Mad River Union
MOONSTONE BEACH/MCKINLEYVILLE –It was 7 a.m. at Moonstone Beach and I was already soaked to my haunches in numbing Pacific Ocean water. My partners, equally wet but hawk-eyed and focused, moved across the beach in search of something subterranean.
With long-handled shovels they tapped the sand’s surface, scanning for bubbles and other irregularities in the otherwise smooth surface. It was a summertime low tide, and we were digging for clams.
An hour earlier, I met commercial crab fisherman and unofficial clammer Craig Goucher and his wife, Moopuan Papurata – affectionately dubbed the Clam Queen for her talent – at their McKinleyville home. With a one-day fishing license and an eagerness to learn a new skill, I was ready to dig.
We departed for Moonstone Beach. The couple tried Clam Beach the day before, unsuccessfully, and thought maybe moving north would yield better results.
Equipped with short, narrow shovels on long handles, waist pouches for dug clams and licenses to dig 20 each, we made our way down to Moonstone Beach, surprised to see a few brave surfers in wetsuits catching the first waves of the day.
By tapping the wet sand with the shovel handles, clammers spook their victims, causing the clams to rustle the sand, disturb its surface and reveal their location.
Digging is quick, first by shovel and then by hand. Papurata, the most adept
of the trio, plunged her arm elbow-deep into the hole.
Razor clams have a spikey edge as well as a digger that allows them to escape quickly downward, their only survival mechanism. Butter clams, a rounder, flatter variety with no spikey edge, live along the rocks and under sand nearby.
After about an hour, Papurata, the Clam Queen, dumped her bag out on the sand. Four to her husband’s one. Collectively, Papurata and Goucher caught five clams, both butter and razor. I caught none. “That’s why I married her,” joked Goucher, “I knew she’d always be able to provide.”
Clamming conditions are affected by tides, if there’s been a recent storm that’s roughed up the sand, the availability of a beach and sheer luck. “Sometimes you can be out here for 15 minutes and reach your limit,” said Goucher. “Other days you can be out here for hours.”
Back at their McKinleyville home, the clams were cleaned and fried for breakfast. Cleaning the razor clams is a quick process of boiling, popping off the shell, slicing open the stomach and removing black grit from within each clam’s intestinal tract. The grit, Goucher explained, is food the clam has processed and is removed to prevent affecting the clam’s flavor. Butter clams are simply steamed and eaten whole.
Fish and Game requires clammers to keep every clam they dig, regardless of size or appearance. Prepared with a previous day’s catch pre-cleaned in a Tupperware container in the refridgerator, there was plenty of clam meat to go around.
Doused in breadcrumbs and fried, we ate them hot with a side of blueberries and yellow cantaloupe. The meat is sweet and chewy and best fried, to give it crunch. We thanked the clams for their lives dug in.