CLAMS FOR THE POT

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The following appears in the July issue of Alaska Sporting Journal

BY KRYSTIN MCCLURE AND BIXLER MCCLURE 

I had never been so sandy in my entire life. Sand permeated my Grundens and Xtratufs, coating the interior of my waterproof clothing as I dug deep chasing a runaway razor clam.

When I finally was able to grab it, it was a lunker. The razor clam was larger than my hand and twice as thick. I dropped it into the bucket filled with other shellfish and rainwater, then yelled to Bixler in the distance. Across the sand flat, he held up an equally large clam. Other diggers quietly searched for clams while our never-ending excitement over larger and larger clams broke the silence. This was clamming at its finest.

Earlier in the year, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game had announced a continued closure of all eastern Cook Inlet beaches to clamming. We both sighed, as we had been waiting patiently for the population to recover. A nasty winter storm a few years prior had hit juvenile clams hard.

Somehow, Bixler got the idea in his head of booking a clam charter, a boat that takes you across Cook Inlet to the western beaches, where clams are still abundant. A friend of ours thought it was hilarious, but sure enough, a few entrepreneurial Alaskans do offer such a charter, so we booked one to start our adventure.

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AS THE DATE OF our clam charter rolled around, a summer gale swept through Cook Inlet. Our hosts, Bottom Line Charters(907-567-7366; bottomlinecharters.us), moved the trip date back out of concern for safety. A few days later than expected, we found ourselves at the Deep Creek boat launch loading up buckets, shovels and the backbreaking yet highly effective clam gun. We climbed aboard the boat while still on the trailer and watched as a tractor pushed us into the water.

The captain revved up the engines and we began to cross a lumpy Cook Inlet on a typical summer’s day – overcast and rainy – with the entirety of the western side of the inlet shrouded in heavy clouds. We passed the time talking with the deckhand and captain, Ryan and Brian (we could never figure out who was who), while the other customers fended off seasickness. Soon, the captain instructed his deckhand to drop the anchor. We were sitting in less than a foot of water and had to patiently wait for the tide to recede.

Other customers who were wearing hip boots climbed off the boat as soon as the anchor was dropped. Bixler and I were in our Xtratufs, so we kept chatting with the crew while waiting for the water to drop below boot-top level. As soon as we felt the boat settle onto the sand, we hopped off in full Grundens, with buckets and clam-digging devices in-hand.

We headed up to higher ground to look for clam shows, small round depressions in the sand no bigger than a dime. We were both a bit rusty on our clamming skills and ended up digging up a bunch of sand looking for those delicious shellfish. I headed one direction with the shovel, while Bixler manned the clam gun, a large tubular device that pulls up both the clam and its entire sandy home. Like a miner striking gold, Bixler announced his first clam and dropped it into the bucket.

I tried digging a few shows and found nothing. Capt. Brian (or was it Ryan?) gave me a quick tutorial on using the shovel. He pointed to a general area before returning to the boat to barbecue up some lunch. Soon, I was breaking the silence that I too had found clams.

Bixler and I continued to comb the higher portions of the sandy beach in search of clam shows. We switched off using the gun, which is a back-wrenching experience after a while and started to completely ignore the fact that our Atlas gloves were entirely full of sand.

Bixler filled his bucket first and ran to the boat for a drop-off. He returned with a new bucket and two sandy hot dogs that we chowed down before resuming our clamming.

The captain pointed us to a new spot and soon we were digging up clams the size of dinner plates, like the old timers talk about being on the other side of Cook Inlet.

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WE HAD FILLED UP BUCKETS with razor clams by the time the tide rushed back in. The other customers were the first to return to the boat, while Bixler was the last, racing against the Xtratuf-flooding tidewaters. Deckhand Ryan (I think) placed our clams in a purging cage to remove some of the sand, while we stripped out of our sandy Grundens and found warmth in the boat’s cabin.

When the tidewaters returned, we pulled anchor and headed home, complete with a scenic tour of an old cannery on a nearby island still encased in clouds.

When we hit the beach at Deep Creek and started to load our clams in the cooler, we suddenly realized the immense task before us. The clams filled our largest white cooler. After our three-hour drive home, we cleaned, sealed and froze clams until 4 a.m. Our Grundens went through the washing machine twice and we tossed our gloves.

As tiring as the escapade was, I still reminisce when I pull out clams from the freezer from that one trip. And yes, I still find sand in them a year later. ASJ

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CLAMMING IT UP IN COOK INLET 

Digging for clams can be a productive and lots of fun. Be sure to follow these guidelines before heading out on your next clam dig. Just remember, this is a personal-use fishery, so it is open to Alaska residents only.

Check the regulations – Because the eastern side of Cook Inlet is closed, watch for emergency orders from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game on all other areas open to clamming.

Know the bag limit – Currently, the western side of Cook Inlet has no bag limit for razor or any other type of clam.

Monitor the tides and book early – There are only a few tides a month suitable for clamming, so if you plan on taking a commercial charter, check the tides and book well in advance. Clamming on the western side of Cook Inlet is becoming increasingly popular.

Dress for the occasion – Clamming is a wet, sandy experience, whether it is raining or not. Good sturdy rain boots and waterproof gloves will keep the cold and wet out as you dig for clams. Opt for waders or fishing bibs to keep you mostly clean and sand-free.

Bring the right gear – Savvy with a shovel or do you prefer a clam gun? Make sure you bring the tool that is most comfortable for your digging. Shovels work in all terrains, while clam gun works best on fine sandy beaches. Bring both if you can’t decide.

Be prepared to clean a lot of clams – Set aside a good chunk of time to clean those delicious shellfish!

Watch for PSP – The state of Alaska monitors popular clamming beaches for paralytic shellfish poisoning (PSP). Watch for any announcements and avoid clamming altogether if PSP is found. -KM

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