Digging for ocean clams is one of the simplest, most rewarding, unique and satisfying pleasures the great Atlantic has to offer. I have been clamming in Weekapaug, Rhode Island's Winnapaug Pond for 50 years and it never gets old.
The Winnapaug salt pond is connected to the Atlantic Ocean by the Weekapaug Breachway. Every six hours the breachway brings in a tide, filling the pond to the brim, or brings a tide out, leaving the pond shallow with exposed mud flats. It is at this point – low tide – that the clammers come out. The Winnapaug Pond features several small tributaries or inlets. Most are crystal clear, shallow inlets perhaps 20 feet wide and at best knee deep. Others are a bit wider and a bit deeper up to one's chest. What these inlets – shallow or deep – have in common is that there are clams at the bottom!
Before we begin our excursion, some legal housekeeping is in order. You'll need a Rhode Island Shellfish License which can be obtained at city hall and several other locations for a nominal fee. When you are issued your license, you will be given a steel ring approximately two inches in diameter. More later on how this ring will be your most important piece of equipment.
The only other equipment you will need is a clam rake which looks very much like your everyday 5-pronged garden rake with 6-inch teeth. Only instead of digging up soil in your garden, you'll be scrapping mud with the implement. Once you're in the water, you begin running the rake over the sandy bottom until you hear and feel what seems to be a rock. Carefully bury the rakehead behind this solid object and pull up everything – the object and all the surrounding mud! You then dip the mass into the water several times, each time more mud gets peeled away until eventually, the 'object' appears. Sometimes it actually will be a rock, resulting in a moment of disappointment. Other times it will be a shell – an old one – from a clam who has long since left this world. But sometimes the rake contains a beautiful, shining, gray, live clam! And for as mundane as this may sound, you can not contain your excitement! However, before you get too excited, grab that steel ring we talked about. If the clam you caught fits through the ring, the creature must be returned to the ocean as too small. Do not take this lightly. Wardens from the Department of Environmental Management frequently check clamming areas and they can check your catch if they so choose. You do not want to know what can happen if one of your clams fits through their ring.
Most clammers are in search of the smaller 'steamers' which go well with a cup of melted butter. Others go after the larger quahogs to be put into a clam chowder. The clams I catch do not meet such fates. I hold each clam I catch in my hand, I study it, marvel at its coloration, enjoy its coolness to the touch and then I return it to where it belongs – the soft, sandy bottom of the ocean. My reasoning is that these clams made their journey from the ocean, fought their way up the breachway and made it to the calm of the salt pond. How cruel it would be to reward the joy they brought to me by introducing them to a bottle of cocktail sauce.