Clam digging

How to bay clam

Oregon estuaries are rich with many species of clams, although only a few of these species are commonly harvested. Gaper, butter, cockle, littleneck, softshell and purple varnish clams are popularly harvested due to their abundance, size and taste. A wide variety of other bivalve species are found in Oregon estuaries, but not commonly harvested due either to their scarcity or poor taste.

Harvesting bay clams can be fun and relaxing. However, your clamming adventure will be more successful and enjoyable if you know a little about the clams you'll be digging for, digging techniques and what the weather's going to be like at the beach. 

General digging techniques 

  • Dig around the show, coming in from the side, and not straight down on it to avoid slicing off the neck or breaking the shell. 
  • When you've dug almost to the depth of the clam, feel around gently with the shovel or your hand so you don't break the shell. Although a clam with a broken shell is still good,  the sharp edges of a broken shell can be dangerous.
  • After you've removed the clam refill the hole.

    Gaper Clam

    Gaper clam

    About: Gaper clams are found in several Oregon estuaries. They are known by a variety of names including blue, empire, horse and horseneck clams. They are Oregon's largest common clam. Geoducks can grow much larger (as much as 10 pounds!) but are rarely found south of Puget Sound in Washington. 
    Daily limit: 12, out of a total of 20 bay clams (regulations)
    Use: Clam steaks, chowder
    Digging method: shovel
    Habitat: high salinity sandy and/or muddy areas
    Digging tips: Dig around the show, coming in from the side, and not straight down on it to avoid slicing off the neck or breaking the shell. When you've dug almost to the depth of the clam, feel around gently with the shovel or your hand so you don't break the shell. Although a clam with a broken shell is still good, sharp edges of a broken shell can be dangerous. After you've removed the clam refill the hole.

    Butter Clam

    Butter clam

    About: Butter clams are found throughout Oregon's nearshore areas and larger estuaries. Butter clams are excellent burrowers and abundant in shell, sandstone and even rocky areas. Diggers harvest most butter clams from sandy and muddy substrates where it's easier to dig. Butter clams are most often found in large estuarine systems, such as Coos, Tillamook, and Yaquina, because of their higher salinity preference. They are known by a variety of names including Washingtons, Martha Washingtons, Beefsteak, Quahog.
    Daily limit: 20, in aggregate with other bay clams (regulations)
    Use: chowder, steamed, steaks
    Digging method: shovel, potato fork
    Habitat: high salinity gravel, mud, or sandy areas
    Digging tips: Butter clams have a distinctive rectangular show. The shape is usually described as looking like a flathead screwdriver was stuck in the mud. 

    Cockle

    Cockle

    About: Cockles are "hard shelled" clams and because of their stout shells, they do not have to bury as deeply as other common bay clams. Larger cockles can even be found feeding on the sand's surface. Cockles are one of few bay clams that are known to move horizontally through the estuary. They are actually quite fast movers by bending their highly-developed muscular foot then quickly straightening it out to "jump" as far as a foot or two at a time.
    Daily limit: 20, in aggregate with other bay clams (regulations)
    Use: chowder, steamed
    Digging M\method: rake, hand
    Habitat: high salinity sandy areas
    Digging tips: Rake through the sand until you feel the clunk of the hard shell

    Littleneck

    About: Littleneck clams are highly prized. They are found in rocky or gravelly areas of high, stable salinity. These clams are often confused with Manila littleneck clams, a smaller related (but non-native) clam available on local markets. Only Coos, Yaquina and Tillamook bays have littleneck clams. 

    Softshell

    Softshell clam

    About: Softshell clams occur in almost all of Oregon’s estuaries and they can range very high into the estuary. Softshell clams are native to the East coast, and are believed to have been introduced to Oregon in the late 1800s, about the same time people tried to establish a fishery for the eastern oyster. 
    Daily limit: 36 (regulations)
    Use: chowder, steamed, steaks
    Digging method: shovel, clam gun
    Habitat: brackish , muddy areas
    Digging tips: Unlike the other four common species of bay clams, softshell clams they are found not just in the lower estuary, but fairly high up as well. Softshell clams have variable shows. They are generally round, but can also be oblong or rectangular.

    Purple varnish clam
    Purple varnish clam

    Purple varnish clam

    About: Purple varnish clams were recently introduced to Oregon, most likely from ballast waters from Asia. Purple varnish clams are found in very high densities. Limits were recently increased and separated to allow increased harvest of these.  Up to72 are allowed per day.

      Header photo by Meow Cat, Flickr 

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