A Shell of a Time 

A Noob's Guide to Clamming and Crabbing.

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HEALTHY RELATIONSHIPS are built around healthy tension. This is what "they" say, at least. Which would be fine, except "they" have apparently never been on a trip to the Oregon Coast with my wife and me.

My wife, bless her, is a veteran clammer and crabber. She sees the ocean and she thinks "food." It's because she was born here. It's because my in-laws took their kids to the beach every summer and handed out shovels and rakes and buckets and crab rings.

Not me. Where I grew up, in a comfortable suburb a decent drive from the shores of Lake Michigan, the "beach" was nothing more than a place to relax. No one—certainly no one sane—ever thought to treat it like a fish counter.

But I'm not in Chicago anymore. I'm here. And this little back-and-forth plays out every time we make the drive over the coastal range. Except this year. Read and learn!

CLAMMING

There are acceptable reasons, in life, to wake before dawn. One is avoiding a highly public walk of shame. Another is catching a flight at the airport. The list ought not include "waking up to put your arms in sand."

And yet? If you want to get the foraging out of the way so you can spend the rest of the day shucking and cleaning and cooking shellfish, then tough shit. The best clamming you'll do is during low tide, when the wet muck they live in is exposed. And you'll want to get to the beach anywhere from an hour or two before. That means checking a tide table (all over the internet). That means setting an alarm.

(Oh, and super important? It means getting a shellfish license if you're 14 or older—just $7 for the year. Visit dfw.state.or.us, where you can buy one over the internet or look up where to buy one on the road.)

You can go almost anywhere and find a decent clamming bed—so long as you don't have a particular kind of clam in mind. Each bay has its own spread. Fat and juicy razor clams, for example, thrive mostly along the Clatsop County beaches, in places like Seaside. Easy to find cockles, on the other hand, turn up all over the coast.

My wife's family camped every summer in Cape Lookout, near Pacific City (southwest of Tillamook) and spent their mornings haunting Netarts Bay. It's not for beginners, necessarily, in that you need a boat to get to a lot of it. But the variety of waiting clams makes it worth your while: cockles, butters, and tasty littlenecks.

Beginners might want to head to Lincoln City instead. A guy named Bill Lackner runs free clinics in Siletz Bay through the chamber of commerce (oregoncoast.org/crabbing-and-clamming-clinics or crabbing.info). You won't need a boat, and you can find any equipment you might need.

Cockles are simplest—and super easy for kids to find. Give 'em a rake near the water and they'll be fine. But grownups should invest in a good clamming shovel that's long and narrow; don't bring what's in your garden shed. Or, if you like gadgets and want things to move fast, get a clamming gun—basically a long tube that sucks up sand in great bursts.

When you see doughnut shapes in the wet sand, you'll know you're among clams. Stick your shovel a little ahead of where you think the clam is and work it forward so you don't cut the clam—and then stick your hand in the hole you've opened up.

"You want to target the clams you're moving after," Lackner says, "and you don't want to be moving a lot of dirt."

Don't get overexcited once you get the hang of it. The state limits how many clams you can take home in a day—between 12 and 72 depending on the species.

CRABBING

Crabbing's the other great C-word on the Oregon Coast—and you can quite often do it at the same time you're hunting in the sand. Nearly every little town on the coast has a joint that rents crab pots and a dock you can throw them from.

Some places also let you rent boats, and instead of dropping pots and waiting an hour or more to see what you catch, you can hit the water and drop a string of open-topped crab rings that fill up every 10 to 15 minutes. Netarts Bay and Nehalem Bay both offer decent boat crabbing.

And I'll make another pitch for Bill Lackner down in Lincoln City. He also runs crabbing clinics—selling special folding crab traps (crabbing.info) that you can drop into the ocean right from the beach.

Crabbing's way less complicated than clamming. It's a lot of sitting and drinking. Sometimes you'll even strike out. But that's okay. Because if you do get lucky, Dungeness crabs taste way better than most clams, and don't take nearly as much work to prep and cook.

"I went today, but I got skunked," Lackner confessed to me. "That happens."

You can head out this weekend. But the best and meatiest crabs are caught in the late summer and fall, when shells harden. You'll also need to check with the state for catch limits—and don't forget your crab ruler. Crabs under a certain size must be thrown back. Same for females.

Because it's obvious, on the coast, who wins the battle of the sexes.

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