Grab your shovel and your headlamp and head for the beach
By WAYNE KRUSE
We were standing on Dock Street in Westport, the main road into town from Aberdeen, looking south toward the tall, Coast Guard signal mast down toward the state park.
"What does two red pennants mean," the guy said, looking at the set of flags flying from the mast.
"That’s a gale warning, I think,."
"Not good," he said, squinting into a wind already brisk and carrying spatters of a cold rain.
"Not good," I agreed. Not good for razor clam diggers, but just what the long line of young people, coming into town with surf boards strapped to the top of their vehicles, were looking for.
It was Friday of the Thanksgiving weekend and the opener for a two-day recreational clam dig scheduled on the ocean beaches. The legal minus tide was about 5:30 that evening, and conditions weren’t promising. The weather forecast was for two or three days of wind and rain, and the surf forecast, which I had dialed up on the Web site of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, was for swells too heavy for optimum digging. The surfers were ecstatic.
But all things come to he who panics not. By the time I had checked into a motel, had something to eat, and driven south to the Grayland beach access, the rain and wind had quit, and the surf didn’t look all that bad. I was there an hour and a half before the low, as the experts recommend, and even that early, there were locals already leaving with limits of 15 succulent four- to five-inch razor clams.
The first half of the dig was during daylight, and crowd-watching was as much fun as chasing clams. There were dogs running, and kids running, and adults running when someone yelled "big one coming," and a particularly hefty swell came charging up the beach. There were shouts and there was laughter. There were questions from newcomers: "How are you doing? What should I be looking for?"
There were people armed formidably with clam shovels, and net bags tied to their belts to leave their hands free. Some had headlamps already on their foreheads, so that when dark came they wouldn’t waste any time on the long trek up the beach to a vehicle for a lantern. Some of the experts were out in a foot of water, "surf digging," which can be very effective but which demands more experience than working a bare beach.
Perhaps 30 percent of the crowd had "clam guns," the two-handed aluminum tubes some diggers prefer to shovels, particularly older people. A few rank novices, digging for the first time, had brought garden shovels of various shapes – pretty much a waste of time. Clam shovels are relatively cheap at $15 to $20 or so, at places like Jerry’s Surplus, and can also be rented at a few places in towns such as Ocean Shores, Westport, Grayland and Long Beach.
The state Fish and Wildlife Department had predicted the Thanksgiving dig would probably attract the largest crowds of the fall/winter season, and it did. But since all the recognized razor clam beaches were open for the two tides, people were spread out a little more than they would have been if only a beach or two had opened. As it turned out, according to shellfish biologist Dan Ayres in the WDFW Montesano office, there were a lot of limits dug both nights and he was equally happy with the numbers of available clams and their average size.
"The crowd was a little larger than we had anticipated," he said, "but not overwhelmingly so."
I dug a clam here and a clam there and watched people get wet and sandy. A digger in chest waders, backside to the surf, was clear up to his shoulder in a hole when a wavelet sneaked up from behind and inundated him. Wearing waders had seemed like a good idea, but he, also, ended up wet and sandy.
Kids were all wet and sandy, regardless of what they were wearing. An elderly, gray-muzzled golden retriever, tired from trying to keep up with her kids, finally flopped down on the beach for a breather. As waves washed around her, she panted happily, wet and sandy.
Many experienced clammers knew already that trying to stay dry was a losing battle and came dressed in old sneakers and jeans, planning to get wet.
As dark descended, propane lanterns appeared, sparkling like fireflies up and down the beach. Lantern digging is slower going, experts say, but it carries a certain charisma that daytime tides do not. You’re working in your own little cocoon of light, tapping your shovel handle on the sand to make clams move, and watching for "shows," the small dimples on the sand surface marking the tip of a clam’s "neck" or siphon. A tiny fountain of water and sand means a retreating clam, and it’s time to swing into action.
You push your shovel blade vertically into the sand, six or eight inches seaward of the show and pull the handle seaward only enough to break the sand/water suction. Don’t pull the handle clear back, in an attempt to "scoop" the clam up, because you’ll probably crush your quarry. When the sand "cracks" and the suction is broken, you try to lift the shovelful vertically, with a "scraping" action rather than a scooping one. Another shovelful, only four to six inches deep, should reveal the clam or at least allow you to feel and retrieve it by hand. Practice makes it easier than it sounds.
Ayres says that yes, razor clams can dig their way downward rapidly, but not that rapidly. "A lot of people panic and dig too fast," he says. "Take your time and do it carefully. Often you can feel your shovel scraping along the clam’s shell and thus zero in on it."
Tubes, he says, tend to break more clams (remember, the law requires you to take the first 15 clams dug, regardless of size or condition) than do shovels, but it basically depends on how careful the digger is. Center the tube over the show, then slant it slightly away from the water. Wiggle it downward six to 10 inches, put your thumb over the vent hole, and pull it straight up. Check the first core and if the clam isn’t there, repeat the process in the same hole and at the same angle, going a little deeper.
Ayres says all this and more is on the department Web site, www.wa.gov/wdfw/fish/shellfish/razorclm. The site contains digging tips and diagrams, the latest seasons and regulations and — very important — whether the state Health Department has certified an upcoming dig free of marine toxins.
Razor clam digging is one of the best family-oriented outdoor activities available in Western Washington, but there are caveats. Make sure children know the danger of getting too far out in the water. Keep a close eye on them during night digs, because once out of the lantern light, there are no landmarks and it’s very easy to get completely disoriented on the vast expanse of featureless sand.
"Safety should also be of concern to adults," Ayres says, "particularly the elderly, the out of shape, and those with a history of heart problems. Every dig, we have cases of cardiac arrest and so we encourage diggers to at least do a couple of things: When pulling a clam tube up out of the sand, squat and use your legs instead of your back. And, when digging, be aware that holding your breath — which is sort of a natural instinct when focused on an activity like that — tends to raise your blood pressure. Try to breathe normally, relax, and take your time."
There are several digs left, including some of the lowest minus tides of the season. Kalaloch is open from Dec. 10 through 14, while Long Beach and Twin Harbors are open Dec. 13. The best tide embracing all three beaches is the minus 1.3 at 8:08 p.m. on Dec. 13, and a two-day shellfish license is only $7.
Razor clam digging tends to fall in the off season for coastal beach communities, spring and fall, so motel and restaurant prices are a bargain. I searched the Internet and got a motel room for $35. It was pretty spartan, granted, and in one of the old units built in the 1950s to accommodate hordes of charter salmon fishermen, but if all you want is a bed and a shower, you can’t recreate much cheaper than that.
For information on the Twin Harbors area, call the Westport-Grayland Chamber of Commerce at 800-345-6223, or 360-268-9422.
PHOTO INFORMATION: Judy did a beach locator map for this piece. I had three photos scanned Thursday, as follows:
(view of crowd down the beach, and two diggers with tubes in the foreground) Razor clam digging on the coastal beaches is often more crowded than this, a view southward from the Grayland beach access over the two-day Thanksgiving weekend dig. The two diggers in the foreground are using clam "guns," or tubes.
(two people with dogs) Coastal razor clam digging is a top family activity in Western Washington, attracting novices and experts, kids and dogs, urbanites and locals to the surf.
(family group with toddlers and a stroller) Twin girls and a younger brother in a stroller mean a handful for this family group armed to chase razor clams over the Thanksgiving weekend.
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