins are slowly flushed from their bodies after the algae die but it can take up to 4 – 6 weeks and even as long as 2 years for butter clams. These toxins cannot be removed from shellfish by cooking.
These toxins are harmful and deadly to humans who consume the contaminated shellfish. Never bypass a beach closure warning of biotoxins and red tides!
On the day you go clamming, please check the DOH website or call the Shellfish Safety Hotline to confirm the status of the beach.
- Shellfish Safety hotline, 1-800-562-5632
The majority of Puget Sound beaches are privately owned. Do not dig on beaches without permission from the land owner. It is up to you to know what beaches permit public access for clamming.
Owners and their immediate family may harvest clams on their property and are exempt from daily limits.
It is also important that you confirm that you are not digging for clams or oysters on a commercial farm. It is considered trespassing and stealing to dig up clams in these areas and you may be fined.
Tools needed for catching clams
Once you know where to find clams and you’ve check all the rules and health advisories, all that’s left is to make sure you have the correct gear.
Shellfish license: Residents and non-residents, 15 years or older, must have a valid license to collect shellfish in Washington State. You can buy an annual combo fishing/shellfish license, annual shellfish/seaweed license, annual razor clam license or 3 day razor clam license. See the different license options and prices at the WDFW website.
Rubber boots or waders: Waterproof footwear is a must to stay comfortable on the beach until your daily limit is caught. Waders or hip boots allow you to kneel on the beach without getting wet which is a plus when you have to reach inside a deep hole to pull out that escaping clam.
Shovel: You can dig for clams with your bare hands as they don’t bite or fight back. However, raking your hands through wet and rough sand will leave your fingers hurting by the end of the day. Clam shovels are specifically made with a long, narrow, curved blade designed to slide easily into the sand.
Other smaller shovels, like foldable army shovels, also work but they may require you to dig faster as the blades are not as long. This can be a problem if the clams you are targeting reside up to a foot or more below the surface. The clam will feel your first scoop and dig out of reach before you can make the hole deep enough to grab it.
Clam gun: Clam guns are a great option for razor clams on wet, sandy beaches. Essentially, they are a hollow pipe with a handle that you press into the ground around the clam and then pull upward. You can buy metal ones specifically designed for clamming from the store or you can make your own out of pvc pipe.
Make sure to get or make one that fits your height. You don’t want to stoop too low if you are tall and shorter people will lose leverage if the pipe is too long. A 4 inch diameter minimum is required for razor clams. Clam guns may be harder to use on rocky beaches.
Clam rake: Some clams, likemanilas, aren’t very far below the surface and can be collected using a clam rake instead of a shovel or clam gun. Clam rakes have longer tines than garden rakes but the later can work in a pinch. This technique is mostly successful on mudflats.
Bucket/net: Once you dig up the clam, you need somewhere to put it. Most people use a clam net that attaches at the waist. It is lightweight and allows for easy rinsing of the clams without removing them from the net. Buckets also work, especially if you need seawater to later purge the clams of sand.
How to find clams
All plants and animals reside where their basic requirements for life are met. Clams are no exception. If you know what a clam needs, you will know where to find them. Clams require three things: a comfortable home, food and the ability to reproduce.
Clams want a substrate that they can easily dig through. Above, we discussed four beach types and separately, they all host clams. However, most clams prefer a combination of sand, mud and gravel which together create the perfect environment that is firm enough to protect them from burrowing predators but easy enough to dig through themselves.
Clams also prefer clean, properly moving water with a certain salinity to deliver their food. Dirty water with lots of silt and debris clogs their siphons and insides.
Where one clam is, there will likely be more. Just like other creatures, clams are driven to reproduce. In the spring, when water temperatures warm, all the clams in the area release their eggs and semen into the water to mix and fertilize the next generation. Most clams live their entire lives within a few square meters of where you find them.
Clams leave signs
If clams burrowed beneath the surface and never extended their siphons to the surface, we would have a much more difficult time finding them. Yet, as they are filter feeders, they must eat, expel waste and reproduce at the surface through siphon tubes.
These tubes leave holes or dimples known as “clam shows.” It seems simple enough. Find a hole and you’ll find a clam. However, many things make holes in tidal flats including worms, crabs, snails, mussels and birds. It takes some practice to expertly differentiate between a clam show and a worm hole.
Not all clam shows look alike. Keyholes are large and well defined, usually round and occasionally with two holes close together. Sometimes there is only a slight dimple or indent in the sand. A donut hole looks like a mound of sand falling away on all sides from the center hole. This is expelled material from the clam.
If, for some reason, the clams are not actively feeding or reproducing, they don’t leave any signs. This is combated but pounding the beach with a stick, shovel handle or clam gun and is especially useful when targeting razor clams.
The vibrations from pounding cause the clams to shrink away, causing a slight dimple. You must be quick to catch them before they dig too deep and get away.
Once you find a clam show, start digging with your tool of choice! Depending on the clam, the hole may be shallow or quite deep. Please reference the table above for specific depths.
If using a clam gun for razor clams, place the tube over the hole and press the pipe into the sand quickly, wiggling it back and forth all the way down. Before pulling up, place your finger over the hole on the handle to create a vacuum which keeps the sand and clam inside.
After you pull the tube back up, release your finger from the hole and check the sand that falls out for the clam. If the clam is not there, make sure to check the hole before filling it back in and moving on to the next one.
If you prefer using a clam shovel, place the blade 4 – 6″ seaward of the clam show. The handle and your back should be toward the shore. Use your body weight while dropping to one knee to push the blade vertically into the sand.
Pull the shovel blade up and toward you to remove the sand. Repeat the process until you reach the clam. Be somewhat careful as you can damage the clam shell with the blade if you hit it forcefully. Broken clams count as your daily limit so please be responsible and keep them.
The second method in which to find clams is raking. If clams are not showing and presenting a chance for digging, you can simply rake the surface with a clam rake or clam pick.
This method works best in mudflats or clamming areas that are always covered with shallow water even at low tide. Raking is a popular method for manila clams. Drag the rake around until you feel the tines brush over the hard shells. Use the rake or your hands to pick up the clams.
Wading or treading
The third method of clamming is called wading or treading. This technique also works best in mudflats or shallow waters with a soft, muddy bottom. Instead of a rake, you use your feet to feel the clams. Going barefoot is not advised as you can cut your feet on sharp shells, rocks and other debris. Water shoes or other soft soled shoes provide the best sensitivity and protection.
How many clams can I harvest
Just as there are rules for when and where you can go clamming, there are also regulations on how many you can collect. These rules are important for protecting clam populations.
Daily limits for clams and oysters are defined per species. Like always, these numbers are subject to change, so check before you go. In fact, it’s always a good idea to have a copy of the current rules and regulations with you whenever you go on a fishing adventure.
Daily Clam Limits for Washington State 2019-2020 Season
|Name(s)||WA Daily Limit|
|Bent-nose macoma clam||No min. size, 40 clams or 10 lbs max in shell|
|Butter clam||Min. size 1.5″ across longest distance, 40 clams or 10 lbs max in shell|
|Eastern softshell clam||No min. size, 40 clams or 10 lbs max in shell, all clams kept regardless of size or condition|
|Geoduck||No min. size, first 3 clams dug|
|Horse clam, Fat gaper||No min.m size, first 7 clams dug, regardless of size or condition (broken)|
|Horse clam, Pacific gaper||No min. size, first 7 clams dug, regardless of size or condition (broken)|
|Manila clam, Japanese littleneck||Min. size 1.5″ across longest distance, 40 clams or 10 lbs max in shell|
|Native littleneck clam, Pacific littleneck||Min. size 1.5″ across longest distance, 40 clams or 10 lbs max in shell|
|Nuttall’s cockle, Heart cockle, Basket cockle||Min. size 1.5″ across longest distance, 40 clams or 10 lbs max in shell|
|Pacific oyster||2.5″ long, 18 oysters, includes any eaten on beach, leave shells where harvested|
|Razor clam||First 15 razor clams regardless of size or condition (broken)|
|Varnish clam, Purple varnish clam, Savory clam||No min. size, 40 clams or 10 lbs max in shell|
Possession limit is defined as all shellfish in your possession. You are allowed one Daily Limit in fresh form. All other shellfish must be frozen or processed so as to clearly distinguish them from that day’s limit.
How to process clams
You’ve caught your daily limit of clams, now what? There are several important steps to insure your clams remain safe to eat.
1. Rinse all sand and debris away with fresh water.
2. Keep cold or refrigerated. If you are not processing them right away, place the clams on ice or in the refrigerator. Cold temperatures prevent the growth of bacteria.
Rubber band razor clams if you aren’t going to eat within 48 hours. As they weaken, their shells will pop open exposing the meat. The rubber band holds the shell closed and keeps the clam alive and fresh longer.
3. Induce sand spitting. Even a few sand granules can ruin a tasty meal. To purge clams of any remaining sand, place them in a bowl of cold seawater. Freshwater will kill the clams and they won’t spit out the sand.
The longer you leave them in the seawater the better. Overnight is our preferred method. Adding cornmeal or pepper to the water isn’t necessary. Seawater and time are the only things required. Razor clams do not require purging because you always open them up and thoroughly clean.
4. Clean and remove all gut material. Depending on the type of clam you may want to remove the guts and discard. Recipes may also call for removing the meat from the shell.
5. Cook clams to 145°F for at least 15 seconds to kill Vibrio bacteria. It is very important to thoroughly cook all shellfish to prevent getting sick from bacteria. Remember, cooking does not destroy biotoxins.
6. Do not re-rinse cooked shellfish in seawater. Doing so can re-contaminate your meal with bacteria.
Providing fresh clams for your table is a fun and rewarding experience. Clamming doesn’t require a lot of gear or money. A license, shovel, and bucket are the only necessities.