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Sunday, February 25, 2024
Feb. 25, 2024

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Clammers return to Washington beaches to dig their haul

Numbers this year are considered to be average level

By , Columbian freelance outdoors writer
6 Photos
Diggers hit the beach during an evening tide. Using powerful lighting, clammers search for signs of razor clams, one of the tastiest clams on the west coast.
Diggers hit the beach during an evening tide. Using powerful lighting, clammers search for signs of razor clams, one of the tastiest clams on the west coast. (WDFW photo) Photo Gallery

Washington clammers hit the beaches for the first digs of the new season recently, which ran from Sept. 29 through Oct. 2. Diggers found good success during the first open tides.

Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife recently announced the next digs are scheduled to happen from Oct. 14-18, after the department tested the clams’ toxin levels and found them safe to eat.

Razor clams are some of the tastiest clams to be found in the Northwest, and these digs are very popular, and razor clam digs on Washington beaches draw large crowds. According to the WDFW, some digs can draw over 1,000 clammers per mile.

Clammers may have gotten spoiled after the last few years, when razor clam populations were exceptional. This year the clam numbers are considered to be down to a more average level, but most diggers still left the beaches with limits.

“We have had three or four years of really good numbers on all our beaches,” said Bryce Blumenthal, a WDFW coastal shellfish biologist. “This population is more of what the old timers on our crew remember.”

Those strong numbers of razor clams meant that the WDFW was able to offer more days of digging, and even allowed them to increase the daily limits on occasion.

“Unfortunately, we are not in that position anymore.” Blumenthal said.

He reported that clammers in the first three digs found excellent conditions.

“We had some really good storms a couple days before we started digging, and that really just settled the beach down, packed the sand down,” he said. “During these early season digs we are always concerned with people driving on the beach. Usually the sand is piled up, thick and soft, and it’s hard for people to get in and off the beach approaches.”

With the sand firmly packed before the digs, it wasn’t an issue this year.

“The storms came through and then the ocean just laid down. People were getting their limits. Some people were done very quickly,” Blumenthal said.

While the weather held for the first three nights, Monday brought a higher surf than expected, and the clamming was tough. The weather was also not as nice, which depressed effort.

“A lot of big wave pushes kept digging difficult, and it was hard to find people that had limits,” Blumenthal said. “If you didn’t have waders, you were not set up for success.”

He mentioned that a few people got soaked by waves sneaking back in.

Most diggers headed to Long Beach to target the southern end of the beach, around the town of Long Beach. However, the northern end often has better clamming, and sees smaller crowds. Good access points include the Ocean Park and Oysterville approaches, as well as Ledbetter Point State Park. The drive from the Vancouver area is longer, but for clammers that prefer less competition, it is worth the extra gas.

Only one beach, Mocrocks Beach along the northern coast, remained closed due to high levels of domoic acid in the clams. The toxin can cause shellfish amnesiac poisoning, which can sicken people that eat the clams, and can be fatal.

The toxins come from diatoms (algae), and the state must test for these toxins before each dig can take place. If any of the clams test over the limit, digging is closed until the toxins clear out.

Mocrocks Beach was added to the next set of digs after testing showed the clams were safe. Domoic acid levels have been dropping at all beaches.

There have been some years when domoic acid has remained high, and most or all of the digs have been cancelled. Several digs were cancelled last year because of high levels of domoic acid.

Blumenthal said that only a few clams tested high on Mocrocks Beach, and for that reason it had remained closed during the last digs.

Right now, there are no indications that the algae blooms that cause domoic acid are increasing, but the change can happen quickly. Would-be clammers should always check the WDFW razor clam page for the latest info before heading out to dig.

For the latest information on domoic acid, check the WDFW shellfish toxins website.

Fall and winter clamming tides happen in the evening, with some of the best digging to be had in the dark. For this reason, a powerful lighting source is needed in order to spot the “shows,” which are dimples in the sand that indicates a clam is present.

Once spotted, clammers must dig the clam out quickly, before it digs its way too deep in the sand to be caught. Clammers employ either a clamming shovel, or a clamming gun to get this done.

Clam guns are cylindrical tubes that are thrust into the sand when a show is found, and suction is used to draw the clam out. Diggers armed with shovels will dig a few scoops out, and then extract the clam by hand. For more information on digging razor clams, see the WDFW website.

When digging at night a good source of light is needed. Most clammers use either a lantern or a flashlight powerful enough to allow easy spotting of the shows.

When clamming at night safely is important. It can be difficult to see the incoming waves, especially when most participants eyes are focused on the sand as they look for clams. In the dark it can be easy to lose sight of your companions, and it can also be easy to lose your vehicle. This happens to some people every year.

Below is a list of safety reminders that all night-time clammers should adhere to.

  • Clam with friends

Clamming with a group allows diggers to better keep an eye on each other, and the surf. If something happens to a lone digger, it may be a long time before they are missed. Clamming with family and friends also makes the experience more fun, and may mean more clams on the table.

  • Bring good lighting, and back-up lighting

A powerful light is necessary, not only for spotting the shows, but it will help you keep watch on the surf. Always bring a back-up lighting source, so if something happens to your original light, you can continue clamming. Also, a back-up will help you find your way back to your vehicle, and help you keep watch on the ocean.

  • Leave a light on at your vehicle

Experienced night-time clammers will leave an identifying light of some kind on inside their vehicle. It is very easy in the dark to lose your car or truck, and many clammers have spent a lot of time trying to locate their ride home. A colored snap-light or other system can prevent a long night of searching.

Let someone know where you are going, and when you will return.

This rule is especially important for clammers that end up digging by themselves. Always let someone know which beach and access point you will be using, and when you plan to return. Lone diggers would also do well to look for clams in areas where there are people around, which is usually not hard to do.

  • Transporting razor clams

To transport your clams, keep them in a cool, dry container. Some diggers cover their clams with a cloth soaked in sea water. However, it is best not to transport them while soaking in sea water. They will continue to respirate and that can create ammonia, which can taint the taste of the clams. Also, freshwater will kill them.

Razor clams will keep for quite a while if kept cold. They can actually keep well overnight, so you can clean them in the morning, instead of right after a long drive home from the coast.

  • Cleaning razor clams

Rinse all the sand from your clams. Place them in a large pan, and pour a large volume of boiling water over the clams. About one quart per 15 clams works well. Wait a few seconds and then dump out the hot water. Immediately run cold tap water over the clams, and then remove the meat from the shell.

The WDFW razor clam webpage offers a video with details on how to clean your razors, as well as a couple recipes.

Regulations: Each clammer must dig their own clams and keep them in a separate container. The daily limit is 15, and diggers must retain any clam they dig up, regardless of size. Clams dug up and returned to the sand almost never survive. For a full list of regulations, check the WDFW shellfish regulations webpage.

Columbian freelance outdoors writer