Each year, San and I get our shellfish licenses, which cost the outrageous amount of $7.50 each. This is a new thing in Oregon, since only a few years ago, there was no license requirement for collecting shellfish. And yes, you can find some who bitch and moan about having to get the license, but the truth is it’s one of biggest bargains going. Why? A shellfish license allows you to collect crabs (including Dungeness crabs), clams (including razor clams), and mussels (a recent post), none of which are especially difficult to gather or catch – but all of which are relatively expensive in the market.
I know San favors going crabbing over the other shellfish choices, since that means we most often trundle out to the crabbing dock in Bandon on a warm sunny day, throw our traps into the water, and plop down in our lawn chairs to catch up on our reading, while we wait for the crabs to be enticed into our traps. But I tend to look at the big picture – while the catching of the crabs may be the fun part, the cleaning and removing of the succulent meat from the shell is sheer torture – this is why ‘picked’ Dungeness crabmeat sells for up to $25 lb in the market! My personal choice from the big picture perspective is clamming – and yes, of course I’ll tell you why.
Hereabouts, when you mention clamming, most will envision razor clams, since those are the most romanticized of our available clams – however, they are also difficult to locate and difficult to dig – so I don’t even bother looking for them. Another popular clam is the Gaper, or Empire clam, which is the size of a small melon – but I avoid digging for those as well, for while they are numerous, they live some 18-24 inches down in the mud, and it takes a major effort to get at them – I no longer have the endurance for the battle. There are several other common types of clams as well, which do not dig themselves so far down into the sand/mud – and all of these are conveniently found in one popular location, the Charleston clam flats.
Charleston is a quaint and unique fishing village of some few thousand year round residents – in today’s culture when all too many towns seem to be custom made for touristic purposes, Charleston remains a very real link to what a fishing village should be – yes, it’s very popular with tourists, and its summer population easily quadruples on weekends (a good time to avoid it!). It has a large and active marina and a few interesting restaurants too.
Charleston is also home to the Oregon Institute of Marine Biology – interestingly, the clam flats to which we are headed are a part of the university’s estuarine research area, but there are no restrictions on clamming. In fact, a good part of their research is finding out how the heavy clamming activity affects the sustainability of the clams on the flats.
Coos Bay (the body of water) is Oregon’s largest bay, and its many connected tidal sloughs and estuaries are extremely important, not only as nurseries and residence to the many marine creatures who live there, but to the human population whose quality of life is dependent on the continued health and well-being of the estuarine system and its affect on the rest of the environment. It is a testament to the sustainability of this very popular clam digging area that even with the constant pressure it receives from human recreational clam harvesting, it continues to produce full limits regularly to those who dig here.
As we park the car above the salt marsh, we look out over a wide expanse of thick low growth, through which we must walk to get to the flats – upon close inspection, what we see is an interesting succulent type plant that gives an audible crunch as we move through it – this is known as ‘pickleweed’ or ‘sea beans’, and is unique to the salt marsh – it is, in fact, an indicator of the high tide line in the marsh, as its roots need the high salt content of the daily drenching they receive from the incoming tides, but the plant would soon die if it were completely covered by those same tides – pickleweed is edible and quite salty to the tastebuds – it really is a very interesting salt marsh vegetable and is becoming popular on many restaurant menus – check this site for some ideas on how to use it in your cooking: http://vegetablecow.wordpress.com/tag/sea-beans/.
We step from the carpet of pickleweed onto the muddy substrate of the clam flat itself – our first steps are easy over the solid surface, but we note that the further out we go, the softer is the mix of mud and sand. The experienced diggers here know the most solid paths out to the far edge of the exposed low tide area, where the largest clams are sure to be.
But there are areas of the flats that deserve to have ‘Danger’ signs posted, as they contain mud so soft as to trap the unwary into its grip. I have had several scary experiences where on each step I would sink mid thigh into the soft mud, literally trapping me in place. On such occasions, the only escape is to either fall forward or backward and attempt to extract your feet, and then slowly retrace your steps back out to avoid getting in any deeper. The price you sometimes pay for this folly is your shoes or boots, which often remain buried once you pull your feet free. This is why clam flat shoes are most often an old raggedy pair of sneakers.
On this day, we needn’t worry about any of that, for our target clam is the cockle – and since the cockle is most often found close to the surface, it is the easiest of the clams on the Charleston flats to be dug – and to make our quest even easier, we’ll not seek the largest of the cockles, but instead we’ll look for the smaller ones, which reside much closer to shore – only 100 yards from our car.
Our local cockle shares its name with many different kinds and types of shellfish around the world, the most famous being the very small one of the British Isles – our cockle looks like this
and is heavily ribbed like a scallop – the cockle has a hard shell and is most generally found from 1 inch to 4 inches in size. No other local shellfish looks like a cockle, so once you find one, you’ll always be able to identify them for ever after.
The cockle is a bit unique among its clam neighbors – instead of finding a good spot to burrow into the mud and stay for awhile, the cockle is more mobile, and with its hard shell for defense, it does not fear spending a good part of each day moving over the surface of the clam flats seeking food. But all this exercise gives the cockle a very strong foot, and therefore the larger cockles are rather tough – as such, they are best used for chowder or ground up for use in stuffed clams and fritters.
I appreciate this characteristic of the cockle, for it is the reason why many clam diggers do not seek the cockle. However, if one is satisfied with the smaller ones, the young cockle makes a fine steamer clam – and those will be our targets today.
Within a few feet of entering the mud/sand surface of the clam flat, we come to a rivulet (good word, huh?), which runs across the entire clam flat – there are, in fact, several rivulets running across the flats, all natural made, and all serving a good purpose. In this case, our conveniently placed rivulet will supply us with a full limit (20 clams each) of the smaller cockles, for this rivulet is a clam nursery.
My tool of choice when seeking cockles is a garden cultivator with four prongs – it’s effective, light and helps me move through slippery areas of the flats. Some clammers simply rake away at the sand/mud until they hit something that feels like a clam – but all clams which burrow into the substrate use their siphon (through which they filter feed) to make contact with the water above their muddy hiding place – and by so doing, the clam often leaves a ‘show’ on the surface. Finding the clams can be much easier if the digger looks for the clam’s show (each clam has a distinctive show) and then rakes there.
I once witnessed a young girl equipped only with a long bladed kitchen knife and an empty onion bag hanging from her waist – when she found a cockle show, she slipped the blade of the knife down into the sand until it hit the clam – since the clam most often has its siphon extended and its shell therefore open, she was quickly slipping the knife’s blade into the shell of the cockle just before the clam closed its shell tight with the knife blade inside. She would then simply lift the clam up and out of its hiding place. A neat trick – some day I may try that myself.
OK, let’s try to get a cockle with our rake –
Here’s our take at 5 minutes – we’re well on our way to our limit – did you notice that the clam on the far left is not a cockle? If you did, good for you – that’s a butter clam, usually found deeper in the mud – for whatever reason, he was up higher than he should have been, and he paid the price, but we’re glad he did.
We really like the cockle – it’s a versatile clam, fun to gather and not at all difficult. If you want big ones, just walk out a little further at low tide – but if you’d like a plateful of smaller steamers, like we did today, just walk out 100 yards and start raking. And 20 steamed clams is plenty enough for anyone – except maybe a starving glutton.