PAT NEAL: The great clam hunt

WITH THE ENDLESS rain, wind and gray skies we’ve had lately, many outdoor activities have been put on the back burner in hopes of warmer weather.

Unfortunately, this has led to one of the longest, most debilitating Cabin Fever seasons in years.

Efforts to cure Cabin Fever are as varied as the sufferers.

I dig razor clams.

The first historic reference to razor clams came from James Swan, in 1852, during a visit to Shoalwater Bay.

Now known as Willapa Bay, Swan described the Indians, the fledgling oyster industry and, of course, the abundant seafood.

Among the clams mentioned were the “long sand clam or razor fish.” That would be the razor clam.

Swan described the Indians cooking the clams on a bed of hot rocks covered with seaweed mats.

Swan said the clams were “tender and sweet, with a smokey flavor.”

Back then, strings of clams were dried and traded inland to tribes with no clams.

The value of the razor clam has increased to this day, where every clam season opening sees a gold rush of diggers head to the coast in hopes of spotting the faintest dimple in the sand that reveals the presence of the elusive razor clam.

Spotting the clam and digging them are two different things.

Sometimes it’s a challenge to match wits with a clam, until you remember they have no brain.

Then you find yourself kneeling on a tide flat with your arm in a hole in the sand, feeling around for a clam and realize you’ve been defeated and outsmarted by a creature with no central nervous system.

That makes perfect sense in the evolutionary scheme of things.

Bivalves have been around since the Cambrian Era more than 500 million years ago. The whole time the clams have been evolving into stronger, smarter, faster organisms with complex abilities to survive in an increasingly hostile environment.

Meanwhile, humans seem to be getting dumber every year.

This year, we observed some rookie clam diggers texting while trying to dig clams. They didn’t get their limit.

There are two ways to dig razor clams.

You can use a shovel or a clam gun. Both involve back-breaking labor.

Razor clams move with surprising speed in wet sand by extending their foot or digger, then flattening it out like an anchor. The clam pulls in its neck and digs down to its anchor with an undulating motion that is faster than some people can dig.

Some clam diggers hunt razor clams on the dry tide flats and others look in the surf where the clams are shallow and easier to dig, in theory.

As the wave retreats, you have only a little time before another wave crashes in.

You must spot the clam and dig like a banshee, with the roar of the surf at your back, until you’ve dug as deep as you dare.

Then you reach down into the dark, wet hole to grab the fleeing clam that is digging downward at a rate that is unbelievable to anyone but a clam digger.

With any luck at all, you are able to grab the shell of the retreating clam, maybe with only a thumb and forefinger.

There you struggle with the fleeing clam as it tries to dig to China.

In the heat of the struggle, you hear another clam digger rush by, heading back toward the beach shouting, “Wave!”

A decision must be made — let go of the giant, mossy-back maple bar razor clam or hang on and get creamed by a wave of unknown height.

Either way, your Cabin Fever is cured!


Pat Neal is a Hoh River fishing and rafting guide and “wilderness gossip columnist” whose column appears here every Wednesday.

He can be reached at 360-683-9867 or by email via

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