Clamming Tools

clam digging tools

A garden shovel often works well as a clam shovel. A garden rake as a clamming rake. These are often the cheapest and most effective clam digging tools.

This article helps explain the different clamming tools available to those who are interested in foraging for clams

Clams were a staple food for the Native Americans who lived around the Puget Sound. Think about it. Clams can’t run away, they can be harvested dependably at every low tide, they can also be harvested without much effort, and they taste great. It makes just as much sense for modern people to harvest clams as it was for ancient peoples. However, modern clammers have many more tools and much better clamming equipment than ever existed in human history. However, not all tools work for all clams. The first step in determining if you need to buy clamming equipment is to consider the types of clams you want to harvest.

Clamming tools, like most recreational activities, can be done cheaply or can get real expensive, real quick. Also like any recreational activity, having the right clamming tools can make a huge difference in the effort required and, ultimately, how many pounds of meat you come home with at the end of the day.

Clam Digging Tools

Horse, cockle, and butter clam

Upper: Horse clam. Right: Cockle. Left: Butter Clam

Before selecting the proper tool, you need to figure out what types of clam you want to pursue. Different species of clams live at different depths. The prize winning clam meat that most people hear about first come from razor clams and geoduck clams. Both of these species live very deep on very sandy beaches. Using a clam tube or clam ‘gun’ is the most popular tool for this type of clam.

Because of their depth and over-popularity, I very rarely pursue razors or geoducks. Instead, I prefer to forage on unpopular beaches for more common clams such as butter clams, cockles, and horse clams. All three of these species live at different depths on the same (often rocky) beaches in the San Juan Islands. A clam tube isn’t used for any of these clams.

Horse clams are the deepest at about two feet deep. A good clam shovel is a requirement for these. Cockles bury themselves in the sand at only two to four inches deep, so a rake is all that is needed to harvest them. Cockles are one of my favorite clams as the meat is firm, they have very few internal organs, and are almost all tasty meat. Butter clams live in between at four to eight inches deep. A combination of shovels, rakes, and water mining is needed to successfully harvest these.

Clam Rake

Cockles are the only clam that I rake for. I love the taste of their meat and raking for clams arguably takes the least amount of effort. Having a good rake is a key to success though. The difference between a good and bad rake will mean the difference between having dinner or not.

A good rake should be light weight, with tines that are two to four inches long and as thin as possible. Thin tines are important as you need the tool to slice effortlessly through the sand. You aren’t trying to move the sand, just cut through it in search of the clams. What you are really trying to do with the tool is feel for when the tines scrape over the top of the clam.

Clam Tube

Clam tubes are mostly used for razor clams and geoducks. Without these tools, it would be nearly impractical for recreational foragers to dig for these clams.

Have you ever plugged a straw with your finger and then picked it up out of your drink? Remember how the straw stays full of liquid as long as you keep the top plugged? That’s exactly how a clam tube works. You push it down into the sand, plug the hole, and then pull up. The sand and water inside will come out with it. To release, just unplug the hole and shake the clam tube.

Clam tubes only work well on very sandy beaches. They aren’t intended to deal with rocks of any size. For this reason, I consider clam tubes to be a specialized tool and not a type of clam digging tool.

Clam Digging Tools

A clam digging tool is a shovel. There are many sizes of shovel, and there are many sizes of clam digging tools. You’ll need both small and large to get the job done. Ideally, you won’t need a big shovel for a razor clam or a geoduck, but in reality you probably will. Digging for butter, varnish, and angel wing clams can be done with only a hand trowel, but digging for horse clams will take a serious tool.

Clam Shovel
I personally use a garden shovel as a clam shovel. However, I do plan to invest in a good clam shovel in the near future. I like the shovel in the video below because it has a small head and large handle. The small head is easier to sink into the dirt and sand, the long handle gives me lots of leverage, and the clump I dig up is smaller and lighter, meaning I don’t get tired as fast. The only problem I have with my garden shovel is that the tip is too pointy. I ultimately end up destroying a lot of smaller clams in my pursuit of the bigger horse clams. This would be less likely if I had a proper clamming shovel with a rounded tip.

Hand Trowels

clam digging tools

These hand trowels make great clam digging tools.

A good gardening hand trowel is a must-have clamming tool for all types of clamming. At some point, you’re going to end up on your knees digging in the sand. A hand trowel is much more effective than your hand. In a pinch, you can get away with a horse clam shell if you are short on hand trowels.

As I show in the video below, I prefer to use a plastic trowel. Not only is this the cheapest tool, the plastic is not likely to cut through the delicate clam shells. I only use the stainless steel trowel to dig in rocky areas where the plastic trowel is less effective. I mostly use it to gently pry up large, buried rocks near the clam rather than to dig with. I pretty much only use it when the plastic trowel isn’t getting the job done properly.

Clam Basket

Mesh clam bags are a necessity for clamming as well. When you dig for clams, they will suck up a lot of dirt and silt as they attempt to retract back into their shells. Before cooking, you need to let the clams spit out this silt. The best way to do this is to hang them in the water at the end of a dock overnight. This will give the clams time to relax and spit out the silt before you cook them.

When on the beach, I usually bring burlap sacks with me to store the clams. This is my preferred clam basket as they are cheap and I don’t care if they get destroyed. Back at the dock however, I have mesh clam bags just like this one that I get from my local diving store. These are more expensive, but they are much better for allowing the clams to spit out the silt. They are also easy to hang from the dock due to their metal frame. However, they are more delicate than the burlap, which is why I typically don’t take them to the beach with me.

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4 Responses to “Clamming Tools”
  1. Sherrie says:

    Great article Chris! The only tool you left out, and the one I use most often is a plain old clamshell off the beach. Easy to obtain, always around, and if you break it there are many more handy!

    Loved the article

  2. Kim says:

    Do you have recommendations on where to go clamming on San Juan island?

    • Chris says:

      Samish Beach on Samish Island is a favorite of mine. Spencer Spit on Lopez Island and a couple of the beaches on Sucia Island are also popular spots.

  3. Austin says:

    Oh my gosh Chris, thank you so much for your information about clam tools. I am doing a big project at school and it has a big affect on my grade, so thank you. KEEP UP THE GOOD WORK!!!!!!!!

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