The Second Deadliest Catch: Clams

By / Photography By Russell Kingman | May 12, 2014
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I love hearing stories about the good old days, when clams were abundant and clammers came home from a day of digging with a pocket full of cash. A good digger could fill 3- or 4-bushel baskets during a tide, and swing by the local bar after the clams were sold to have a few beers with friends and talk about the day.

Tidal flats for wild shellfish harvesting are a public resource, and can be harvested by anyone who holds a proper license, but clammers like to keep the good digging spots a secret. Inevitably, word gets around as to who’s getting the most clams and where they are finding them. There’s an entire underground network of the clamming world filled with suspicion, espionage and intrigue.

An old truck suddenly pulls into the parking lot. A man with dark sunglasses peers out onto the flats. He pulls out a set of binoculars and focuses intently on a woman who’s digging on the outer flat, trying to see how full her basket is. He rolls down the window and says to me, “She hasn’t even got a half a bushel. I’m outta here,” as he yanks the stick shift into reverse and speeds off to another area. I wonder what other secret spots he knows about, and how you get there. I need to make some cash (bills…groceries…).

As I drive around to check out the tides in different areas, I spot the old truck parked half on the side of the road in a residential area. “My God,” I think to myself. “He’s trying at Crowes Pond!” Then it occurs to me that he mows the lawn at the house he’s parked in front of. I see it all now, quite clearly. He’s made an agreement with the owner that he can cross over the property when they are away and gain access to an area that NO ONE has been digging. “Damn,” I say as I drive off, resigned to go back to a spot that isn’t that good and dig there. Not many clams, but better than none.

As I pull up to Ryder’s Cove, the clam buyers are there waiting for us. The old truck is there and the guy in the dark glasses pulls a heaping bushel of clams out of the back. No, two of them. Over a hundred pounds! Damn. I reluctantly pull my one bucket of clams out onto the parking lot. Maybe I have 35 pounds; about $55 worth after four hours of digging about a thousand holes.

I am not alone. We are in a sort of drought with regard to the clam population here in Chatham. Still, the clam buyers come faithfully to the docks to pick up our clams, quahogs and razor clams and then allocate them to various fish markets, restaurants and distribution centers. It’s been going on for centuries. I sell my clams to Tony. Then I swing by the package store and buy a cheap bottle of white wine, tired, sore, poor, but oddly really happy.

A bad day of clamming is still the best day. You get addicted to the wind, the water, and the intense workout of digging for four to five hours a day. You hate it. You can’t wait to get back out there. It’s a labor of love. There’s nothing I love more than digging alone on a vast stretch of untouched land in the wind and even the cold. Somehow, you meet yourself there. You find something intangible in the empty struggle to survive, in the bleak lonely cold on a winter’s day. You discover what you’re made of. Sheer will. Silence. Memories. Bare-handed work. Mortality, all the while, looming in the harsh winds. You can feel the history in the soil you dig, the same shores that our ancestors toiled upon.

A while back I was going out to the island where the clamming was better. My clamming partners, Scotty and Shan and I were making the trek all summer in a 13-foot Boston Whaler. The three of us, lunch bags, rakes, jackets, baskets, water bottles, spare fuel, and about 250 pounds of clams. The engine struggled on the trip home, rails low to the water, but we made it in and life was pretty good…until…summer waned and we had those two fateful November days.

The first incident occurred quite unexpectedly. We were all laughing, and singing “Don’t Touch My Clams” to the tune of “Don’t Let Me Down” by the Beatles. Scott had chimed in with, “Nobody ever really dug me, she dug me, she dug my clams…” when we saw a rather large powerboat heading our way. We grew silent as the boat approached us. Why wasn’t it slowing down or veering away from us? Suddenly, we all realized the same thing. Shan stood up waving her arms frantically. I was screaming “SLOW DOWN!” but the boat just kept coming and roared right by us.

The wake hit us hard, sloshing right over the rails, and buried the bow right under the next wave. In one second, we were completely swamped. Our clams toppled and floated around in our tub full of water. We bailed frantically and barely managed to keep the boat upright. After about 20 minutes, we had the boat basically dry, but the November wind was brisk and we were drenched. It was a cold, quiet 30-minute ride back to the dock.

It had been a close call. Shivering, we unloaded the boat and went to sell what clams we still had. That ended it. It was too cold and too dangerous to take such a small boat out to the island. The late fall waters had become increasingly unfriendly, and we were pushing our luck.

The phone rang. It was Uncle John. He’d found a 1970 reconditioned Evinrude engine and he wanted me to have it. Unbelievable! It would be perfect on my aluminum skiff! Shan, Scotty and I were back in business. We could take two boats to the island, and neither would be overloaded. I got the engine and launched my boat, “The Tin Can” as we call it, for a trial run. One pull, the engine fired right up. I sped around the empty harbor in the Tin Can. It was like getting my first car. I was free!

Our clamming trio made a plan. Both boats, strategically packed, would head out early to the island to get in a fabulous day of late fall clamming. The price was still decent at $1.50 a pound. We had an idea to check out an area that we hadn’t been digging since early summer and see what was there. We zoomed out around the cut, both boats riding high. We managed to get through the channel without having to get out and drag the boats through the shallows. Everything was working. I broke out into “Ground control to Major Clam” as we killed the engines and threw out the anchors. “Heeeere am I floating in my tin can.” We were all laughing. Spirits were high.

Up on the flats, there were some holes. Not many. We wandered around the vast area looking for a good spot. We decided to press on, as not many clam holes were showing. That was fine, we’d just power all the way to the end of the island where we knew there were clams. I had extra fuel. No problem. We piled back in the boats. I grabbed the rubber thing on the engine’s pull start and gave a triumphant yank, only to find myself lying on my back in the bottom of the boat. Something had snapped…something metal. I sat up, stunned. The pull cord hung lifelessly in the stern of the boat like the elongated neck of a dead clam. We were all silent.

Of course, I always bring a toolbox with some tools, a few clamps, duct tape and some thingamajigs just for this kind of scenario. Maybe I could fix it. After all, I had once fixed my VCR by merely whacking it a few times with a rolled up magazine. I took the cap off the engine, to inspect. It was, in fact, broken. A metal part had snapped: the one that recoils the pull rope. However, we managed to manually coil the pull, and miraculously, got the engine started. I had a weird feeling about it as we forged onward to the outermost sanctum of the island.

It was a nice day. The sun was out. The weather report had said winds would pick up from the southwest later in the afternoon, but we would be heading in long before that, so we clammed. There were clam holes everywhere. We all dug furiously and before long we had all spread out across this two mile stretch of beach. Time disappeared. Dig, dig, dig. The clams were filling my baskets. I was digging my way to China when suddenly a gust of wind ripped across the flats shooting sand bees at my shins. I stood up and looked around. The sky off to the west had grown dark and ominous. The atmosphere had changed. The once sun-soaked golden sands had turned to cement. The once serene water was starting to build, and you could see some white caps off in the distance. I looked around and yelled to Scotty, “We gotta get outta this place, if it’s the last thing we ever do!”

We all dragged our clams back to the boats and remarked at how quickly this weather had come in, a few hours before the forecast had said it would. The wind was really picking up. The forecast had said some areas would get gusts up to 40 in the evening, but it had become clear that this front was here already, at around noon. I knew that if the engine was to cut out when we got into open water, it would take too long to manually recoil it, and we’d be foundering in bad seas, which would likely result in us sinking in the turbulent water. We all put on life jackets. I hadn’t put one on in 23 years, and neither had Scotty or Shan. We had one shot at making it back.

When we rounded the point, winds were up to 30 knots and we were powering against the tide and wind, which resulted in a pounding harrowing ride. Spray relentlessly whipped over us, blinding us, and much to our dismay, was filling the Tin Can with cold seawater. I had one hand on the throttle, and one hand desperately bailing out the steady flow of water as we soared and slammed up and down the waves. Each time the bow jumped up over a cresting wave, the stern sank dangerously low into the water, drenching the engine, which began to make horrible gurgling and sputtering sounds—the sound an engine makes just before it dies. Every wave brought the makings of our demise. The ride in was cold, perilous, and seemingly endless.

We lucked out. We made it in. Our trio had a brief meeting once we were on land and conceded that we had to get a bigger boat, and our days of going out to the island were over until we had a safer ride. This, we all knew, meant our clamming yields would be cut in half. On the other hand, we were happy to be alive to clam another day.

That fateful November day is why, my friends, the second deadliest catch is clams. Clamming changes constantly. One day, a flat is prosperous and full of clams. The next day, the wind shifts, and not one clam hole shows on the beach. Every season is different. In the colder months, the clams dig deeper into the soil and extracting them takes more effort. In the winter, if it goes below 30 degrees, the shellfish constable puts up the blue flag, meaning no clamming today. You can go for weeks without being able to clam, as evidenced by this passing winter. When you can go, you have to deal with numb hands and cold feet, and a stinging wind on your face. Natural occurrences can radically change the clamming environment. Breakthroughs caused by storms and big seas through Monomoy have radically changed the channels, and brought in tons and tons of sand in the newly formed current flows, effectively burying clam beds and causing their demise. Every year the amount of clams that have grown to legal harvesting size varies. This year has been one of the worst due to the aforementioned factors, and quite frankly, reasons we don’t know. Some years are great, some aren’t. Nonetheless, a few diehard clammers stay with it no matter what the conditions, and continue in the arduous work to put these local favorites on your table.

Russell Kingman and Shannon Eldredge fish the Eldredge family weirs in Nantucket Sound, run Cape Cod Community Supported Fishery, and are independent wild shellfish harvesters in Chatham.

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