This is the only “How to Catch” section in this blog that isn’t really about catching. It’s about digging. Digging with garden shoes, shovels, cultivators, clam shovels, clam guns or clam hooks. From an equipment standpoint, this is a very personalized sport. It’s also very wet and grubby activity. Diggers either wear old tennis shoes and old pants, or waders. If you don’t go the waterproof route, be sure to bring along a change of clothing. One of the best ways to get familiar with clam digging is to take a family outing to a popular clamming ground. Wander around. Watch. Ask questions. Observe the equipment and techniques. You’ll have a ball.
Clamming is probably the most popular on Northern California in late fall and early winter. During this period a tide chart is all that is needed to tell you when to go. The best time is a minus low tide. This is when the ocean rolls back to expose the prime clam beds. Clams are not found on long stretches of exposed beach. They need protected waters. Good clamming grounds include Humboldt Bay, Tomales Bay, Bodega Bay, Half Moon Bay and Elkhorn Slough (at Moss Landing).
Besides digging equipment, clammers also need a measuring device, fishing license, plastic bucket or burlap sack. The type of clams that are found depend on where you dig. Cockles are especially prolific in Tomales Bay, Half Moon Bay and the Ano Nuevo Area (don’t dig in the state reserve here). These small clams (minimum size limit is 1 1/2″) are found in rock and sand mix, only about three to four inches below the surface. Washington and horseneck (gapers) are smooth and reach a maximum length of 5 inches. They are found at Elkhorn Slough, Tomales and Bodega Bays.
For horsenecks, diggers are out on the tide flats during minus tides looking for small siphon holes on the sand. These are feeding holes. When a bubbling hole is spotted, dig down. Somewhere down there is a clam. The favorite tool for these larger and deeper species is calmer shovel. It can dig a narrow yet deep hole rather easily. Clam hooks can also be used. One caution: Never put clams on a galvanized bucket. An electrolyte action may be set up, ruining the clam.
Where to Dig
Humboldt Bay has Washington, horseneck and cockle clams. The most productive area is the south end of the bay. Cockles are the main quarry at the north end of the bay. Bodega Bay completely drains on a minus tide. The west side is particularly good for clamming. Tomales Bay clammers have immense areas to work, but the western shoreline in Tomales Bay State Park is a favorite. Half Moon Bay is good just inside the north and south ends of the harbor. At Elkhorn Slough clammers can be seen digging in the area east of Hwy. 1. Be aware of clamming regulations. They differ by location and species.
Cleaning and Cooking Clams
The best way to get sand out of clam is to keep them in saltwater for two or three days. Change the water several times during the period. Don’t use fresh water. Another way to clean clams is to freeze them. When they thaw they’ll gape open and the sand can be quickly rinsed out. Cockles are a favorite for eating. Many people steam them and then dip them in butter sauce (perhaps seasoned with garlic). Washington and horseneck clams are excellent when fried. Overcooking of any clam should be avoided to prevent toughness.