On the road…again!

Afghanistan to Zambia

Chronicles of a Footloose Forester

By Dick Pellek


Amateur Clam Hunters

Living off the land means more than hunting in the forests for small game; or digging up wild onions; or raiding beehives for honey.  Fishing in streams, ponds and in salt water also qualifies as living off the land.  Include in that idea the harvesting of crabs, oysters, and clams.  In a way, harvesting food from the ocean is partly hunting, partly foraging; and partly fishing—take your choice of descriptors.

Just as a good big game hunter knows things that greenhorns don’t know or haven’t yet learned; and just as an experienced forager knows where and when to go for seasonal harvests of wild onions or mushrooms, a seasoned crabber or clam hunter knows some tricks of the trade.

Part of the fun of being an amateur in these ventures is the joy of learning; and of seeing learned skills become amplified as the adventures progress. But without the prospects of having a professional near at hand, most amateurs develop their skill sets a little at a time.  Along the way, however, it pays to develop and compare harvesting techniques so that the fastest, most convenient, and most effective techniques eventually evolve. 

Although we have caught our share of crabs using hand nets and square crab pots that remain in the water for a period of time, this chronicle does not focus on harvesting crabs; or oysters. The latter are too few in distribution (in our area) to make oyster harvests a special quest.  This chronicle focuses on clamming.

In the Chesapeake Bay region, one time-honored way of harvesting clams is by wading into shallow water at low tide and feeling for buried clams with your bare feet. Water that is no higher than your belt buckle is ideal; so that you don't have to dip your head under the surface when reaching down for a buried clam.  

When the water temperature is warm enough in late spring, clams are partially or totally buried on the muddy or sandy bottom to a depth of up to 6 inches. In warmer water they tend to be found at shallower depths, making them easier to detect.  However, when the water temperature is lower, the common chowder clams of Chesapeake Bay tend to be deeper. Thus, if a person walks directly over the place where a clam is buried at a depth too deep to be detected with bare feet, that clam will be missed.  And that is where experience and better technique come to play a role.  As one of the many branches of the Chesapeake, our nearby Chincoteague Bay has all of those circumstances.

A three-pronged Hawaiian Sling is better at detecting buried clams that feeling them with bare feet. This contentious statement is made for more than one reason. Consisting of a five-foot aluminum shaft with a band of surgical rubber at one end and three pointed steel prongs at the business end; the Hawaiian Sling is a multi-purpose tool.  It can be used offensively in spear-fishing; it is a defensive weapon against sharks, manta rays, and moray eels; its sturdy construction aids in balancing and probing the sea floor in front of the clam hunter; and when plunged into shallow water over a clam, it marks the spot where the buried clam is located.  The clam hunter then digs out the prize when he/she is prepared.  Most importantly, the three prongs at the business end are able to “search” deeper and in a wider area than a prong with a single point; or the single line of footprints traced by the hunter.



An experienced clam hunter with her Hawaiian Sling

It is said that when the water temperature falls below 55° F., clams bury themselves so deep into the mud that they are not detectable using normal methods. Perhaps that is one reason why the clamming season closes, by law, in the winter months throughout the several states that are adjacent to Chesapeake Bay.

One thing you can count on: during warm weather and daylight hours with calm water at low tide, the Footloose Forester and his Bengal Tiger wife Thu will be spotted with their Hawaiian Slings in the mud flats of Chincoteague Bay, living off the land.