Water Mining for Clams

A helpful article on less labor intensive clam digging. Combined with the right clamming tools, this technique will ensure you leave the beach with plenty of clam meat.

Easter Saturday and we are heading out to one of my favorite activities here in the San Juan Islands; digging clams!

There is truly no more beautiful spot to be living than here. We are sailing out from Cap Sante Marina where we have the boat moored and heading to the North side of Guemes Island, where there is a great clam beach, and the tide today is perfect. Clam tides are very low tides and we don’t usually go unless it is at zero or lower. Conditions are wonderful, the sun is shining, and the water is just as smooth as glass. Not much sailing will get done, but we are on a mission for clams.

Being on a sailboat (max hull speed 7 knots) gives you a lot of time for reflection. Most of my time is spent planning for the day when we will cruise full time. Not tied to the shore by any lines and free to go wherever the wind may blow. I often think that when that time finally comes and we are free to enjoy the fruits of our labors, we are most fortunate to already be established in an area where sufficiency is obtainable with such little effort. I am of course biased in my opinion because I live here, but that’s okay, we are allowed our biases.

We have anchored and Chris, Ken and I are setting out for the harvest. This trip we are in search of clam chowder clams and for our group these consists of large cockles, horse clams and the large butter clams.

Horse, cockle, and butter clam

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

Of course I will keep an eye out for some small steamers as well, our favorite being the little neck clam which is wonderfully yummy with garlic butter and Ritz crackers.

When we first moved here and I began to learn the art of being a clam digger, I had the method of using a clamshell that I found on the beach and digging around wherever I found signs of clams. Clam signs are small indentations in the mud, a “spout” of water from the clam pulling his snout into his shell, or actually locating the snout of the clam showing in the sand. If you are a beginner you can start the search near a large rock low on the beach. I have found that clams usually congregate in these kinds of areas.

Clam beach on Sammish Island in the San Juan Islands

On the beach and ready to dig

We are all loaded up with the supplies we need to get our first batch of clams this year and head to the beach in the dinghy, ever watchful for the many varied seaweeds that can be harvested to fill our pantry as well. Today I found some Alaria seaweed and am going to experiment with using it as a base for broths and a thickening agent. More information on this can be found in the book Pacific Feast and I will write about my progress in another post.

On the beach and ready to dig. Clamming is done on the hands and knees digging in the sand and rocky areas of the beach, Ken has perfected a method that is very quick and easy so we don’t’ have to spend too much time in the hard work of digging. We call this “water mining” clams and as you can see in the video it really is very easy and produces a lot of clams in a very short time. In just about two hours we gathered enough clams for 11 cups of chopped clams that we will make into canned clams tomorrow, and a very nice batch of small steamers for dinner.


Equipment needed: Mesh bags, a bucket, shovel, clam rake, clam shovel, or an old shell collected from the beach.

Always check with the health department hotline for beach closures before digging for clams or any shellfish.

Using the clam digging tool you have selected, start your hole at the point the clam sign is found, dig to a depth of about 6 to 12 inches deep and about 2 feet in diameter. If you have not found any clams while you are digging the initial hole, move to another spot.

Once you have found some clams and dug your hole, there will be water in the hole, this is good. Using the water in the bottom of the hole, just splash the sides of the excavation to move the dirt away from any rocks or clams that are in the wall of the hole you have started. You will want to dig a hole about 3 to 6 inches deeper than you are finding the clams so there is someplace for the dirt and rocks to go. You will use the bucket to remove excess water and dirt from the hole during the dig. As you dig deeper in the hole you are also making it larger around. Remember that the dirt you dig out, you will replace when you are finished per WDFW regulations for Washing State. Keep splashing the water onto the sides of the hole. More and more clams are uncovered. Keep at this till you have completely removed all the clams at this dig site or until you get your limit.

Once you have harvested your limit of clams, you will want to keep them in a bucket of seawater, or a mesh bag hanging in the water. This depends on whether you have a boat or not. We usually keep the clams hanging from the side of the boat overnight to let them flush all the sand out.

Before we had a boat I would bring them home and soak them in an ice chest we had filled with seawater for a few hours. Then I would prepare a mixture of cold water to cover the clams, adding some sea salt and corn meal, the clams suck up the corn meal and spit the dirt out, and when steamed the results are very nice stuffed clams.

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3 Responses to “Water Mining for Clams”
  1. Diana Lind says:

    You video shows as “private”

    • Chris says:

      Thanks for the heads up. Unfortunately that video was posted on a friends account and I don’t have access to change the privacy settings. 🙁

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  1. […] Butter clams live in between at four to eight inches deep. A combination of shovels, rakes, and water mining is needed to successfully harvest […]

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