The trees are blooming, and spring is in the air. For Steve Gray and Toshio Inahara, that means it’s time for razor clams.
It’s the height of razor clam season in the Pacific Northwest, which means droves of avid diggers will take to the beaches at low tide in search of telltale bubbles and divots in the sand. Each will aim to dig up their daily legal limit of 15. All in all, two or three million of the shellfish will go home to meet a breaded and fried fate.
A hobby that keeps ‘an older gentleman young’
On a recent day, Gray and Inahara set out just as they have dozens — maybe hundreds — of times before, with plastic buckets in hand, waders on and carrying cylindrical sand-suctioning tools emblazoned with the name of an odd brand: Clamhawg.
Gray, a fisherman and cranberry farmer, met Inahara about 30 years ago, when he operated on Gray’s worn-out legs.
When each figured out that the other was a fishing and clam-digging type, the two hit it off. They’ve been digging together ever since.
“What keeps an older gentleman young?” asks Gray. Answer: clam digging, of course.
Gray is in his 70s and Inahara in his 90s, but they don’t plan on stopping any time soon. Inahara says they’ll continue the hobby “as long as we can walk and dig.”
We head for “clam central,” the stretch of beach that promises the juiciest bivalves. After all, this is Long Beach, Washington, the town that cooked the “world’s largest clam fritter” in 1940. The chefs used 200 pounds of clams, 240 eggs, and garden hoes and shovels in place of spatulas.
On this day, the men are only after their legal limit of 15 clams each.
‘There’s nothing like them’
Gray, who does all the talking, calls Inahara “Toke” or “Doc.” Inahara is almost completely silent. Neither waxes poetic about why clamming is a favorite hobby; it just is.
“You’re doing your thing out of doors,” says Gray.
“They’re wonderful. There’s nothing like them,” says Inahara.
“To sit down to a clam dinner is one of the most labor-intensive dinners you will have. You have to come down and dig them, you have to clean them, then you have to cook them. It takes a lot of time. It’s worth it.”
Gray delights in catching things that are edible and difficult to get, and all the better if they’re sea dwellers. According to his daughter, Leeann Gray, that’s what makes him a dedicated fisherman. Once, she says, as his storm-damaged boat was sinking, he refused to get on the rescue helicopter until the very last minute. His pregnant wife sat at home, listening on the radio as the Coast Guard tried to convince him to climb aboard.
He can tell you every detail of how the clam digests its food, and where to find the best ones.
“As far as you can look out there, there are clams that far,” Gray says, pointing to the ocean. “But they will be smaller clams, because this is the area that is exposed to where the algae come in. These clams get served lunch and dinner a lot more than those clams deeper out. So, the bigger clams are in this middle intertidal area. You’re standing in it. This is good clams.”
‘It’s more of an art to use a shovel’
Back in the day, Gray says, he’d always dig with a shovel.
“When we were young, we would call people bad names because they used these things instead of a shovel,” says his childhood friend, Gary Stamp, who has also joined in on the fun. “It’s more of an art to use a shovel.”
But aching joints and shoulder replacements convinced them to turn to using clam “guns,” which allow a digger to extract a neat column of sand.
Even with a clam gun, digging is no easy task. Gray and Inahara stomp around the sand like angry flamenco dancers in waders. Then they walk back the way they came, looking for “shows” — quarter-sized circular divots in the sand where a spooked clam has pulled in its neck in fear.
When they spot an adequately-sized show, they position the mouth of the clam gun around it.
The gun makes a sucking noise like a giant plunger being pulled out of a mud puddle. It whistles as the sand, which hopefully contains the shellfish prey, falls out in a column.
“You gotta get down there fast enough,” says Inahara as he gets down on hand and knee to reach in for a particularly quick-moving clam that managed to dodge the gun.
These are the Formula 1 drivers of the clam world. They are remarkably fleet of foot. (Yes, each clam has a foot, which looks like a flat slug.) Using their bodies like pistons wrapped in shells, they can dig at about a foot a minute. In a race with other squishy things, they would leave even the fastest snails in the dust.
In a race with hungry humans, they hold their own. Gray and Inahara repeatedly lunge into the wet holes to grab at the trunk-like necks disappearing in the liquid sand.
A clear-blooded creature that can create quicksand
The Pacific razor clam, known as Siliqua patula, is a weird animal. It has clear blood, and is capable of creating quicksand, which is the trick to how it can dig so quickly. It’s one of the few living things that can boast having its butt and its mouth in the same place. It can squirt water like a spitting llama.
Every year around this time, razor clams are at their fattest, juiciest state. That’s because they’ve been stocking up for months for the biggest bivalve event of the year: the big squirt. When the seawater gets just warm enough, the clams all spurt their sperm and eggs into the water. The cloud creates a new generation of baby razor clams, which will float around for weeks in the ocean, growing their tiny shells.
The adult’s sleek, strong shell gives the clam its name. When they break, they can be really sharp. Luckily, they always direct their hinge-side toward the ocean, so experienced diggers like Inahara and Gray know to reach in without slashing a hand.
These clams live completely solitary lives, burrowing in a sandy intertidal spot early in life and moving up and down in the same two feet or so of the same sand.
When Gray and Inahara dig up their clams and toss them in a bucket, they’re unknowingly creating a little clam reunion; it’s the first time those clams have touched one of their own.
But the important thing, according to Gray and Inahara, is that they taste good, especially breaded, fried, and dunked in tartar sauce, Tabasco, or Heinz 57.
“A light layer of fine flower, egg, and cracker crumb, and they are excellent,” says Gray.
Razor clam season lasts from October to May, but only 15 to 35 of those days are open for digging. Springtime is when scheduled digs rev up. Thanks to an abundance of large clams this year, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has added eight more days to the current dig season, at five designated beaches in southern Washington.