Oregon estuaries are rich with many species of clams, although only a few of these species are commonly harvested. Razor, gaper, butter, cockle, littleneck and softshell are primarily 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 lack of palatability.
Types of Clams
Features: This clam has a long, narrow, thin shell with a smooth brown coating.
Habitat: Razor clams are found in stable, sandy, surf-swept beaches of the open coast and some coastal bays. Razor clams have the ability of digging up to a foot per minute and have been found more than four feet deep in the sand.
The 18 mile stretch of Clatsop beaches account for 95% of Oregon’s razor clam harvest. The razor clam population in this area is much denser than any other area in the state.
Other areas that also have razor clams include Indian Beach (Cannon Beach); Cannon Beach; Short Sands (North of Manzanita); Cape Meares Beach (Tillamook); Agate Beach (North of Newport); North Beach and South Beach (Newport); Waldport Beach; North Umpqua Spit (Winchester Bay); Bastendorff Beach and North Spit (Coos Bay); Whiskey Run (Bandon); and Meyers Creek Beach (Gold Beach).
Technique: The best clamming is during low tide (and minus tides are the best) and when ocean swells are low as that is when clams will be nearer the surface. When a razor clams extends its neck near the surface of the beach it produces a distinct “show.” Shows are found most commonly by one of two methods: Looking for small round dimples in dry sand or pounding a shovel handle in receding surf.
Once you find a show, start digging either with a shovel or clam gun. Razor clams dig fast, so you must dig faster. Be careful reaching into the hole to retrieve your clam – they’re named razor clams for a reason. These clams has a very thin shell that can be easily broken by a digging shovel. This is why you are required to keep the first 15 clams you dig.
Features: Identified by its prominent radiating ridges.
Habitat: Cockles are "hard shelled" clams. Their protective, stout shells and short siphons mean that they do not have to bury as deeply as other common bay clams. Good cockle beds will often have cockles right on top of the sand on a good tide. They prefer sandy areas with high salinity, but can be found at many types of tideflats.
Technique: The best clamming is during low/minus tides. Because these clams are so near the surface, you rake, rather than dig, for them. A four prong gardening rake is perfect for raking the wet sand near the water line. You’ll feel a “clunk” when you hit one. In softer sediment, you may also feel them under your boot. Feeling adventurous? Pull on your waders and rake in shallow pools or channels to find cockles.
Features: Circular in shape 1.5-2.5 inches across. Identified by concentric lines and radiating ridges. Longer lived and less abundant than cockles.
Habitat: High salinity areas of sand, mud, gravel, or rock. Harvest them in Coos, Yaquina, Netarts, and Tillamook bays.
Techniques: These clams can be found in rocky nearshore areas within 6 inches of the surface. Be sure to get your shellfishing license and check the regulations before you go!
Features: Butter clams have oval and oblong shaped shells with heavy, thick valves and hinge. Their shells have fine concentric rings. When the shell is open a little, you can see the pale ruffled mantle reminiscent of a tuxedo. Like the gaper clam, they have their two siphons fused together into one "neck." Average adult size is 3-4 inches but can range up to 5 inches. Butter clams can live more then 20 years.
Habitat: Butter clams can be found in a wide variety of substrates but prefer sand, shell, and gravel beaches. They live in the substrate approximately 6-12 inches down. Butter clams can be found as deep as 50 ft below the low-tide. They are most often found in large estuarine systems, such as Coos, Tillamook, and Yaquina bays, and places with few rivers like Netarts Bay, because of their preference for higher salinity water.
Technique: Dig around the show and not straight down on it... necks can easily be sliced off with a shovel, and shells break fairly easily; in the interest of safety and ease of preparation, come in from the side. Since most clams siphons are not directly vertical, many clammers prefer to use a wooden dowel to follow the siphon hole down.
Features: Unlike gaper clams, softshell clams have no gape on their neck end. Softshell clams have a spoon like projection on the left valve, this feature is called a chondrophore.
Habitat: Brackish, muddy areas all along Oregon's coastline. Find softshells 12-18" depth.
Technique: Softshells can be harvested by digging with either a shovel or clam gun. As the name alludes, it is easy to break their thin shell. Although a clam with a broken shell is still good to eat, sharp edges of a broken shell can be very dangerous. Until you've refined your shoveling skills you may try very carefully grabbing them by hand once you dig near their depth.
Features: Gaper clams have large "neck" housing the two siphons that protrude above the substrate surface when feeding. Protective leathery plates are found just below the siphon tips and feel rough to the touch. It is common for algae to grow on their neck as well. Gapers are unable to retrack their neck entirely into the shell, producing a "gape" in the shell. In addition, gaper pea crabs, Pinnixa faba often inhabit gaper clams.
Habitat: Gapers can be found in high salinity sandy and/or muddy areas in most of Oregons larger estuaries. Coos, Tillamook, Netarts, and Yaquina are favorite bays of these trophy size clams. Be prepred to dig 12-32 inches to claim this prize.
Technique: Dig for gaper clams with a shovel. You can also use a shrimp gun to use the water in a hole you start to create a slurry with the sediment and take some of the work out of the dig. They have an oblong "show" (burrow hole) a bit larger than a quarter, making them easily identified to an experienced eye. Mud shrimp burrow holes are commonly mistaken for gaper shows. You know it is a gaper if you test the hole with your finger and feel the siphon retract.
Purple varnish clam
Features: The purple varnish clam is named for the purple hue found inside the clam and the shiny varnish over the brown color outside the shell. It is oval in shape and is relatively flat with a prominent ligament near the hinge.
Habitat: These clams can be found in cobble to muddy substrate.
Technique: Purple varnish clams are found in very high densities. Limits were recently increased and separated to allow increased harvest of these clams. Be sure to check biotoxin safety closures before harvesting these clams by going to ODA’s website or by calling the shellfish harvest hotline 1-800-448-2474.