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Clamming Humboldt Bay

By Casey Allen
Governed by the gravitational pull of the moon the tides are the rhythmic heartbeat of the sea. Twice each day the mud flats of Humboldt Bay are exposed by the low tide. A few days each month the low tides are at their lowest and are called minus tides. It is during these minus tides that people search the seldom exposed mud flats for food among a large variety of clams. This activity has occurred since the beginning of human history and continues to be popular today.

Today the tides are predictable and a quick look at a tide book will reveal the hour the tide is low.  It will also tell how low the tide will be with zero being the mean or average low tide. Humboldt Bay’s lowest tides measure around minus 1.8 which is almost two feet lower than normal. Clams may be dug on any low tide but the lowest tide provides access to more and larger clams and also gives the clammer a little more time before the tide turns and ends the digging.

There are places on Humboldt Bay where you can walk to productive mud flats but a boat is needed to reach the best spots. As with any type of fishing the places hardest to get to usually produce the best because there are fewer people. From the boat ramp at Fields Landing you can easily see where people are clamming.  It is perfectly okay to join them or go looking for a secret spot of your own. Clams are not hard to find. Their siphon tube stretches to the surface of the mud and occasionally squirts water into the air. At times whole colonies are squirting at once and at the very least their siphon holes dot the mud flat. Most people feel the bigger the siphon hole the bigger the clam and some can tell the species of clam by the shape of the hole.

Humboldt Bay is home to the Pacific Gaper Clam commonly known as horse necks. They cannot retract their siphon and completely close their shell which gives them the name gaper. They can be found from one to four feet deep. Butter Clams also called Washington or Martha Washington clams are common. They can retract their siphon, have a smooth shell, and live shallower than the horse neck.  Pacific little neck clams and cockles have serrated edges on their shell and are the smallest of the group, sometimes called steamer clams.  They live just under the surface and can be taken with a rake. The largest clam in Humboldt Bay is the Geoduck (pronounced gooey-duck). This gaper clam can grow to a whopping eight pounds and live 168 years. Its name comes from a Native American word that means dig deep.

Gene Morris and I launched my 12 foot johnboat at the Fields Landing boat ramp the morning of the first low tide in March.  I wanted to try for razor clams on Clam Beach near Mckinleyville but the tide was only a minus .7 and the surf was predicted to be too rough. We motored north in the sheltered channel of the South Bay and turned the corner to the west side of the big mud flat. There were two other boats already there and people were scattered digging in the mud. 

Gene was excited to be clamming again. He lost part of his foot to a blood clot and that restricted his mobility. He planned to dig from the bow of the johnboat. I slid the boat onto the mud and the clams were squirting right and left. I was wearing chest waders and a rain jacket with neoprene gloves duct taped to the sleeves. I walked a few paces away from the boat and started digging on a likely looking siphon hole. In a few minutes I started pulling clams from the mud. I found that trenching worked well. Once I got to the depth of the clams it was easier to dig sideways than down on top of them and I broke fewer shells. Gene had spread a tarp in front of the boat and was busy digging with a nice pile of horse necks filling his bucket. I noticed the other clammers were searching for just the right place to dig and I thought they must be after a specific clam. We were after quantity for a big pot of chowder and there were plenty of clams right in front of us.

I don’t know how much time passed, you can get lost in your digging, but Gene called, “the boat is floating away.” On our way out Gene told a story about a guy who had to swim for his boat and I told Gene I brought a line and anchor to keep the boat where we put it. But then I neglected to deploy it. An unexpected surge must have lifted the boat enough to float it clear of the mud and as I looked past Gene I could see it gaining speed in the morning breeze. I took off running across the mud as fast as I could without falling. My boat was at the edge of the floating eel grass that marks the deep water of the channel and I wondered if I could reach it in time. I plowed into the water and realized it would be close and then realized I was committed. With my last step still touching the bottom I dove outstretched reaching for the boat. I grabbed the side with both hands and with strength only available in such situations I pulled myself over the gunnels and into the boat. Then I realized another thing I had neglected to do. I did not strap up my chest waders or zip up my rain jacket. If I had I would not be near as wet as I now was. Of course, I should have put the anchor out.

The motor started on the first pull and moments later I pulled the boat back next to Gene and put the anchor out. I was shaken that I let that happen and thought if I was one step slower we would be begging for help. Thankfully, Gene went back to digging so I did too.

We ended with about 75 clams, well short of our limit of 50 each but more than enough for our planned chowder feed. We removed the clams from the shell and slit open the siphon tube before soaking them in cold fresh water overnight. The next day the skin on the siphon tube was easily removed and all except the guts went into the pot. I was sore all over from the unusual muscle activity and still sore at myself over not placing the anchor. But we had a good time, collected some good food, and have another story to tell.

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