Clamming 101: How to Dig for Your Own Dinner
Clamming is the perfect way to spend a summer day— and there’s no better place to learn how than the tidal ponds and bays of Martha’s Vineyard in June.
Yeah, that pond’s okay, but it’s mostly raked out,” the guy at Coop’s Bait & Tackle was telling me. He was right: a few days earlier, I had been standing in nearby Sengekontacket Pond, a tidal pond on Martha’s Vineyard, off Cape Cod, Massachusetts, dragging a clam rake along the bottom and pulling up seaweed and broken shells but not much else. “But you know where’s good....” I shut up and listened.
Clamming is, as far as I am concerned, the ideal summer activity. It’s mildly physically demanding, so you can call it exercise. You’re standing in shallow water, so it’s cooling when the weather is hot. It demands you pay just enough attention to temporarily banish from your brain Twitter or InstaSnapGramChatBot or whatever malign piece of code controls your life. And most of all, if it goes the way it’s supposed to, you leave with a bucket of shellfish for chowder (along with several you can eat on the spot). I repeat: you spend the day placidly messing around in calm water, and you go home with superior seafood, obtained without paying for it. We’re talking here about hard-shell clams, or quahogs (pronounced coh-hogs locally), the ones you eat raw or add to pasta or paella—not the longer, thinner ones that are meant to be steamed. (Those are harvested with a fork in deep mud, arduously.) When they’re big, hard-shells are called chowders. The smaller grades are variously called littlenecks, top necks, and cherrystones. Each year, the local authorities salt the bay with millions of newborn clams the size of fine gravel. By midsummer, there are plenty of full-grown shellfish to catch and eat.
Any clam less than an inch thick across the hinge has to be thrown back, so it can grow up and reproduce. That’s why one of the three pieces of equipment you will need is a clam gauge. This is a plastic or metal ring, its size determined by the local law; if the clam can fit through, it has to be returned to the sea. You will also need a clam rake, which looks like a heavy version of the kind you’d use in your garden, except that it has a basket-like appendage to catch the clams. And you’ll need something to hold your harvest. A plastic bucket is okay, but tends to tip over and drift away; what you really want is a wire basket with floats around the rim and a lanyard that you can loop around your wrist. Do not go barefoot, because sharp shells litter the bottom of the bay. Wear old canvas sneakers or plastic clogs—but never flip-flops, because the mud will slurp them off your feet as you walk.
Coop’s, in Edgartown, will sell you a rake and a basket for about $100. Which brings me back to the spot the storekeeper recommended last summer: Katama Bay. After parking in the lot by the boat ramp on Katama Neck, you head off to the right, along the water’s edge. The beach is a little coarse and rocky, but that’s not why you’re here. Wade into the water until you’re about hip deep. The water is clear—until your rake stirs up the muck, you can see to the bottom—and it is very quiet. Ordinary speech carries for hundreds of feet. The bay is protected by a barrier beach, so the waves are minimal; most of the ripples are caused by the slow creep of the tide.
Once you’ve found your spot, use a mild pressure to dig the tines of your rake a couple of inches into the mud. Eventually, you’ll hear a clink. Sometimes it’s a rock; sometimes it’s part of your next meal. After a while, you will be able to tell the difference pretty reliably. On a good day, you may find as many as five dozen clams in an hour and a half. The Katama Bay mud in which they live smells particularly sulfurous. Be prepared to have that distinctive odor on your hands for a couple of days, no matter how hard you scrub. I like it.
You'll Need a Permit
Shellfishing on Martha’s Vineyard is tightly regulated. Clamming is legal year-round, but you can’t take oysters from May through August, and scallops are subject to even more detailed rules. In Edgartown—one of the six towns on the Vineyard—a one-day permit costs $50. It allows you to harvest up to a half-bushel, and it covers a family and two guests. Do not leave it at home, because constables make spot checks, and fines are steep. I keep mine with me in a Ziploc bag. You should bag up your cell phone, too, in case you wade in too far.
Book a Room with a Kitchen
Ask for a Captain’s Cottage at Edgartown’s waterfront Harbor View Hotel, from $429. Many are equipped with fridges and stoves and have pleasant dining areas, too.
Keeping and Cooling Your Catch
When you bring the clams home, don’t submerge them in tap water—they’ll die and spoil before dinner. Instead, put them in a bowl in the fridge, under a damp towel. If the plan is to eat them raw, cherrystones are easier to open after a few minutes in the freezer. If you’re making chowder, the recipe in James Beard’s New Fish Cookery will not disappoint.