Clamming on Washington’s beaches is fun for everyone and a year-round affair
In Puget Sound, Hood Canal and the coast there’s a plethora of delicious shellfish species to discover! In this first of a four-part weekly series, we’ll dig into Manila and native littleneck clams
Here in Washington, we are lucky to live somewhere where we can forage delicious, healthy seafood from publicly owned tidelands.
With over 350 open areas and about 275 low tides per year, there are endless opportunities to harvest on public lands. Bivalve shellfish are a nutritious local protein.
Puget Sound and Hood Canal tidelands and coastal beaches host many varieties of clams. Razor clams are only found on the outer coast because they require a high wave energy sandy beach to survive, and the recreational season usually occurs in fall through spring of each year. In Puget Sound and Hood Canal there is a plethora of delicious species to discover.
In this first of a four-part weekly series, we will focus on how to harvest, store, and prepare the most common shellfish found in Puget Sound and Hood Canal known as “steamer” littleneck (including Manilas and native littleneck) clams.
Where and how to gather clams
“Steamers” or littleneck clams can be taken at mid to high intertidal beach in gravely areas mixed with mud and sand. If you visit the beach during a big low tide (minus-1.5 feet or lower) you will want to dig higher on the beach than the tide line may suggest.
Many people make the mistake of walking over the best clam beds and digging right at the low tide line. Native littlenecks (Leukoma staminea) and Manila clams (Ruditapes philippinarum) live within 2 to 4 inches of the surface, so harvesting with a small rake or garden trowel is usually effective. You are required to refill holes created while harvesting clams. Smaller tools make smaller holes to refill and smaller piles for you to move. As you fill in your hole be sure to check back over the pile for any clams you may have missed while digging.
You can process and cook Manilas and native littlenecks the same way, so being able to identify these similar looking clams is not critical. Shellfish gauges to ensure legal harvest size are available at most sporting goods stores. Minimum legal size is 1 ½ inches (38mm) across the longest part of the shell. Shells are marked with radiating lines and concentric rings and can be wildly patterned or gray/white.
Both species are known to rebury themselves, with Manilas being slightly stronger diggers. Once you have achieved your daily bag limit of up to 40 clams, not to exceed 10 pounds in the shell, you are ready to purge them. Please give any undersized or discarded steamer clams a fighting chance by poking them back into your refilled holes with the siphon end up. Manilas and natives will reorient themselves if you are unable to tell which is the siphon end of the clam. An average daily limit of steamer clams weighs about 1 ½ pounds, but larger animals may exceed 2 pounds per limit.
Know Before You Go
1. To buy a license go to Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) licensing page.
· A licensing year is April 1 through March 31.
· There are several different license types that allow harvest of shellfish. If you ONLY intend to harvest shellfish, the best deal going is the year-round shellfish/seaweed license.
2. Is it legal? Is it safe? Is the beach open for harvest by WDFW? Is the beach classified as open for harvest and free of biotoxins by Washington Department of Health (DOH)?
· Two different state agencies manage public shellfishing in Washington. WDFW establishes harvest seasons and rules and DOH manages human consumption concerns. An area must be “open” by both agencies to harvest legally and safely.
· Check the current seasons page.
· Seasons vary by beach and may reflect conservation needs, access site management requirements, periods of conditional closure due to water quality, or year-round pollution closures.
· Conditions may change quickly. In classified areas, DOH tests conditions frequently. For current water quality and harvest advisory status, check the Washington shellfish safety map.
· Harvesters should always check for beach-specific DOH water quality and harvest advisory status the same day they plan to harvest.
· Both state agency websites provide critical information about seasons and current water quality status and offer multiple ways to jump between sites. To look for new sites, it is easier to search the map through the DOH website.
· The WDFW website provides beach-specific webpages with more information about facilities and best harvesting grounds. Each beach-specific webpage also displays a thumbnail view of the shellfish safety map and clear, current alerts about beach-specific DOH status.
· Information about Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning (PSP), Amnesic Shellfish Poisoning (ASP) and Diarrhetic Shellfish Poisoning (DSP) can be found at the DOH website.
3. Know daily per-person limits and harvest rules by visiting the WDFW regulations webpage:
· Daily person limit is up to 40 clams, not to exceed 10 pounds in the shell.
· Most clams must be 1.5 inches (38mm) across the longest part of the shell. Shellfish gauges are always recommended. A spring scale is necessary if you are targeting butters or cockles because you may reach 10 pounds before you achieve the 40-clam maximum daily limit.
· Each digger must use their own container to hold their catch. Use a mesh bag for each member of your group so more than one limit may be held in a bucket. Mesh bags used for packaging produce can be repurposed to hold clam limits.
Washington Shellfish Safety Map: The easiest source for information about WDFW harvest season rules and DOH conditions and harvest advisories can be found on the Washington Shellfish Safety Map.
This clickable, searchable map is presented through partnership between WDFW and DOH and it provides a great tool for prospecting new sites. Color coding on the map provides current WDFW and DOH status for beaches and bodies of water. Shading of the water bodies indicates the area water quality.
For our purposes, public beaches are represented with colored squiggles along the shoreline. The lines provide general guidelines for public beach shoreline boundaries. If you click on a line representing a beach, a pop-up will list the season, current DOH status, and a link to the WDFW beach-specific webpage.
· Green squiggles mean the shellfish harvest season is open and DOH status is approved.
· Red lines should be investigated a little more closely. Red means some, or all, species may be closed due to biotoxins or pollution. Clams’ uptake and retain biotoxins at different rates. Some clams may be safe for human consumption during periods when other clams from the same beach are not safe. Click the line for more details and read the DOH harvest advisory information
· Orange lines represent areas with conditional DOH closures. Click the squiggle for more information about water quality and to confirm no conditional closure is in effect.
· A black line means harvest season is closed for conservation or pollution.
For more site-specific, detailed information about seasons, site access, facilities and harvest areas visit the WDFW shellfish webpage, then search by beach name.
You can find the chart here of the best 2022 shellfishing tides.
Clams exist in bands along tidal elevations. Learning which part of the beach where you are more likely to find each species will open a lot more harvest opportunity. Optimal clamming tides are as high as +4.0 feet on some beaches with the lowest annual daytime lows around -4.0 feet. On most beaches, decent clamming can be found during +1.0 feet and lower tides. Tides that are lower than -2.0 feet are generally only necessary for targeting geoduck and large horse clams.
Always dress for unpredictable weather. Layers are best. A pair of knee-high rubber boots will make most areas accessible. Wind blocking layers are recommended.
· Shellfish gauge, readily available from most sporting goods stores
· Tide chart (download from the WDFW website)
· Mesh bag or container for each member of your party. Mesh bags can be combined in a single bucket for transport out of the field. Mesh bags make it easy to rinse clams by swishing bag through seawater before leaving the beach
· Garden trowel, rake, shovel, or another digging implement. Remember, shovels are only necessary for deeper-dwelling clams like butters, horse, and geoduck
· Bucket with tight fitting lid to transport purging water if harvesting steamer clams
· Rubber palm gloves are not essential but offer some protection for reaching into clam holes
· Water bottle
Caring For Clams
How to purge “steamer” littlenecks: Purging clams involve soaking “steamer clams” (Manilas and native littlenecks) in cold seawater to allow them to clear their tissues of sand and grit. Contrary to popular belief, you do not need to add cornmeal unless you enjoy the taste of soggy cornmeal in the stomachs of your cooked clams. We do not recommend purging any clams except Manilas or native littlenecks.
We recommend that you take a bucket of sea water from the beach where you harvested the clams for the purging process, but it is not necessary to store the clams in the water while transporting. Instead, store them in a cooler with ice until you reach the location where you will purge the clams.
It is very important to keep clams cool until you cook them. If you collect purging water from a different location, be sure that location is currently approved for harvest by DOH. Clams will uptake pollutants and marine biotoxins from purging water. As a rule, except for during purging, do not store any clams in water for any length of time.
· Before leaving the beach, use seawater onsite to wash as much sand and grit off the shells as possible. We recommend holding each limit in a mesh bag. This allows you to swish and wash the clams in seawater without repeatedly filling and dumping your bucket. By storing each limit in its own bag, multiple limits may be carried off the beach in the same bucket. You can repurpose plastic mesh produce bags from citrus and potatoes to hold your 40 clam limits.
· Place the rinsed clams in a bucket of clean sea water and allow them to stand for a minimum of 4 hours, or overnight. They will clean themselves of sand and grit. This is called “purging.” Be sure to keep them cold for the entire purging process by leaving them in a shady, cool location or by floating a reusable freezer block in the water. Do not add ice directly to the seawater as this will reduce salinity and may limit purging effectiveness.
· When purging is complete you will see a mix of sand, grit, and slime in the bottom of your bucket. To prepare littlenecks or “steamers” for cooking, scrub the clams under running water to remove any attached sand and slime from purging. Test clams at this point to make sure you have no “mudders” or shells full of sand. These sneaky chowder-ruining imposters are often heavier than live clams and will generally break open if the two halves are squeezed in a twisting, sliding motion between thumb and fingers. After purging, the clams can be refrigerated (while keeping them damp) for up to 7 days before cooking but eating them sooner rather than later is preferred for best meat quality.
· Before cooking steamers, look through the clams carefully. Any clams that will not begin to close their shells when agitated are dead and should be discarded. Note, clams that have been held longer in the fridge may be slow to respond as the colder temperature has slowed their metabolic process. Any effort to close the shell means the clam is alive. If it remains gaped open and siphons do not move with agitation, it should not be eaten.
How long can you store? Always keep shellfish chilled after harvest. If the temperature of shellfish is allowed to rise, bacteria will grow, and the shellfish will become unsafe to eat. Plan to keep your catch cold in transit from the beach with ice and a cooler but be careful that your shellfish do not end up soaking in melted ice water. We recommend reusable ice packs to reduce this concern.
Seafood is always best when consumed fresh, but some clams are suitable for storing live for a period before eating as long as they are kept cold and damp. Aside from purging steamers, never store any clams covered with water. Clams that close their shells completely can be stored for longer than species whose shells remain gaped when the animal is retracted into its shell.
· Manilas have the longest shelf life and can be held in the refrigerator wrapped in a damp dish towel for about 7 days. Native littlenecks may be treated similarly to Manilas but will not survive quite as long in storage. Manilas and native littlenecks may be frozen in the shell after purging but the meat may be a little chewier than when cooked from the fresh form.
Shellfish meats removed from their shells can be kept refrigerated up to three days in a raw state. Frozen shellfish will keep up to three months. Cooked shellfish can be refrigerated up to two days or frozen up to three months. Thawed shellfish can be refrigerated up to two days. Do not thaw and refreeze shellfish.
Storing “steamer” littlenecks: Once purged, steamers clams can be wrapped in a damp dishcloth and stored in a colander in the refrigerator until cooking. Keeping the clams damp will extend storage time. Manilas will store for up to 7 days; native littlenecks should be used within 2 days of purging.
Prepping Shellfish To Eat
An informed harvester has better success in the kitchen. While you can take anything you dig within legal restrictions on public tidelands, learning species identification will help you be more adept at targeting the things you want to cook and eat.
Some clams require more work to process, and this may be a factor for you. Knowing what you are digging can help you decide the flavor of your next clamming adventure. Mixed limits of steamers, butters, eastern softshell, and cockles can be taken, but understanding what you are putting in your bucket will make your dining experience more enjoyable.
It is important to note shell color is not a great diagnostic for identifying clams. Instead, look for the presence or absence of radiating lines and concentric rings on the animal’s shell and focus on the shape of the shells to determine species identification. For larger species such as horse clams or geoducks, check the animal’s siphon tip to determine what you have dug. Learning a few quick diagnostics will improve your trip success. You can download a two-page species ID chart here.
Preparing and cooking “steamer” littlenecks: A simple cooking method for littleneck clams is to place the purged clams in a steamer or large kettle with 1 inch of water. You can substitute white wine, beer, or a smaller amount of liquor for the water, add herbs and garlic — use your imagination.
Cover tightly and steam for about 10 minutes or until the shells partially open. Serve hot in bowls with clam liquor (strained fluid from the pot) and dipping cups of melted butter. Any uneaten clams can be removed from the shell and frozen in clam liquor for later use in soups or pasta dishes.
Note when cooking: Native littlenecks have stronger adductor muscles and may not release their shells as widely as Manila clams. If the shells are partially gaped open, these clams are still safe to eat. Some people claim the native littleneck is slightly sweeter than the Manila clam, but both are delicious!
NEW! Cornucopia Of Shellfish Recipes
We are lucky to live in Washington where you’re able to forage delicious, healthy seafood from publicly owned tidelands.
We’ve compiled a very extensive list of delightful recipes to provide tips and advice on how to cook local shellfish. Be sure to visit our new WDFW shellfish recipe page for all the details. In the coming months we plan to expand our recipe page to include not just seafood but many other dishes that’ll be sure to wow your guest at the dining table!
Links To Resource List
Harvest Seasons and DOH harvest advisory status
(The shellfish gathering information in this series was written and compiled by Camille Speck, the WDFW Puget Sound Intertidal Bivalve Manager)