OREGON COAST BOUNTY

Clamming
Mike Bones Style

Story by Judy Fleagle

I've been around clams as long as I can remember. I have pictures of myself on the tide flats when I was only old enough to crawl,” says Mike Bones, who grew up in Florence and still lives there. “My dad was a commercial clam digger here for years and my mom shucked them. They sold clam meat by the bucket at $5 a gallon.”

A few decades have passed, and Mike hasn’t tired of clams. He uses them in spaghetti, quiche, dips, and, of course, chowder. He fries them, stuffs them, and makes clam fritters. “There’s no rules,” he says with a broad smile. “They’re just a great source of food. What we don’t eat fresh, we can, but we don’t freeze them.”
“Even though I’m not supposed to have fried foods anymore, I have fried clams at least once a year. I take the first batch of mud clams every spring, pound the necks, wrap them in flour, and fry them in a little bacon grease. So good! So good! To me no other clam has as good a flavor as a mud clam,” he says. “And it makes fantastic chowder.”

I asked whether he grinds or chops the clam meat for his chowder. “Some people don’t like the consistency of clam stomach, so we grind that part. Then we chop the neck muscles,” he says. “I prefer grinding the necks too, but my wife Kathy likes the larger pieces. A food processor works great for grinding. It’s so much easier than the old hand grinder my mother had.”
He only steams clams when he’s got a batch of small ones less than 2 inches long. “Steaming with water is fine, but steaming with a cup of wine with some garlic and butter is better.” Then he adds, “Of course, when you dig clams you’ll get a variety of sizes; mud clams can grow up to six inches long.”

It’s generally acknowledged that Oregon’s mud clams (a.k.a. softshell clams) originally came from the East Coast. According to old-timers, the mud clams in the Siuslaw estuary got their start in the 1880s when they were hand planted by three people who went down to Coos Bay, dug the clams, replanted them along the Siuslaw and threatened that anybody who dug them up during the first five years would be shot. The clams were in Coos Bay because it’s a big port with ships from around the world, including the East Coast. And clams have a way of hitching a ride with ships.

Mike’s favorite area for mud clams ranges from the Siuslaw Bridge to the North Fork Bridge. And his equipment is simple: a small straight shovel and a bucket. He looks for a spot with a bunch of holes and starts digging, excavating his way toward the holes.

He suggests wearing an old pair of tennis shoes and bringing along another pair of shoes to
clam

The clams are there, just waiting to be harvested. Here are the inspiration, recipes, and tips to get you started.

Before You Go  
Don’t forget a shovel, bucket (required for each clammer), and the shellfish license; clamming is not free anymore. For Oregon residents 14 and older it’s $6.50 per calendar year. For non-residents it’s $16.50 per calendar year, or for a three-day license it’s $9. Check with Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) for regulations and limits (541-867-4741; www.dfw.state.or.us). To find out if any areas are unsafe for clamming, check the Shellfish Information Line (800-448-2474).  
Limits in 2006 were softshell (mud) clams 36, razors 15, gapers 12, and other bay clams—butter, littleneck, and cockle—20 (of which 12 may be gapers). clamming
clamming
drive home in. “I rinse off the tennis shoes in the river,” he says. “Growing up I wore rubber boots, and if I got water in my boots, I was miserable. So I don’t wear boots clamming any more.”

Most clammers do wear boots and
get muddy. It’s considered part of the clamming experience. But Mike enjoys showing people during his clamming workshops that you don’t have to. “I have white boots, white shorts, and a white shirt that I can wear and not get dirty. And I only use one hand; the other one never gets in the mud.” At my look of disbelief, he adds, “Really!”

When it comes to clamming in estuaries, plan to get there 1-1/2 to 2 hours before low tide. “February is the earliest I’ve dug clams, though I usually start in March. Some diehards even go in January all bundled up,” he says. “Several people avoid clamming in months that end with –R, but it’s okay with mud clams. Just be sure and go to a spot that hasn’t been out of the water very long and dig close to the water’s edge. They should be down about 18 inches in a nice cool environment.”

While mud clams are the most numerous clams in the estuaries, they are not the only variety. One
clam you won’t find there is the razor clam, which can be found on ocean beaches.

Razor clams disappeared for a time along most sections of the Oregon Coast, and they are not as large as they once were, but they are back. Because they are found at the beach, not in estuaries like other clams, they are subject to closures due to red tides.

“If you go after razors, you have to be fast,” says Mike. “Lay one flat on the sand and watch what happens: It will stand itself on end, start digging, and within two minutes be out of sight.”

I asked Mike about gapers (also called horseneck or empire clams), those giant clams that are 6 to 8 inches long and often weigh 2 pounds. He grinds them, cans them, and uses them just like mud clams.

Gapers are found in estuaries, but are quite rare compared to the prolific mud clams. Mike says there’s a spot in the Siuslaw area and another in Waldport and limited locations elsewhere. When I asked him if he knew where those locations were, he said, “Yes, but that’s a clammer’s secret.” That’s one question he wouldn’t answer. He just clammed up!

clammer

FYI: For information regarding clamming workshops with Mike Bones, contact Lane Community College at Florence (541-997-8444).

 

 

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