How to Dig Soft Shell Clams in Maine
Out in front of SeaCat’s Rest are untold numbers of Mya Arenaria, the soft shell clam. This is the type of clam you will get most often when you order a clam dinner anywhere in New England. These clams settle in the intertidal mud vertically, with their “necks” (siphons) extended several inches towards the surface, where they filter seawater for food. When they sense danger, like a human stepping on the ground nearby, they quickly pull in their siphons and remain securely buried in six inches or so of the fragrant mud. As they pull in, they often squirt excess water, betraying their location. But even if they don’t squirt, they leave a little hole where you know where to dig. That’s where the work comes in.
The first step is to make sure you’re legal. In Lamoine, Maine, that means getting a license. It costs a whopping $6 for residents or $12 for non-residents for a recreational license. This allows you to dig one peck per day, 2-1/2 gallons or about 150 clams. Since I usually figure 20 clams per person, that’s enough for 7 people. The next vital step is to make sure there are no closures. A clam flat closure can be due to either pollution or red tide, and is not to be ignored. The place to go is the Maine Shellfish Hotline, 1-800-232-4733
Next you need equipment. A bucket or “hod” (a slatted tray with a handle) to hold the clams, some rubber boots and a digging tool. Here, the clam flats are not pure mud, but a mixture of mud and rocks. This makes it hard to get to the clams without damaging them, and I’ve found the best tool is a straight four-tined spading fork. Mine is made by Ames and was found at Home Depot. The tines are placed at least six inches from the holes and pushed down all the way. If rocks are in the way, try a different spot. When down all the way, gently lever the mud up. Often you will catch a glimpse of a clam’s neck squirting water. Grab onto the neck and hold firm as you continue to flip the mud. This is your first clam.
Reject any clams under 2″ across or with broken shells–you’ll never get the grit out, and you want live clams, not dead ones. Once you have made your first hole, now it’s time to hear the digger’s secret. Flipping back the mud might get you one clam, but there are more down there and the only way to get them is to thrust your hand down and feel for them! Go back and forth across the bottom of the hole and probe for the shape of a closed clam set vertically in the mud. Rock the clam back and forth to break the mud’s suction. Don’t worry, they don’t bite. You will pull out rocks and more mud, but with a little luck, a few more clams. Don’t forget to go over the mud already pulled out with the first spading. Beware of broken glass! Commercial clammers in Lamoine have lubricated their activities with liquor for a century or more. Some pieces of glass are therefore quite old and may be worth saving.
As your clam bucket fills up you will eventually want to rinse them. Pour out your clams onto a bed of rockweed and clean out the mud in your bucket. Pour clean seawater over the clams and return them to the bucket with clean water. Now is the time to make sure there are no dead clams, closed but filled with mud. Your clams can stay like this for hours in the shade until you’re ready to cook them. If you use tap water be sure to thoroughly mix in 1/3 cup of salt per gallon. The clean water also allows them to expel any grit they may have inside. Some people like to pour in cornmeal to give the clams something to replace the grit with in their stomachs. Once your clams get their grit out you can store them dry in the fridge for up to two days, but using sooner is better. Do not seal live clams in plastic!
In an hour or two you will probably have enough for your meal. As the tide comes up you will find holes in higher ground, up to about 80% of the tidal range. Beware, it is hard to stop once you have tasted success. Just walk away! Rinse your digging fork with fresh water to keep it from rusting, and enjoy your clam dinner. You will have saved about $3.00 for each pound of clams you have dug (price as of 10/13/11) . A pound consists of 10 or so clams, so if you dug 100 clams you just made $30!