Clam Digging


The best way to stalk the delicious clam is by one’s own efforts. Here’s a list of the most common clams for human consumption or use, and how to get your hands on some. Be sure to take note of the “caution on safety” at the end of this article.

Steamer Clams

These are soft shelled clams and can have all-white (generally in southern beaches) or muddy-colored (northern beaches) shells. The all-white clams generally come from “sandier” beds, and the darker ones from “mud sand” beds. It makes no difference, they are equally safe to eat and tasty. In appearance, steamers are the classic “clam,” a wide ovoid shape with a hinge at top, and a broad sweep of circumference. Their shells are brittle and all-too-easily pierced by human clumsiness. A steamer clam with a broken shell is not a safe clam to eat.

Look for a beach with relatively calm water, such as a sound- or bay-facing beach (as opposed to an ocean-facing beach), or the beaches often found along both sides of a channel (inlet to a harbor). Fierce surf pounds down on sand with so much force, clams of any kind are less likely to be found there.

Then check the tide charts for your area. One generally digs clams at low tide. Thus the expression, “happy as a clam at high tide.” The best way to find out where the clams are is by word-of-mouth, although many terrific clam beds have been discovered by folks just searching by themselves. Again, the key point is to look for a gentle beach with small waves, facing not the ocean, but inland sea waters. You want the kind of beach noted as “safe for children to swim at.” Often enough, the sand will be dark in color and somewhat muddy. You may also notice the dreaded “low tide smell” – that is good news for you. It generally means the presence of clams that have shuffled off this mortal coil. Leaving their relatives behind for us to dig!

Visit your beach at dead low tide. Wear muckabout boots or sneakers, because your feet likely are going to get wet, or muddy. Walk around. Look for tiny holes in the sand below the high tide line. If you are very fortunate, you may see jets of water shooting out from the sand and upwards – that is what forms the holes. These jets, and the holes, indicate the presence of steamer clams below, generally from 12 inches to 18 inches below the top of the sand. If you don’t see any holes, try stomping with one foot. This may sound crazy, but many a clam, has been impelled to squirt water upward, by a proximate stomp! The jets of water, or the holes (about the size of a broad nail head), are certain evidence your prey is below.

I prefer to dig by hand, although rubber gloves are fine too. Dig straight down below the hole. You may hit a few small stones first – clams can seem wily enough to live where they are tough to reach. Your hole will fill with water, as you dig beneath the local water table – that’s good. Enlarge your hole to the side to cover more area as you dig.

Once you have your hole filled with water, dig a bit more gently. Steamer shells are very easy to break into by accident digging, in which case your clam is useless. But repeat digging will get you used to the feel of a steamer before you have pulled him up and out. You may also feel one, than realize he is trying to dig deeper to escape. That’s no illusion. Grab the clam by pinching it with one hand, and dig with the other. Extract the steamers you find and place them at the edge of the hole. Once your hole seems to have no more clams in it, gather the clams you’ve dug into the bucket you’ve brought, then proceed to the next hole in the sand you see. A solid haul of steamers is generally about 50 clams. Be sure to have a shellfishing license, generally available for about fifty dollars per season from the local town government. Many towns do hire shellfish wardens, and without a license your catch can be seized! The shellfish warden, will give you with your license a metal ring. Clams small enough to pass through the ring must not be kept. They need to be re-buried and then the hole has to be covered – that’s next years’ crop.


These are hard-shelled clams, distinctive by their rounder shape. The three terms used here refer to hard-shelled clams at their various sizes, quahogs being the largest, littlenecks the smallest.

These clams should also be dug at low tide. You are likely to need to wear a pair of waders, rubberized trousers that go up to the waist. You don’t dig these hard-shelled clams by hand, you rake them with a clam rake, available at local hardware stories. Best is to get one with a long handle. Wade into the water up to just above knee level, extend your rake at maximum reach and pull down into the sand and back toward you. Flip the rake over at the end of your pull to keep the contents you’ve raked in the rake basket. If you’re lucky, your first pull may contain a few clams. That means you’re in a bed, so keep at the raking. If you rake up more than four empty clam rake baskets, move ten feet in either direction and try again. Again, a shellfishing license is needed from the town or municipality to gather these clams.

It is possible to find rich hard-shell clamming beds while swimming. The next time you’re in the water at your favorite child-friendly beach, feel around in the sand with your feet. You will learn to identify the presence of hard-shelled clams through the soles of your feet and toes. When the ocean has covered the hard-shell clam’s bed, the clam will come close to the surface to feed. If you find some hard-shelled clams that way, don’t bother trying to dig, too tedious, but file the beach away for another visit at low tide.

Atlantic Surf Clams

These clams, Spisula solidissima, are known by many names including sea clams, surf clams, bar clams, and hen clams. They are hard shelled and get up to 8 inches long. As they are always under water, they are usually harvested (at least without a trawler) when the tides are extra low and extra high. This means specifically at low tide around the full moon and new moon, when the tides are at their most extreme.

The general drill is to wade into the water with a pitchfork, and feel in the sand with the pitchfork for hard objects. Many will be surf clams. Often when you locate one there may be several others nearby. Apparently they are quite gregarious and enjoy clam parties.

A general note on safety:

Always be sure that the area where you clam has not been closed to shellfishing by the authorities. Such areas are posted, “no shellfishing” or, “no taking of shellfish.” Conditions that require the closing of clam beds include petroleum spills, or the presence of E. coli, a microorganism not harmful itself and a normal part of the human digestive tract. But E. coli is an excellent marker for the presence of other pathogens dangerous to humans such as “red tide,” dinoflagellates that can act as neurotoxins. E. coli and other microorganisms often thrive right after a heavy rain, when storm drain water washes into the ocean containing septic waste. Or a very heavy rain, may require the temporary closing of all local beaches to shellfishing because of the risk of septic contamination. Such closures normally end within a few days, once E. coli testing has been completed.

There are cases where a town or municipality may close waterfronts to clamming simply because the town has not yet paid for the beds to be evaluated. Find out about that at the town hall. In such cases, clam at your own risk!

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