I’m not going to lie. The water is cold. It’s 12:51 p.m. on a Saturday and it’s low tide. I’m in ankle- to hip-deep water, digging for clams. The native Pismo clam, specifically.
The first clam you find takes the longest time. You’re freezing because you only dig for clams in months that have an “R” in them and you doubt they are there. It is the proverbial needle in the haystack.
I use a ten-prong pitchfork from the hardware store. That and a five-gallon bucket full of saltwater to hold the clams and a tape measure. You need a tape measure. The clam must be 4½ inches at its widest points. The last thing you need is a fishing license with the ocean enhancement: $35 for a year or as a resident you can get a one-day license for $15, and it includes the ocean enhancement.
The clams are on the ocean side of our beaches. My favorite spot is at the Strand State Park. It costs $10 to park all day. The beaches in Coronado and Imperial Beach are free and have clams, too. I park in the first lot near the entrance. I square up with the park gates and enter the ocean from there.
It’s low tide, and this is important. A lot of people wade out up to their belly buttons in the cold water in wetsuits. Not me. I’m clamming to have fun, to get dinner and as part of my day at the beach. I don’t want to be freezing for a couple of hours, and I don’t want to have to mess with a wetsuit. Board shorts are more than enough.
It takes about 45 minutes, but I finally hit one. Did I hear the pitchfork tine scrape something? Yes, I did. Stop moving! Don’t move the pitchfork an inch. Bend over and start digging where the pitchfork is. It should only take you 3 to 4 inches to find the clam. Dig quickly so it doesn’t get away. Waves will smack you in the face as you’re compromised, but don’t you dare let go of that clam.
It’s in there good, and you feel the heft of it as you wrench it from the sand. Now stick your foot in the hole. Stick your foot in the hole! If it isn’t 4½ inches at its widest points, you have to rebury it in the same hole you dug it out of.
One clam is now in the bucket. The water isn’t so cold. There’s a rhythm to it now. You know where they are. Stick to the soft sand that is only shin-deep at low tide. Be methodical. Create a pattern and you’ll soon hit your daily limit of ten for dinner. You can’t miss the rest of the clams. The tines of the pitchfork stop like you’ve hit a rock wall. It’s unmistakable.
My favorite way to cook them is on the beach with my propane stove. I toss them in a pot with a bottle of white wine, garlic, and butter and steam them till they open — about 15 minutes. I go out past the breakers and collect another pot of saltwater to cook the pasta in. It’s really salty but so good. Cut the clams, discarding any dark meat, and top the pasta with the clams and the sauce they steamed in.