GEORGETOWN — Ali Barrionuevo followed Georgetown shellfish warden Jon Hentz intently along Reid State Park beach last week, studying where Hentz stopped to dig.

Barrionuevo noted Hentz’s innate sense for finding clams buried in the sand at low tide. She realized quickly this age-old Maine pastime is not as clear-cut and simple as it may look. Yet Hentz, a shellfish warden for 25 years, navigated the wet flats in bare feet with ease, finding and producing 2-inch-long clams within minutes.

“Oh jeez. Start digging. This is the spot,” Barrionuevo whispered to her husband, Carlos, as they watched Hentz find another.

The Barrionuevos were taking part in a free clamming lesson given by Hentz and the Kennebec Estuary Land Trust at Reid State Park. The class, which has been conducted annually for four years, drew more than 60 people again this summer.

More than half who attended had never clammed before. Becky Kolak, program director for the land trust, said most of those who registered were either from Maine or were here for the summer.

Both soft-shell and hard-shell clams are harvested in Maine year round. The peak season is in the summer months, according to the Maine Clammers Association.

Clamming at many state parks is free. The state does not charge fees to recreational clammers – those who harvest up to a peck (equivalent to a bucket holding 9 1/2 liquid quarts) per day.

However, most communities charge for a recreational license, according to Jeff Nichols, the Maine Department of Marine Resources spokesman. The state issues a commercial clam license for $133 for those harvesting more than a peck a day.

While experienced clammers like Hentz can make it look easy, staying bent over while digging down into the wet sand can be tough on the back. And the search is not straight-forward.

“The commercial clammers look like ballet dancers, they do this so easily,” Kolak said.

Beverly and Michael Lytwyn retired to Maine five years ago but had never been clamming before last week’s class. They have watched the many recreational clammers move across Pine Point Beach in Scarborough at low tide, but the Lytwyns still weren’t certain how to find the clams in the sand.

An hour after digging up roughly a dozen clams, they decided steamers were best harvested by the experts.

“I don’t mind spending $12 for a bucket at the store now,” Beverly Lytwyn said.

John McIlvain has summered or lived in Georgetown for 40 years. He’s lived up the road from Reid State Park for 40 years but had never dug for clams at the park before.

Last week he and his two granddaughters and son-in-law were all down on their knees hunting for clams.

“I live right around the corner. I’m down here a lot. I don’t see so many people out doing it,” McIlvain said.

What Hentz said clammers want to look for is a hole in the sand indicating a clam’s siphon, which is the tube that allows the clam to strain out food from the water around its shell. Placing a rake or shovel just above the hole and pulling the sand back may help reveal the clam below the surface.

And then there is the legal size to consider. At least 90 percent of clams in a peck must be at least 2 inches long, Hentz said.

Most taking part in the lesson at Reid State Park were finding small clams.

When Hentz looked at the crowd moving east to west he said to himself with a nod farther down the beach: “Those people there should be digging over there.”

Behind him Ali Barrionuevo said to the shellfish warden: “You don’t have to tell me twice.”

And with that she and her husband moved to a stretch of smooth sand, ripe with holes.

Ali noted an hour’s work digging and hunting for clams is no easy task.

“It would be hard way to make a living,” she said.

In the summer, Hentz said he gets six to seven calls a day on his cell phone. He hopes the calls are tips on where illegal clamming is taking place. Hentz is looking for violators, to educate if not fine.

Mostly what he gets are recreational clammers wondering which end of a clamming rake is up.

“Mostly it’s people who want to know what a peck is, or where to dig,” Hentz said.

 


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