September 15, 2020
By Scott Haugen
Chasing a falling tide, my family and I had limits of softshell clams in short order. It was early in the morning, so once we were done clamming, we wasted no time launching the boat and setting crab pots.
While our crab pots soaked, we cleaned clams and ate lunch. Then we pulled the crab pots in the afternoon. Though we were shy of our crab limits, we had plenty to feast on, making for a memorable day on the coast. It’s the kind of excursion you can take, and repeat, from now through the end of autumn.
The most productive crabbing, be it from a boat or dock, is during a slack high or low tide. This is because water flow is at a minimum, allowing crabs to feed on the bottom. However, because slack tides are brief, crabbing is done during incoming and outgoing tides, too.
Some tidal movement is good, as it carries scent from your bait along the bottom in one direction, making it easy for crabs to detect it. A tide that is running very hard, however, can slow the crabbing down for a while, as they take a break from feeding to anchor themselves to the bottom.
Shad is considered prime crabbing bait, but salmon heads, trout carcasses and even store-bought chicken legs and necks work well. Chicken is a good option in bays where seals are plentiful. Seals will try to steal fish bait from crab rings and pots, but will leave chicken bait alone.
If you crab from a boat, set your traps or pots in a line so scent is carried in a narrow, down-current direction. If you are crabbing in deep water, a glow stick suspended from the top of the pot can attract crabs. Suspending your bait from the top of a pot is best so crabs don’t crawl under a trap and eat the bait as it sits on the bottom.
If you are crabbing from a dock, try dropping rings next to pilings. Here, sandy depressions offer crabs protection from moving water.
When it comes to digging clams, a low tide yields the best results as it exposes more habitat where clams live. However, not all clams live low in the tidal zone.
When it comes to razor clams, the lower the tide the better, with minus tides on calm days being best. Start digging two hours prior to the peak of the low tide. As a precaution, never turn your back to the sea. Once a show—a hole in the sand that indicates the presence of a clam—is located, insert your shovel 4 to 6 inches from it on the ocean side. Insert the blade perpendicular to the clam’s position and about 6 inches deep. Pull the shovel handle toward the ocean until the sand between the shovel and show cracks open. Quickly pull out two or three shovels of sand, creating a hole to slide your hand in. Using your fingers, find the clam and carefully remove it.
Gaper clams thrive in a mix of sandy, muddy substrates of high salinity, so most are found lower in the tidal zone. Dig around both sides of the show, keeping it centered. Continue digging until the clam is located, being careful not to cut the neck or break the shell. Gapers live 12 to 20 inches beneath the surface and digging can be laborious.
If you’re digging for an individual softshell clam, begin about six inches to the side of the show. Keep digging toward the show, locating the clam anywhere from 6 to 20 inches deep. Softshells don’t move fast, so there’s no rush.
Purple Varnish clams are the easiest to dig, with limits often being dug by hand. Simply break through a couple inches of substrate and start looking for them. It’s common to get multiple clams from one hole.
Once a butter clam’s show is located, dig around it 6 to 12 inches deep until the clam is found. Finish off the search by hand, as butter clam shells are brittle.
Now is the time to head to the coast for some summer fun. Not only will you be making memories, you’ll come away with some of the best-eating seafood out there.
Know Before You Go: Check the regs before you head to the coast
For the latest reports on shellfish toxins and area shutdowns, as well as rule changes, check with the department(s) within your state that oversee shellfish. Be sure to have a current shellfish or clamming/crabbing license.
How to know what clam species lies beneath before you even start digging
- Most species of clams make little holes in the sand’s surface. These holes, called “shows,” reveal a clam’s presence. Different species have different shaped shows.
- Often, a razor clam’s neck, and sometimes its shell, can be seen at the surface of the sand. Due to open-ocean conditions and large-grained sand, razor shows can collapse once the clam’s neck is retracted, making them hard to locate.
- A gaper clam’s show is more elliptical than other clams and about the size of a quarter. They can often be seen squirting water several feet in the air (right) as the tide drops or pressure occurs on the sand around them.
- Softshell clams, or mud clams, don’t move much, so their shows come in high densities and in a range of sizes, from the diameter of a pencil to a nickel. Usually, the larger the show of a softshell, the bigger the clam.
- Purple varnish clams are identified by their tiny, pencil-lead-sized shows. They often occur in large numbers, making them easy to locate.
- A butter clam’s show is dime-sized and distinctly oblong in shape. Butter clams are usually found in areas of high salinity in larger bays.
- Cockle shows can be hard to locate, as this species lives only 1 to 4 inches beneath a sandy, muddy substrate.
- Littleneck clams have a small show, about 1/4- to 1/2-inch long and shaped like a figure eight.