This story was originally published in August 2018.
At low tide, the waves retreat, revealing the clam flats scattered along the Maine coast. And like clockwork, the diggers emerge. With a pail in one hand and a rake in the other, they roam the sand, searching for tiny clam-made holes in the ground that show them where to dig.
In Maine, clam digging has long been a piece of coastal culture, and in many towns, visitors are welcome to give it a try. All you need is a little insider knowledge and in most places a low-cost license.
If you’re new to clam digging, the first thing you do is contact the municipal office of the city or town where you want to dig.
In Maine, towns manage clam flats in cooperation with the Maine Department of Marine Resources, meaning that the rules and fees in each town are different. For example, Georgetown offers a seven-day recreational clamming license for $25, while up the coast in Searsport, the town office offers a 72-hour recreational clamming license for $15.
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“We sell a lot of them,” Searsport town clerk Deborah Plourde said. “I never get a lot of feedback, but everyone is very excited to go clamming.”
Searsport and many other towns also sell a limited number of year-round recreational licenses, with a percentage allocated to residents and a smaller percentage to non-residents. It all depends on the abundance and health of the clams in those towns. And operating outside this, many Maine state parks, such as Reid State Park in Georgetown and Wolfe’s Neck State Park in Freeport, permit recreational clamming without a license with park admission.
This shellfish management system was put in place in 1963, when Maine enacted legislation that authorized towns to enact shellfish ordinances, subject to approval of the Commissioner of Marine Resources.
“It’s all very carefully managed and controlled, but it can also be a pretty complicated sort of system to understand for people who are just interested in going out for a day to gather clams for personal use,” Jeff Nichols, Director of Communication for the Maine Department of Marine Resources, said.
Once you have the license to dig, you need to know where to dig. Along the Maine coast, certain clam flats are closed to diggers because of biotoxins, bacteria, pollutants and for conservation efforts. Updated maps of these closed areas are available on the Maine Department of Marine Resources website, but they can be difficult to navigate for the inexperienced clammer.
To help recreational clam diggers out, many town offices provide maps and directions to which clam flats are open. Or the town will direct you to the local shellfish warden.
Follow the rules
For about two hours on either side of low tide, John Hentz is out patrolling the clam flats of Georgetown. For the past 28 years, he has served as the town’s Municipal Shellfish Conservation Warden.
“Conservation is the most important part of that title,” Hentz said. “There are about 80 of us up and down the coast in the state of Maine.”
Out on the flats, he makes sure those who are digging have the required license. He also keeps an eye on how many clams people harvest and even the size of the clams. There are rules regarding both. In Georgetown, as in many Maine towns, harvested soft-shell clams can be no smaller than 2 inches at the longest part of their shell, and recreational clam diggers are limited to 1 peck of clams per day.
A peck is slightly less than a half of a 5-gallon pail.
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To help rookie clam diggers follow these rules and become more efficient diggers, Hentz often will dig with them and lend them one of his locally made clam hoes. He also hands out an age-old measuring tool called a “clam ring,” which is simply a cross sections of a PVC pipe, 2 inches in diameter.
In addition to educating first-time harvesters, Hentz ensures no one exhausts the resource by overharvesting. He also patrols closed clam flats, where he’s caught people digging, often under the cloak of night.
“The most important part of my job is to make sure nobody digs for polluted clams,” Hentz said. “I work for hours in the darkness checking closed areas. The objective is for no polluted shellfish to ever get into the market where people can buy them and get sick.”
In 2007, 2008 and 2009, the Maine Department of Marine Resources received several reports of paralytic shellfish poisoning, which occurs when people eat shellfish contaminated with algae that produces harmful biotoxins that affect the nervous system and paralyzes muscles. High levels of this poison can cause severe illness and death.
“Those cases were all from recreational harvesters harvesting in areas that were closed,” Nichols said. “But we haven’t had anything since 2009, which suggests people are able to gather information more effectively on our site and marine patrol and local shellfish wardens are going a really good job on the ground.”
Tips from local experts
As co-chair to the Searsport Shellfish Management Committee and owner of Searsport Shores Campground, Steven Tanguay has introduced countless campers to the art of clam digging. On the clam flats that sandwich the causeway to Sears Island, he teaches people from all around the world how to detect, dig and cook these iconic Maine delicacies.
“I grew up digging as a kid, and I just took to liking it,” Tanguay said. “I like to get out really early in the morning when it’s quiet. The clam flats is just a nice place to be. And even if it’s a bit of work, it’s fun. It’s like growing your own tomatoes. They taste better when you do it yourself.”
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When looking for clams, it’s most effective to look for tell-tale holes that they leave in the sand, mud or clay.
When covered with water, clams remain under the sand but extend their long necks to the surface of the sand to feed by filtering water. Then, when the tide goes out, they retreat into their shells, leaving behind tiny holes in the sand that give away where they’re “hiding.” Those holes are used for breathing and eating.
When these holes are visible, clammers say “the clams are showing.” But sometimes they aren’t visible because they’ve been filled in because of a rough tide or strong wind. Clammers then say, “the clams aren’t showing.”
“The holes can actually show you the size of the clam. A big hole means a bigger clam, and a little hole probably means a smaller guy,” Hentz said. “And a razor clam’s siphon hole is going to be a different shape than a soft shell clam, but that takes a lot of experience.”
If you do find a clam hole, Tanguay suggest you start digging 6 to 8 inches beside the hole so you don’t hit the clam with your hoe and break its shell. And if you don’t find the clam after digging down a foot, you’ll want to feel around in the hole with your hand to see if you can locate it. Sometimes they do migrate. And if the clam is stuck in the mud, grasp it firmly and wiggle it back and forth until it comes free.
It won’t bite, but it might squirt water at you. And if it’s too small to take home, bury it in the sand rather than leaving it out in the open for the gulls to eat.
“[Campers] always come away with a deep respect for how hard people work to dig clams,” Tanguay said. “They’re trying it out. They can get a dozen or two dozen clams, and it’s really satisfying. Then they’ll come back [to the campground] and cook them.”
How to cook clams
When Tanguay’s campers bring home a peck of clams, the first thing he suggests they do is soak them in sea water for a day, changing the water about halfway through. This will cause the clams to purge all the sand and clay they have in their systems.
“They’ll clean themselves,” Tanguay said. “Some people add hot pepper or cornmeal to speed up the process.”
He then teaches them a simple way to cook clams by boiling them in a deep frying pan with salt water. Once their shells pop open, wait a few more seconds and they’re done, he said. Then, to eat the clams, open the shells, remove the outer skin from the clam’s neck with your fingers (it’s tough and you won’t want to eat it), and dip the clam in butter or both from the pan or both.
Other clam recipes include cooking them in garlic butter and white wine or frying them coated with batter. Clams can also be cooked on the grill by placing the shells on the grates and cooking until they open.
“Eating them fresh — they’ll almost always say they’ve never tasted a clam this good,” Tanguay said.