Digging for ocean clams is one of the simplest, most rewarding, unique and satisfying pleasures the great Atlantic has to offer. I’ve been clam fishing at 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 Weekapaug Breachway. Every six hours, the gap brings in a tide, filling the pond to the brim, or brings in a low tide, leaving the pond shallow with exposed salt marshes. It is at this point, low tide, that the clams come out. Winnapaug Pond features several small tributaries or inlets. Most are shallow, crystal clear inlets about 20 feet wide and knee-deep at best. Others are a little wider and a little deeper to the chest. What these inlets, shallow or deep, have in common is that there are clams at the bottom.
Before starting our excursion, it is necessary to perform some cleaning tasks. You will need a Rhode Island seafood license which can be obtained from city hall and several other places for a nominal fee. When your license is issued, you will be given a steel ring approximately two inches in diameter. Later we will explain how this ring will be your most important equipment.
The only other equipment you’ll need is a clam rake that looks a lot like your 5-tooth garden rake with 6-inch teeth. Only instead of digging up dirt in your garden, you will be discarding mud with the implement. Once you’re in the water, start raking over the sandy bottom until you hear and feel what appears to be a rock. Carefully bury the rake head behind this solid object and lift everything up – the object and all the surrounding mud! Then he dips the dough in the water several times, each time more mud comes off until, finally, the “object” appears. Sometimes it will actually be a rock, resulting in a moment of disappointment. Other times it will be a shell, an old one, of a clam that has long since left this world. But sometimes the rake contains a beautiful, bright, gray, living clam! And as mundane as this may sound, you can’t 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 for being too small. Don’t take it lightly. The guards of the Department of Environmental Management frequently check the clam fishing areas and can verify their catch if they wish. You don’t want to know what can happen if one of your clams enters its ring.
Most clams look for the smallest “fumes” that go well with a cup of melted butter. Others go after the bigger quahogs to put them in clam chowder. The clams I catch do not meet that fate. I hold each clam I catch in my hand, study it, marvel at its coloration, enjoy its freshness to the touch, and then 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, made their way through the gap, and came to the calm of the salty pond. How cruel it would be to reward the joy they brought me by presenting them with a bottle of cocktail sauce.