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Digging for Pismo clams at San Diego Beaches

Bring pitchfork, bucket, and license

 A Pismo clam from the Silver Strand
A Pismo clam from the Silver Strand

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.

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 A Pismo clam from the Silver Strand
A Pismo clam from the Silver Strand

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.

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Comments
7

Why do you discard the dark meat? Is it bad for you? I want to try this and don't want to eat something that will put me in the hospital.

April 15, 2013

The dark meat is where the internal organs are.

April 15, 2013

And how can you get a bucket of sea water to cook the pasta, without getting some sand in it?

April 15, 2013

You got to do like Everclear's song Santa Monica - "gonna swim out past the breakers..." There will always be a little sand in it so the best thing to do is get the water early and let it sit and the sand will settle. Then pour off slowly.

April 15, 2013

Thanks Christopher, Is there a season of the year, like right now thru summer, that is best?

April 18, 2013

The Pismo population in SD are not that great in number and the areas to get them are limited. Not many people knew about Pismos and where to get them in SD. But I noticed more and more people at the spots I dig. Well NOW I KNOW why !!! The areas you mentioned in your article are NOW inundated with people at low tide. I have seen at least 20 people at one spot at one time. If you can do math 20 people getting their limt of 10 a day, well thats 200 clams that day and the low tide last the whole week. DO THE MATH !!! THANK YOU very much for ruining it for people like myself and others that put in the time to look for our spots and kept clamdigging and clam spots to a minimum, if not a secret at times. That's whats wrong with SD ... EVERYTHING gets ruined by MORONS like you...

Sincerly.

July 4, 2013

I haven't logged on in awhile and just noticed this post. Everyone is entitled to their opinion.

The reasons that the numbers "aren't so great" is because we've allowed our waters to be polluted. Clams are filter feeders and as such are very sensitive to changes in things like temperature, ph, and pollutants. The fact that you want to keep the Pismo clams a secret means only you and a select few know about them. Subsequently only you and a few know of their plight. So while you greedily extol your solitude and enjoy, what you seem to think is only your right to enjoy, your pastime the Pismo clam populations are suffering because no one knows about them and therefore doesn't care about them. If more people found enjoyment through this recreation then they'd also become a voice for better conservation and cleaner oceans. Nature is naturally abundant and it requires all of us to be good stewards to ensure that abundance remains. You're doing nobody any favors, especially the clams, by taking the point of view you have.

Sincerly.

Jan. 3, 2014

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