Channeling Frederick (Clamming at Penn Cove)

Frederick, the title character of one of Leo Lionni’s many wonderful children’s books, is a mouse that seems to be daydreaming and shirking his preparing-for-the-winter-months duties while his mice friends work. But when winter comes, he does his part by sharing the memories he collected and lifting their spirits.

Frederick by Leo Lionni

Last week Tuesday while others in my own household attended school and completed work around the house to prepare for our move to Fidalgo Island this fall, I sneaked off the second day in a row to Penn Cove to collect memories of my own during a rare minus 2.6 foot tide. During the previous day’s minus 2.2 foot tide, I’d attempted to collect Manila clams.

Two guys shucking clams at the site showed me the parts I should keep for my soup. Trimming off the desirable parts, my seemingly sizable haul was reduced to a tiny bowl of usable pieces that tasted kinda tough when cooked. I was disappointed. But I am not a quitter, so I decided to try again.

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Last summer, I collected several different types of bivalves at Mueller Park Beach Access, part of Penn Cove, and indicated by You Are Here on this sign at the site. This year I decided to skip the mussels, even though they’re my favorite, and cook some that I’d picked up at the commissary on one of the several days a week they’re delivered fresh. Meh…I prefer Toby’s Tavern’s always excellent steamed mussels.

This time, on advice from the Ala Spit guys, during my trip to Mueller Beach, I didn’t waste time collecting cockles and searched solely for Manila clams. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife site includes all the information a person needs to know about clamming in our state, including photographs and descriptions of clamsmusselsoystersPuget Sound Clam and Oyster FAQs, Public Clam and Oyster Beaches, and the logic behind Shellfish Harvesters…Please Fill in Your Holes.

I grabbed my clamming necessities: a shovel, special rake, fishing license, a tool to measure the small ones (minimum size is 1.5 inches across), a quality knife in case I decided to shuck the clams on the beach (note: you are required to shuck oysters on the beach), sunscreen, proper shoes (an old pair of minimalist trail running shoes that are slightly stiffer than swim shoes), a bucket and, of course, my camera.

About half an hour before low tide, I arrived at Mueller Park’s Beach Access’s small gravel lot (called West Penn Cove at the WA State Fisheries site). For anyone unfamiliar with this place, it’s located about a quarter mile from the intersection of Highway 20 and Madrona Way and is easy to miss, so check your map beforehand. I parked, grabbed my gear and headed across the muck towards the outgoing tide. Although only one other vehicle was parked in the lot when I got there, several others arrived within minutes.

The limits of the public clamming area are clearly marked, but…some people tend not to pay attention (several persons, not shown in the photo, wandered way outside the limits onto private property, no doubt because they did not know better). My advice: don’t be oblivious. If you aren’t sure where you’re allowed to go, just ask someone. Clammers tend to be really friendly and happy to help. One woman held up a mollusk she hadn’t seen before. It was a moon snail.

The technique I’d been told in the past was to watch for squirting water, which the bivalves squeeze through their siphons, unintentionally indicating their presence, then dig a hole about a foot deep at that location. I lucked out by finding a cockle with siphons exposed. I tried the dig-at-squirting-water-spot several times with using a shovel with little luck, but eventually came upon a guy who seemed to know what he was doing. He was using a rake and had simply started flipping over rakefuls of wet sand in one spot and spreading the muck around in a circle, moat-like, then collecting the clams. When he tossed a badly mangled mollusk carefully towards a gull, I figured he was a nice guy, and inquired about his technique.

He explained that he chooses a spot that does not look like it’s been dug, pushes the pitchfork tines all the way into the sand, then flips and spreads the soil, usually getting his limit (about 22 or so clams to stay under the 10 pound per person per day limit). Then he showed me what he meant and suggested a good spot. Before he left, he came over, placed some clams in my bucket and suggested corrections to my technique (I needed to push the rake in deeper). I switched to the rake, followed his method, and ended up with about 20 Manila clams.

As this beach is usually a great place to find oysters, I chatted up a few folks who didn’t seem to be having much luck finding any in a sea of shells. They speculated that the lack of oysters, which are planted at the site, was the result of over harvesting. While there I wandered through the shallow water in hopes of seeing sea creatures not normally exposed. I noticed submerged green urchins, more than I’d ever seen anywhere on the island, and decided to return the following day in hopes of observing them unsubmerged. I also also observed a California bay shrimp for the first time ever and some small fish that swam too fast to photograph. About an hour after I arrived, it was time to go as I’d collected my limit, a few photos, and some pretty good memories.

I returned home, rinsed the clams and cooked them in water in a huge pot with a clear lid. About five minutes into the steaming process, the clams began to open, making a sucking sound as they did. When they’d all given up trying to stay shut, I rinsed and iced them so that they wouldn’t continue to cook. Later I removed mainly the stomach, which is pretty big, then rinsed and chilled the small amount of chopped clams I had left to use in my chowder. I followed Michael’s instructions, placing the clams in at the very end, after the potatoes were done, and only long enough to heat them up. I wasn’t as impressed as I’d hoped to be. The soup was good, except for the clams, which were tough. My family agreed that we preferred the recipe made with crab meat instead of clams.

The following day I returned, channeling Frederick, in hopes of finding exposed green urchins. And did. I wandered along the water’s edge snapping photos not only of these small spiny creatures, but also a pileworm, unknown worm, feather duster worms (which were everywhere), ghost shrimp, sea stars, burrowing sea cucumber and some sort of brown anemone.

Ultra-low tides are few and far between, so I’ll be back (for photos, not clams) during the next one, channeling Frederick.

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