I enjoy winter and all the activities it offers, but after a while it’s nice to change pace and head out into the ocean surf in February or March and search for sea clams.
When the tide, time and temperatures are just right, you can get a mess of clams just under the surf in a little more than a couple hours.
Sea clams, more popularly known as hen or surf clams in Maine, are the largest clams in the New England region. These fast-growing bivalves can reach sizes in excess of eight inches across, and grow to about five inches in just three years.
Clams love the sandy, cool, turbulent water that is found in a highly active surf environment. Appropriately nicknamed as surf clams, they reside where those big rolling waves are breaking, feasting on the food that rolls over them with each passing wave.
“We are at their northern extreme for habitat and temperature,” said Denis Nault, who oversees the shellfish management division at the Maine Department of Marine Resources. “These clams are found offshore of New Jersey all the way up to where we are. There are even a few places you can find them around Ellsworth.”
Since they love the rolling surf, the best time to dig for these clams are during those low, low lunar tides that happen about once a month.
“When that tide is out the farthest, that’s when you can get out to that area and not get roughed up by the surf,” said Nault.
This time of year, the preferred method to dig these clams are a pair of hip boots or chest waders. You poke along the soft sand with a pitchfork, probing along the surf until you hear a clink of metal on shell. Stick your pitchfork under it, and you can pop it right out.
Unlike their long-necked cousins, surf clams have relatively short necks, so they reside just under the sandy surface.
“They don’t get down that deep at all into the bottom, which is unusual, because this clam has such a big foot. They pull their neck in and out in an active surf environment,” said Nault. A trained eye can often spot a small bulge in the sand as a likely spot to dig.
While I like to use a pitchfork, others like the rounded tines of a manure fork, or even a potato rake or quahog scratcher.
In warmer months, those with a sixth sense will just use their eyes and feet, perhaps coupled with a wet suit, feeling for the bulge in the sand with their feet, or scanning for a small deviation in the sand.
Probably the most popular area to find surf clams is the northern Old Orchard Beach area north to Prouts Neck in Scarborough. The long sandy beaches coupled with the pounding surf is ideal habitat for sea clams.
If you are wondering just where you should go, do a little scouting after a big storm.
“The way I always harvested surf clams on the Cape was to go out to the outer beach after a storm, and you would just pick them up,” said Nault, who adds that if you find one, more than likely there will be a lot more of them around.
Before digging, make sure the area you plan to dig is open to shellfishing. Many of the beaches in southern Maine are closed to the digging of hen clams due to wastewater discharges and red tide. Visit the Department of Marine Resources website at www.maine.gov/dmr and click on the health and safety link. Maps and detailed descriptions will tell you what is open.
The recreational limit on sea clams is three bushels. Since a bushel of clams weighs in the vicinity of 80 pounds, one bushel is plenty, especially if you have to lug it any distance back to the truck.
Shucking the clams is rather easy, prying first at the hinge and then inserting the knife to separate clam from the shell. Give the clam a good rinse, then another and another. They can be sandy.
These clams are tougher than steamers, so most people grind or chop them, or cut them into strips. Once chopped, they are great in chowders, fritters, pasta and even pizzas. They freeze well, have great flavor and hold up well in a variety of recipes.
And of course they give you that taste of summer even if it’s still spring.
Mark Latti is a Registered Maine Guide, and the Landowner Relations/ Recreational Access Coordinator for the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.