A smiling youngster holds up one of the rarest shellfish, commonly referred to as a geoduck, that his family dug on a Puget Sound beach. There are just several times each summer when diggers are able to harvest these giant shellfish on public beaches. Photo by Mark Yuasa

Geoduck make a rare appearance during upcoming extreme low tides

In this last of a four-part weekly series, we’ll dig deep into details on the fabled geoduck and the non-native varnish clam that can be harvested on some Puget Sound and Hood Canal beaches


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 shellfish on public lands. Bivalve shellfish are a nutritious local protein.

Washington’s inner-marine tidelands of Puget Sound and Hood Canal 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 year. In Puget Sound and Hood Canal, harvesting seasons vary by beach and there is a plethora of delicious species to discover.

In this last of a four-part weekly series, we focus on how to harvest, store, and prepare geoduck and varnish clams.

The geoduck is the largest shellfish found on Washington beaches. Photo by Camille Speck


Geoduck are the charismatic megafauna of the intertidal clam world. They are very long-lived animals. The oldest wildstock clam verified by WDFW was 173 years old. However, commercially grown intertidal geoduck are usually harvested after 5 years of age. Most significant growth occurs before age 14. After ten years, geoduck have very few natural predators except humans or disease.

Geoduck tides occur about a dozen times per year when daylight tides are minus-2.0 feet or lower. In fact, some of the lowest tides of the late spring/summer are just on the horizon for Puget Sound/Hood Canal.

To view the tide chart for the optimal low tides, visit the WDFW website.

Hunting geoducks on public beaches with good upland access can be a crowded affair and should be pursued after developing some experience harvesting other species.

Shells of geoduck are embedded three feet or more below the beach surface. It is critical to use a can or other supporting device to ensure the sides of the hole do not collapse while digging. All holes must be refilled after digging. Daily limit is three geoduck per person, and you must take the first three dug. If you can dig three geoducks in a single tide, you are to be admired!

Horse clams are commonly mistaken for geoduck by recreational diggers. The easiest way to tell the difference is that horse clams have leathery plates that cover the holes at the tip of their siphon. These plates are often growing algae and have barnacles set on them. Geoducks have smooth, fleshy siphon tips. Horse clams can retract almost all their siphon into their shell, but geoducks cannot. Horse clams and geoducks do not “run” from harvesters. Instead, they are simply retracting their siphons closer to their shells.

How to process geoduck: Clam should be thoroughly washed and removed from the shell. Harvesters can remove the meat from the shell with a paring knife, discard the gut ball and quickly blanch the entire clam in boiling water OR you can leave the clam in the shell before blanching so that it can be pulled free from the shell. Once blanched, dunk the entire clam in an ice water bath to stop cooking.

Pull the clam meat out of the shell if you blanched it whole. Cut the neck, or siphon, from the body of the clam and discard the gut ball. The leathery membrane can be slipped off the siphon as if removing a nylon stocking. After skinning the leathery membrane off the siphon, rinse in cold water and either cut the siphon into slices or grind it up for cakes or for chowder.

The siphon is the choice part and frequently the only part eaten, although virtually the entire clam is edible. The softer mantle meat is very delicious if quickly seared in garlic and butter. Always fry any part of a geoduck quickly; over-cooking any part of the clam toughens it.

These varnish clams were found on a Hood Canal beach and are a non-native “nuisance” species that were first discovered in Puget Sound in 1988. Photo by Doug Rogers

Varnish clams

Varnish clams are classified as an aquatic nuisance species and have been documented in Puget Sound since 1988, most likely introduced through ballast water. Varnish clams have an oval shaped shell that is thin, flat, and up to 3½ inches long.

They have a thick, shiny periostracum, which is the fibrous shellacking layer on the outside of the shells. They typically have purple coloration on the interior of the shell. These clams are now starting to find a niche in commercial markets, and they may be taken recreationally as part of the 40-clam limit. There is no size limit for varnish clams.

Harvesters should be aware varnish clams uptake and hold paralytic shellfish poisoning biotoxins longer than other clam species. Always check current DOH status webpage the same day you plan to dig.

How to process varnish clams: Clams sold commercially have often been held in a flow-through system for 10 or more days before being marketed. Recreational purging practices recommended for steamer clams work for varnish clams.

Some people report they have a flavor like mussels. Varnish clams may be treated interchangeably with steamer clams for transporting, processing, and cooking. You can find this information by going to this link on the WDFW Medium website.

A happy digger holds up a large geoduck dug up on a Puget Sound beach. Photo by Mark Yuasa

NEW! Cornucopia of shellfish recipes

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 the WDFW’s 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!

If you go

Be sure to read the first part of our shellfish gathering series where we go over details and helpful information on licenses; regulations; current seasons for various shellfish; water quality and closures; a shellfish safety map; tide charts; gear list; prepping shellfish to eat; and a wide-range of links to a list of resources.

You can also click here on the WDFW Medium to find the other shellfish series blogs plus a wealth of information on how to harvest Manila, native littlenecks, butter, and horse clams in parts one and two of the series.

(The shellfish gathering information in this series was written and compiled by Camille Speck, the WDFW Puget Sound Intertidal Bivalve Manager)

Geoduck harvested from a Puget Sound beach come in all different shapes and sizes. Photo by Doug Rogers



The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is dedicated to preserving, protecting and perpetuating the state’s fish and wildlife resources.