For beachcombers at Scatchet Head, empty clam shells are a commonplace discovery. But Sunday morning, a young visitor discovered an unusual surprise when she curiously peered into a shell to find a host of hermit crab inhabitants.
The tiny crustaceans were a reminder of the clam’s integral role in Northwest Native American Haida folklore and the legend of the beginning of humankind.
According to the legend, Raven was feasting on a beach when he heard strange sounds. He came upon a giant clamshell inhabited by small beings. Eager for companionship, and for someone to trick, Raven coaxed them out of the shell. These beings became the first humans.
Clams remain an important part of life in the Pacific Northwest. Thousands of residents and visitors take to the beach each year to dig for the shellfish, and certain clams such as the geoduck carry a high price tag internationally.
On Sunday morning, South Whidbey Parks and Recreation District’s Program Director Carrie Monforte instructed a class of about 20 individuals in the secrets of clam harvesting.
Eugene Thrasher of Washington State University Beach Watchers was also in attendance to assist in teaching the eager clammers the tricks of his trade.
Clam Digging 101: Digging for Dinner was a two-hour class which took place from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Sunday, April 19 at Scatchet Head Community Center.
Clammers of all ages sought a variety of clams such as butter clams, steamers, manilas and horse clams, all of which are regularly found on the Scatchet Head beach. Those looking for a challenge also had the opportunity to seek out geoducks. Razor clams are not found at Scatchet Head and are also restricted by far fewer approved digging days. The number of days approved for razor clam digs is typically between 15-35, according to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Clamming season depends upon a variety of factors, and different beaches are open at different times throughout the year. Some beaches are open year-round.
Clammers can use the Washington State Department of Health map to check for safety regulations and closures. The online map can be found here: https://fortress.wa.gov/doh/eh/maps/biotoxin/biotoxin.html.
Monforte and Thrasher both urged that clammers consult the Department of Fish and Wildlife and Department of Health websites before setting out for the day.
They also advised clammers to check the tide charts.
Thrasher, who has been clamming for 57 years, said he enjoys teaching others the art of digging for dinner.
“It took a long time to figure out what the heck I was doing,” Thrasher said of his own experience learning the craft.
Thrasher’s first experience dining on the shellfish in a restaurant over 50 years ago was less than savory. The shells were filled with more mud than fish.
With encouragement from a coworker, he set out to dig his own. But his first two harvests were less than fruitful. Again, he ended up eating more sand than shellfish.
His third harvest, however, was a success. He’s since been digging every year, and teaches his own classes in the summer at Zylstra and Double Bluff beaches.
Thrasher said the biggest mistake most new clammers make is not knowing their limit. Park rangers, he said, don’t hesitate to stop those who have taken more than their share.
He also noted that, in regard to all shellfish, there’s a “you break it, you buy it” policy, and advised that clammers be cautious when shoveling.
The minimum size for a harvestable clam is an inch and a half, Thrasher explained. Those too small must be reburied after the hole has been filled so they can survive and mature.
In order to determine if a clam is alive, Thrasher said to squeeze the shell sideways; if it slides apart it’s a “chucker.”
Thrasher said the activity has become a tradition for many families who visit the area, and he often teaches students who hail from all corners of the United States and beyond.
Diane Evans and her family were staying in their vacation home on Maxwelton and had decided to give clamming a try for the first time.
“We wanted to learn about the area and learn how to clam, and all the things it has to offer,” Evans said.
The only thing that might have made the day more authentic, she joked, was if it were raining.
Jackie and Greg Sharp were visiting from Woodinville with their children, who were visiting from Seattle.
“This is a lot of fun,” said Jackie Sharp.
“Our son is out there trying to get a geoduck,” said Greg Sharp with a chuckle. “Why? I’m not exactly sure.”
In addition to clams, participants had a chance to get a glimpse of wildlife such as herons, eagles, starfish, sand dollars and crabs.
For Sara Martin, clamming is an opportunity to teach her daughter Lucy Helms about ecosystems and lend her a “greater understanding of where she fits.”
Martin and Helms were not a part of the class, but had come to the beach from their home in Oak Harbor for their second clamming outing.
It was also a family outing for Monforte, who was accompanied by her husband, mom and “future clam digger,” her child due June 5.
For information regarding clamming, visit http://wdfw.wa.gov/fishing/shellfish/.
Clamming with Eugene Thrasher
Times and locations for Thrasher’s Digging for Dinner classes:
Noon on Saturday, June 6 at Double Bluff
Noon on Saturday, June 20 at Zylstra
7:45 a.m. Monday, July 13 at Zylstra
11 a.m. Saturday, July 18 at Double Bluff
10 a.m. Saturday, August 15 at Double Bluff
9 a.m. Saturday, August 29 at Zylstra
Contact Gary Rassner-Donovan of Island County Beach Watchers at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.