I was recently on a field trip to Thomas Point Beach with my daughter’s fifth grade class to see horseshoe crabs mating. They are definitely worth checking out this time of year when they float around attached to each other, the male waiting for the female to release her eggs so that he can fertilize them. We were there at high tide, but I was reminded of going out on the flats there at low tide with a few resident shellfish harvesters to look for a variety of shellfish a couple of summers ago. The more common species to find there are soft shell and hard shell, or quahog, clams. But that day we were also able to find a rarer type. These are the long, skinny clams that stick up and down in the sand or mud reaching their siphons out to wave them around looking a bit comically like the tubular head and wacky hairdo of Beaker, the nerdy scientist Muppet.

Maine’s mudflats are home to a diverse range of wild shellfish species, including soft-shell clams, razor clams, quahogs or hard clams, and wild oysters. Jess Stumper photo

While they are elusive to find when buried, their shells are quite distinctive and easy to spot on the beach. Their razor-like shape earned them their common names of razor or jackknife clam as well as their scientific name, Ensis directus, which means straight razor. The thin edge of their shells not only gives them their name, but also makes them sharp and hazardous to bare feet in the sand. Razor clams are typically up to 6 inches long and have yellowish brown thin shells. But, if you include their siphon, some razor clams have been known to be as long as 3 feet!

Not only are razor clams rarer than soft-shell and hard-shell clams, but they are also more difficult to catch if you are lucky enough to find them. They can be spotted by a distinctively oval or key shaped hole in the mud or sand rather than the round holes made by the siphons of other clam species. They are difficult to catch for a couple of reasons. First, they like to live just at the deep edge of the intertidal zone which is only accessible at the lowest tides. While some shellfish harvesters access the subtidal waters from a boat and use a longer handled bull rake, razor clams’ shells are too fragile and can easily be broken by a rake. This means they have to be carefully dug by hand. On top of their fragility, they also are very fast burrowers. Razor clams have a large T-shaped foot that they can use to pull themselves down into their deep burrows. So, if you try to dig one up, it may give you the slip. An alternative way to catch them is to free dive for them, but this isn’t simple either, as they are speedy swimmers. While most clams don’t swim, razors do. They pump their foot in and out of their shell, flapping the two halves of their shell to pulse through the water. It is definitely worth it to look up a video of this to see it for yourself (bit.ly/3m1Wbej).

In order to harvest razor clams, just as with other more common intertidal shellfish species, you need a municipal shellfish license to harvest them and there are certain rules that apply regarding the times, days and locations where you can harvest as well as a requirement that the shells be at least 4 inches in length. While there are some harvesters that target them, razor clams aren’t easy to find at local seafood markets. They are much more popular in Asian markets and many Americans aren’t familiar with them. But I was lucky enough to find some at Brunswick’s Fishermen’s Net on Bath Road on my way home. Planning on buying halibut in one of the last few weeks it is in season in Maine, I quickly changed my mind when I saw razor clams.

Steamed, boiled, baked, grilled or eaten on the half shell, they are delicious. They’re meaty for a clam as well and very tender in texture. Even if you don’t try eating them, take a look for their oblong holes in the mud or sand next time you’re wading out below low tide, or look for their shells on the beach. And don’t forget to look for horseshoe crabs at this time of year as well.

Comments are not available on this story.

filed under: