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We dig surf clams

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Posted: Tuesday, July 24, 2012 8:45 am | Updated: 10:02 am, Tue Jul 24, 2012.

The last thing I expected to catch on the clam flats of Maine was a compliment. A fashion compliment, no less.

But there I was, pitchfork in hand and ankle deep in muck, batting off the hungry gulls swooping in for a steal, when a voice behind me said: “You have got to be the classiest clam diggers I have ever seen.”

My clamming friend and I both straightened up and looked around us, and then at each there. There was no one else nearby, save for the wader-clad digger who was nodding approvingly in our direction.

My, my. What passes for sartorial splendor in Maine:  Bright yellow wellies, basic black water shoes, high viz wind vests and screaming green fleece, with little black sweats.

Down home Glamour Clammers. Styling, that’s us.

The glow lasted about as long as it took the next feisty gull to dive-bomb our chic orange slop bucket while we let down our guard posing for photos.

It’s a war-zone out there in natureland.  You snooze, you lose your stash.

First, to be clear about our mission, this was not a normal licensed dig for those sweet, tender steamer clams that flourish in Maine clam flats.

No, this was a free-for-all, pre-dawn expedition during a “drainer” tide to scout out the mega-sized, tough-as-leather clams known alternately as surf clams, hen clams or chowdah clams.

Drainer tides are extremely low tides that expose normally underwater sections of muck to the prying eye. Suddenly, clams that thought they were buried so deep a pitchfork would never pierce their calloused exterior find themselves quite vulnerable to poking and prodding.

We’d been following the tide charts, waiting for the full moon tide with the greatest differential between high and low tides, and thus the greatest unveiling of untapped mud. The best of the best usually happen about four times a year. As the day approached, we monitored the marine patrol reports to make sure “our” chosen flat had not been closed because of red tide.

The night before, we learned all systems were go. So we set the alarms to oh-dark-hundred, carefully selected our clamming outfits (well, not really, but we might have if we thought we’d be noticed!) and lined up pitchforks and slop buckets.

At dead low tide, we trotted out to furthest dry point in the flat, the spot where the waters were just lapping at the edge before heading on back in for the high tide.

There are probably many methods for capturing clams, but we used two: the Tap Dance and the Squish & Squirt.

The former requires the clammer to tap the mud with a pitchfork, listening for the ping of fork on shell or the feel of something solid in the mud. Then the clammer digs down to see if the object is a clam, a big clam, maybe with a 4-to 6-inch wing span. Conservation-minded harvesters throw the smaller ones of less than 3 inches back in to grow up and breed.

The latter approach, my personal preference, is to wander slowly, inch by inch, around the edge of the flat looking for small holes in the sand. When a small hole is spotted, the clammer starts to dig. If water spouts out like a mini geyser, it’s a sure sign a clam is beating a quick retreat deeper in the mud. The clammer gives chase by digging even deeper and heaving up a giant mound of muck, then pawing through it until the clam is found.

As the tide moves in, the clammer retreats closer to shore, leaving no clam unturned until the bucket is full.

 One word of warning: Remember to take the bucket as you wander – or risk losing it to the incoming tide.

One other hazard: Shellfish thieves, those airborne scavengers who, too lazy to dig their own, lie in wait to grab your cache.

Hordes of sea gulls can always be found hanging around the perimeters of the flats, waiting for you to toss a clam into an unguarded bucket. If you miss, these gulls will swoop down to the sand and grab the shell before you can get to it. The most brazen will snatch the clam in mid-air and cackle at you as you chase after  it. Tee-hee.

So, keep your bucket close and your pitchfork ready to fend them off.

When you’ve dug all the clams you want, or as many as you can logistically haul back to your truck, rinse them in seawater, then fill your bucket back up with seawater and slosh home.

There are also two ways to clean your clams: Easy and hard.

The hard way is to get a sharp knife and peel open the live clam. Then you cut off the sandy bloated bellies, the greasy black innards, the slimy “skins” and the private parts (of the males) and toss the necks and “feet” in a bowl. These clams are now ready to chop up for chowder or clam cakes – or freeze in water for cold winter days begging for the briny taste of summer.

The easy way is to rinse the clams in fresh water and toss them in a large kettle full of water. Bring the water to a boil and simmer until the shells open on their own. This takes quite a bit longer than usual because these clams are bigger and more stubborn than steamer clams.

I once made an entire pot of chowder from ONE giant surf clam. It fed four for lunch.

When the clams are done, strain the clam broth into a clean pot to remove the sand the sloppy clams have left behind. Let the clams cool, then pull out the meat and chop, discarding bellies and private parts. The chopped clams can be frozen right in the broth for future use or turned immediately into chowdah.

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