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About Catching Clams

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, culling gauge, clam guns or clam hooks. From an equipment standpoint, this is a very personalized sport. It’s also a 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.

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Clamming Techniques

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 clam 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 to Catch Clams

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 and use a Clam Knife to open them. 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.

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  1. Here is the California Clam Harvesting Laws as of 2013.


    Additional Regulations can be found here:

    Harvest 30 minutes before daylight up until 30 minutes after.

    Clams and Other Mollusks:
    Clams may be taken commercially between September 1 and April 30 in Districts 8, 9, and 17 and at any time in all other districts, except littlenecks, chiones and hard-shell cockles may only be taken in Marin County between September 1 and March 31 (FGC §§8340, 8341).
    Littlenecks, chiones, and hard–shell cockles including thin–shelled littleneck, common littleneck, Japanese littleneck, rough–sided littleneck, smooth chione, wavy chione, and banded chiones:
    1 ½ inches or more in diameter, 50 in the aggregate per day and in possession (FGC §8341).

    Washington and gaper clams:
    Districts 1 ½ , 8, 9: Twenty–five in the aggregate and in possession per day. Commercial fishermen with valid daily written order from dealer or restaurant may possess up to the number specified on order in Districts 8 and 9 (FGC §8342). All other districts: 10 each in possession.

    Freshwater Clams:
    Freshwater clams shall be taken only under regulations of the Commission (FGC §8475. §200.29, Title 14).

    You can call the California Fish and Wildlife at (916) 445-0411 to get more information on shellfish regulations.

    Thanks and Good luck Catching those Clams!