Razor Clamming

“They’re not gonna dig Themselves!”

The author and Mac The Wonder Dog on a Washington beach.

The author and Mac The Wonder Dog on a Washington beach.

Story by Ron Baldwin
Photos by Sandy Cox
Outing details at bottom

Among my earliest memories is one of my father rousing the whole family at 3am from our West Longview home for a trip to Beard’s Hollow, on Washington’s Long Beach Peninsula, in search of Siliqua patula, or the razor clam.

“Come on, get up, they’re not gonna dig themselves.” My brother and I would wipe the sleep from our eyes, get more or less dressed, and pile into the family car loaded with various shovels, nets, burlap sacks and the picnic basket, along with the Mom, Buford the dog and any stray cousin or friend/ hanger-on currently in residence. Off we’d go into the dark of night down Ocean Beach Highway, arriving at the beach before sunrise, bleary eyed, cranky, but instantly awake when we felt the brisk, salty air. Usually Dad would dig out in the surf with my teenaged brother while Mom and I and the dog trod the dry sand. We were looking for the dimples that, with great effort and complaining on my part, would yield a mangled mass of protoplasm with shell fragments attached that I’d display to Mom as a clam. The limit then was 24.

Razor clams are just one of the many delicacies of the inter-tidal areas of the west coast of North America. They range from Alaska’s Bering Sea beaches in the North, through most of British Columba, to Pismo Beach, California, in the South. This is a huge range for a single species. Size varies from an average of 4 inches in Oregon and Washington to as much as 11 inches in Alaska. Life span averages 5-7 years.

Subsistence harvests of these tasty bivalves began in the foggy past. Native Americans, whose “middens,” or shell refuse piles, are dated back well over 1,000 years, dug them with a stick cut from the Pacific Yew tree. The commercial harvest began near Oregon’s Clatsop beaches in the 1890s with a cannery at the mouth of the Skipanon River. In 1896, the Long Beach (then called North Beach) Peninsula became a major producer. By 1906, one Washington company alone harvested more than 350,000 pounds. One can easily see that the commercial harvest could easily follow that of the native oyster whose number was decimated by the 20th century. Rules and seasons for commercial harvest began in the 1920s with Washington’s license fee a whopping $1. “Sport” harvest was really insignificant in comparison until rail and roads brought hungry visitors to the beaches. Commercial harvests on Washington’s coastal beaches were stopped in 1968 except for what are called “The Spits,” near the mouth of Willapa Bay, while both Oregon and Alaska maintain commercial harvests.

Photo courtesy of Bob’s Sporting Goods.

Photo courtesy of Bob’s Sporting Goods.

Sport harvest
In Oregon, with the construction of the Astoria and South Coast Railroad from Young’s Bay to Seaside in 1890, razor clam digging for sport became popular with wealthy visitors to 
the Clatsop beaches. Hotel owners established outfitting and cleaning stations and in 1896 the little line was joined with the Astoria and Columbia River Railroad from Portland. Soon this route became known as the “Daddy Train,” bringing wealthy businessmen to Seaside and Clatsop beaches, where their families summered to escape the heat, and returning them to their labors on Sunday evening. In Washington, the famous “Clamshell Railroad” served the same purpose, bringing visitors to Seaview, Long Beach, and Ocean Park.

Razor clamming for sport really took off with the construction of major roads along both banks of the Columbia River in the teens and twenties, connecting the populated central valleys with the coast. Now average families could easily travel to the beaches. During the Great Depression, subsistence clamming returned to the beaches and many who were children of the time remember “having clams for breakfast, lunch and dinner.”

Today, thousands of sport diggers swarm the beaches of Oregon and Washington. The NIX bacteria scare of the 1980s and Demoic Acid scares of the 1990s are largely gone and clamming is popular again, with clams regaining near historical populations. Washington and Oregon laws and dig days vary. Oregon maintains an open season excluding only July 15 to Sept. 30 north of Tillamook Head.

Washington’s seasons are set by the Department of Fish and Wildlife according to current population and conditions testing. Announcements are made on WDFW websites and are made available to the media, with licenses available through vendors throughout both states.

Razor clams are harvested by two methods: Old hands and commercial diggers prefer the traditional narrow shovel, while others prefer the “clam gun” (where’s the trigger on this thing?) or suction tube, developed in the 1950s for extracting clams from the sand. A net bag or a plastic bucket to hold the catch is necessary and boots or waders are recommended to protect against the possibility of being drenched by the cold Pacific breakers (no guarantee). One thing everyone should have is a tide book. All equipment and advice is available in most area sporting goods outlets.

Diggers begin by finding the clam’s “show,” or suction hole, and either inserting the “gun” in the sand over it — pulling upward mightily until they can release the suction and a round portion of sand dislodges, hopefully containing the clam — or digging wildly and then inserting the entire arm into the sand while the next wave renders them wet, cold, and annoyed but again, hopefully, with clam in hand. Like many endeavors, experience can yield an easier, dryer, result and going with an experienced friend/relative can be of considerable value.

The outlook for razor clamming looks bright for the future with populations on the rise and disease and parasites on the wane. The North Pacific, being an ever-changing, cold and windswept horizon, can change rapidly, however.

One thing you can be sure of: If the season is open, the wind is less than hurricane force and breakers are considerably less than 20 feet, you can find me on the beach, in my “secret spot.”



Where to dig:
In Washington, the beaches of the Long Beach Peninsula, the Twin Harbors area south of Gray’s Harbor, Copalis and Mocrocks north of Gray’s Harbor, and Kalaloch, north of the Quinault Indian Resevation.

In Oregon, the beaches lying between Clatsop Spit in the North and Tillamook Head in the South produce 95% of Oregon’s Razors. This includes Cannon Beach, Seaside, Gearhart, and Ft. Stevens.

When to dig:
Lowest tides after Sept. 30 occur afternoon. Spring and summer tides are lowest in the morning, so seasons are structured to coincide.

Washington seasons are determined by the WDFW and are announced each month prior to low tides. Information is released to media outlets, the best way to find information is online at http://wdfw.wa.gov/ fishing/shellfish/razorclams/

All diggers over the age of 15 are required to have a valid license ($13.00 resident/$20.70 non-resident) available from vendors or through the WDFW at https://fishhunt.dfw.wa.gov

Oregon harvest is open year round, all hours on beaches north of Tillamook Head. A license ($7.00 resident/ $20.50 non-resident) is required for all diggers over 14. Licenses are available at http://www.dfw.state. or.us/resources/licenses_regs/ or from vendors.

Harvest in both states is prohibited from July 15 to Sept. 30.