Razor Clams: A Washington State Treasure

By Hannah Pennebaker

November is always a bittersweet month for us Northwesterners. Most salmon runs have begun to taper off, and we've started to winterize our boats in preparation for the looming snow and ice in the forecast. However, there is one thing to look forward to this month: razor clamming! There are a limited number of razor clams digs every year on the Washington coast, typically taking place in the fall and winter months. These aren't your typical steamer clams. These large clams average around 6 inches and are incredibly meaty and delicious. If you've never had razor clam chowder or razor clam fritters, you're in for a treat! In addition, WDFW has increased the limit from 15 clams to 20 clams this year.

Now is the perfect time to give razor clam digging a try. 

 First, you'll need some basic gear to get started. The good thing about razor clam gear is that once you buy it, you'll usually have it more many more digs to come. You'll need a sturdy shovel or a clam gun. Aluminum clam guns are on the spendier side, but they are much lighter and cut through the sand easier than their steel counterparts. Plus, they don't rust in saltwater environments! Some diggers prefer shovels. I'd recommend trying both and seeing what you prefer. You'll also want to have a net or bag to put your clams in while you're digging. You won't want to run back and forth to your car,  or set them in a pile on the beach (they can and will dig back down, or get stolen by a seagull). Expect your feet and legs to get splashed by the surf rushing in and out, so wear rubber boots or waders. I wear waders and fasten my net to my belt so I have easy access. Most sporting goods stores in the area also sell clam counters, or you can make your own. Clam counters are a set of beads on a string; simply pull a bead down every time you get a clam and then look at the counter if you lose track. It's easy to do when you're caught up in the fun of spotting clams!

 Speaking of spotting clams, how do you know where to start looking for them? Unlike manila or steamer clams, razor clams use their "foot", or digger, to dig down in the sand. They stick their siphon up and into the surf so they can filter feed. During low tide, they are exposed. Walk close to the surf and look for small volcanoes in the sand. Seasoned razor clammers call these "shows". Once you've spotted one, place your clam gun over it. Angle your gun slightly towards the ocean, and bury your gun as far as it will go. Put your finger over the hole in the bottom of the handle, and pull the sand up and out. You'll find the clam in the sand you just pulled out. If you hear a crunching sound while you're digging, stop and try a different angle. Most of the time, you'll get the clam within the first 2 pulls. They won't dig much further than a foot down.

 While razor clams are the main attraction, there are plenty of other beach activities you can partake in while you're there. You can bring a PVC hand pump and dig sand shrimp, which make great bait for a variety of different species of fish year round. Sand shrimp shows look very similar to razor clams', so you may accidentally dig up one or two. In general, you'll find then higher up on the beach. One of my favorite things to do is pump up a bucket of sand shrimp and then cure them up to use for next salmon season. Or, you can put them to use immediately and go fishing for surf perch! Once you've dug your 20 clam limit, bring out your surf perch poles, wade out into the surf, and cast out some sand shrimp on a bottomfish rig. The sweet, delicate meat of surf perch pairs well with razor clam chowder! Beach combing can be a fun activity for kids too young or too worn out to dig. You can find sand dollars, crab shells, and other keepsakes out on the beach. There's something for everyone when you go out razor clamming!

 One of the most important things you can do before going out razor clamming is to make sure you have a plan for keeping them alive until you get them home. Like crabs, clams release toxins into their bodies when they die, potentially poisoning all that meat you worked so hard to get. You need to keep them cold, moist, and alive during the long drive home. I usually bring a towel, a cooler, and a bag of ice. Dunk the towel in saltwater, place it on the ice, and then put your clams on the towel. Never keep your clams in a bucket of water on the trip home; you run the risk of the clams using up all the dissolved oxygen and dying. Ice keeps the clams cold, and the towel keeps them moist. Once you get the clams home, you can keep them in the cooler until the next day, or put them in the fridge with the towel. 

 Cleaning and preparing the razor clams is the next step! Get a pot of water boiling on the stove, and prepare an ice water bath. Once the water is boiling, dunk a few razor clams and wait for them to pop open. Immediately take them out and submerge them in the ice bath, separating the meat from the shell. Razor clam meat is delicate and cooks quickly, so it's imperative to cool it down right away. Once you've got a bowl of razor clam meat, it's time to clean them. There are many videos on how to do this; I find it easier to have a visual aid. Now your clams are ready for clam chowder, fritters, or seafood linguini! 

 As with any fishery, there are some rules we must follow to ensure the resource sticks around for future generations. You are required to keep the first 20 clams you dig, regardless of size or condition. If you dig up a small clam, it's illegal to put it back, even if you bury and cover it back up. The same rules apply to crushed clams. Most importantly, check your rules and regulations before heading out. Clam digs are restricted by time, date, and beach. This is because razor clams have the chance of carrying high levels of domoic acid, and WDFW must test them first, to ensure they are safe for consumption. Check before digging! 

Now you're ready to go out and dig some razor clams of your own. With the increased 20 clam limit, this is a great year to try razor clamming, or get back into it if it's been a while since you've gone. There's nothing better than a fresh, steaming bowl of razor clam chowder on a cold November day. Hope to see you out there on the next razor clam dig!