When it comes to digging supper from the sea, nighttime in the wintertime offers unique outdoor adventures along Oregon’s North Coast.
In Clatsop County, there’s a famous sandy stretch from Seaside to the Columbia River that many folks call “Clam Heaven” because of its productive razor clam beds. Last May, razor clamming closed due to an outbreak of a bio-toxin called domoic acid. Fortunately, the health alert was lifted in January and razor clammers are now back on the beach.
On a winter’s eve that feels more like spring, Paul Watt, aka “King of the Clam Gun,” digs a limit of razor clams faster than I climb into my hip boots near Gearhart, Oregon. He’s that good!
Watt starts by pounding the sand near the waterline on an ebbing tide. He uses a five-foot-long pole that’s tied off on his arm and says, “Every time I tamp around a clam, it will make a hole as the clam neck goes back down… the dimple that it leaves in the sand is how you know that there’s a clam down there.”
With a quick push of the barrel, Watt’s clam gun slices three feet deep into the sand and he quickly retrieves the gun. He spills out the tube full of sand and with a smooth retrieve, picked up a five-inch-long razor clam. He smiles and says, “That’s a dandy!”
Watt is a master of the clamming game but that shouldn’t be a surprise considering his nickname is “King of the Calm Gun.”
You see, Watt builds stainless steel clam guns with a secret advantage: a tiny valve near the bottom that breaks the vacuum that is created when pulling up the sand. Diggers have long complained that the clam gun sand vacuum slows them down and leads to sore backs as they struggle to lift the sand-filled guns, but Watt said, “Not anymore!” His version of the clam gun makes the otherwise heavy retrieval of a sand-filled gun smooth and easy. (You can purchase the clam guns directly from his shop, Watt Welding, in Bay City or from Englund Marine and Industrial Supply.)
“When you’re in the water and digging, you push the gun in and pull it out, so you don’t have to get on your hands and knees and get all wet,” says Watt. “You stay pretty dry digging clams [my] way.”
Ever since razor clamming re-opened in January, Watt and his friends have been digging supper from the sea whenever the tides and weather allow.
“When it first opened in January, it was really hot,” says an enthusiastic Walt Kastner. “The clams are in great shape too. We got our limits the other day and we cleaned them and when we split them open, you could see that there was a lot of fat inside. So they are in excellent shape!”
That’s terrific news for folks who had to put razor clamming on the back burner after the domoic acid outbreak closed the season last May.
Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife Shellfish Biologist Matt Hunter says the health alert is over and the razors are back. “Everything is below the alert level,” says the longtime biologist, adding that testing clams for domoic acid continues every 10-12 days. “There are also a lot of clams on the beach this winter because clamming was cut so short last year. It’s really outstanding when conditions are right!”
Hunter also notes that the best winter clam tides are at night, so he advises clam diggers to use caution when near the surf. “It’s a great idea to let people know what you’re doing, so if you don’t return home at least somebody knows where you are,” he says. “Be sure to bring a good light like a lantern or headlamp so you can see when the sun goes down. Always dress for the weather and make sure you never turn your back to the ocean.”
First-time clam digger Bill Cloud and his daughter Josie are having a blast on the beach. “This is fun! This is a good time!” says the proud dad who adds that it was wonderful to watch his daughter get into something new and find success. “I encourage everybody to do something like this with their kids. Don’t let them wander off or get too close to the surf without you nearby, but it really is a great adventure out here.”
Nearby, Kastner and his grandson Ryan Mizee are in clam heaven, too. Both agree the razor clam are very tasty and make a delicious meal.
What does Paul like to do with all those daily limits of delicious razor clams? He says, “We broil ‘em in the oven. Put a little breading on each and the flavor stays — just five minutes or less under the broiler and they are perfect.”
Interested in razor clamming? You should know nighttime clamming tides continue until April when they shift over to the daylight hours. The lowest tides of the year are slated for May and June. If you choose to go, check the tide table and plan your visit at least two hours before the low tide.
The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife manages the clam resource and there are important rules and regulations to note:
- A shellfish license is required for anyone 12 and older
- You must dig your own clams and keep the first 15 in your own container
- You can not put any back