Of Clams And Clamdiggers

For a long time there was no clamming permitted in the Navesink River on the New Jersey Shore because of pollution. But after a most rigorous effort of sewer plant construction and improved water quality that began during the Nixon administration, recreational clamming was reopened about 20 years ago, much to the delight of native clamdiggers.

The name, “clamdiggers,” was used in a derogatory sense years back, in much the same way people from the city call rural dwellers “woodchucks,” “rednecks,” or “crackers.” I grew up on the New Jersey bayshore, and inland kids would make fun of us all the time.

All that’s needed for clamming are waders, a clam rake, a basket, a license, and low tide.

“You’re from Keyport? High tide — no breakfast!” was a taunt. You see, you dig clams when the tide is low. And low it was one recent December morning when my cousin called and asked me if I wanted to go clamming. I had just moved back to New Jersey from Florida, where I retired as a fishing guide.

I hadn’t been clamming in more than 30 years, but I had the necessary tools. All that’s needed is a clam rake, a basket, a pair of waders, and low tide. I bought the resident recreational clamming permit online from the New Jersey Department of Fish and Wildlife. At $10 it’s a real bargain. With store bought littlenecks selling for $5 a dozen, it doesn’t take long to break even.

There are mainly two types of edible clams harvested on the New Jersey shore — soft clams which are easily crushed with finger pressure and have longnecks that protrude from the shell. They are most commonly served steamed in buckets and dipped in drawn butter. But here we are talking hard clams, which are also called quahogs. These come in sizes — the smallest are littlenecks, the next size are up cherrystones, and the biggest are quahogs or chowder clams. The smaller clams are the most tender, and can be served raw on the half shell. Hard clams are also the basis for clams oregano, stuffed clams, clams casino, and a nearly infinite number of recipes and their variants. Here in New Jersey and throughout New England we also drink the hot clam broth — straight up or seasoned with spices and butter.

There’s A Technique To Digging Clams

Before any of that you have to dig the clams, and while it may look simple at a glance, there is a technique. The clam rake looks much like a garden rake with a basket attached to the backside of the rake, and the method is to drag the rake through the sand. You can actually feel the clams when the rake hits them; they feel like rocks. The trick is when you feel the clam hit the tines of the rake, you have to back it up a bit and go deeper. It only took me half an hour to begin to remember the hang of it. In about an hour I put 18 or 20 clams in the basket to my cousin’s 80, but I was getting better towards the end.

You have to keep an eye on the tide, it comes in fast and the difference between high and low is about 6 feet.

The other thing to consider is the tide. In this part of New Jersey the tidal range is about 6 feet and it changes between high and low about every six hours. This means that where you are digging clams at low tide and 10 a.m. will be under 6 feet of water at 4 p.m. My waders are the waist high variety, so I keep a close eye on the tide. Where you clam might be ankle deep, but there is usually a channel or two to cross, so I always keep that in mind.

After I get home, I sort the clams according to size. Then I give them a good scrub with a bronze brush and cook them to size — making chowder with the big clams, stuffing the cherrystones, and using the little necks for clam sauce, and eating some on the half shell. It’s hard work, but the rewards are tasty enough so that there is no longer any derision is being called a good clamdigger.

Make sure you visit Sportsman’s Guide and check out the latest assortment of waders for sale.

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