Extreme clamming

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Yesterday, a day when the temperature never got out of the teens, I called my friend Linda.”The oyster flats are frozen over, so we can’t go oystering, but I’m going to try for some clams. You in?”

“I’m in,” she said.

Linda is always in, and that is one of the things I like about her.

We’d been oystering together many times, but this was the first time we went clamming, and the two activities are very different. Okay, not very different – oystering and badminton are very different – but the skills involved are not the same. There really is no skill at all involved in oystering, at least in Barnstable Harbor. The oysters just sit on the bottom, close to shore, and sometimes even exposed at low tide. You pick them up, measure them to make sure they’re over three inches and therefore legal for taking, and put them in your basket. When you have half a peck, the weekly limit per shellfish license, you go home. The only skill is packing the basket to fit the maximum number of oysters.

Clamming, though, can be tricky. First, you have to find them. Clams are much less cooperative than oysters in their mode of living; they bury themselves in the sand and leave no telltale signs. Then, once you find them, you have to dig them out, which is often harder than it sounds. In Barnstable Harbor, it’s a royal pain. The sea bed is mucky, and it holds on to its clams for dear life.

We donned our waders and gloves, grabbed our rakes and baskets, and ventured out to see if we couldn’t get the harbor to surrender some its bounty.

We waded in up to our knees in the area where the clams were known to be and started raking. Almost immediately, Linda came up with a big fat quahog. I kept raking. She got another one, and then another. I had nothing. She lucked into a good spot, I figured, and kept raking. Then, finally, pay dirt!

You almost always know when you hit a clam. You feel the tines of the rake go over the shell, and then you get behind it and try to pry it loose. If it’s a big clam, buried deep, you can break a sweat doing this, even in subfreezing weather. I felt for the clam’s perimeter, and then dug behind it for all I was worth. Finally, it gave way, and I pulled it out and plunked it in the basket.

I looked over at Linda. “I got one!”

“Excellent,” she said.

And then I looked at her basket. It was half full. Half full! And all I had was one stinking clam. How could this be happening? She was standing right next to me, digging in virtually the same spot. And have I mentioned that she’s about half my size?

“Okay,” I said, “Why is it that you have half a basket and I only have one clam?”

Another thing I like about Linda is that she never makes you feel like a jerk.

“I’ve been clamming for a long time,” she said, “And I have a really good rake.”

She pointed out that my technique was too scattershot. I should stay in one place, dig pretty deep, and then expand my search by working the perimeter of the hole I’d already dug, rather than starting a new hole.

“You’re traveling too much,” she explained.

I followed her instructions, and did a little better, but she was still pulling up half a dozen clams for every one I unearthed. It was deeply frustrating.

Eventually, I managed to get about two-thirds of a peck. (A standard shellfishing basket holds one peck, which is ten quarts.) Linda had long since gotten her peck, and had spent the extra time trying to find smaller clams and throwing some of the largest ones back. She offered to help me, and I took a few clams from her, but I had a peculiar sense that filling my basket was my responsibility, and I was reluctant to let her do my work. Since letting her help me would have meant we got back to a warm car, and then to our warm houses, that much faster, this was pure selfishness on my part. Having a friend who never makes you feel like a jerk is particularly important if you insist on acting like a jerk.

We were out there for a good hour, and we went home cold and tired. But it was a good cold and tired.

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