Although the geoduck, the horse penis-sized bivalve around which Anthony Bourdain wrapped his manly lips in the Pacific Northwest episode of No Reservations, doesn't lurk beneath the beaches on the Oregon Coast—you'll have to head north for that 20-pound mollusk—we do have plenty of tasty, sizable gaper clams and other briny edibles for the taking.
Pick up an Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife shellfish license, pack a bucket, cooler and garden shovel, and you can harvest everything from razor, cockle and littleneck clams to crabs, mussels, barnacles (yes, you can eat them) and more. Mussels and clams can be found in most Oregon estuaries, but popular spots to harvest them, due to diversity and abundance, include Tillamook, Netarts, Yaquina and Coos bays.
The best time to dig for clams is usually an hour before or an hour after low tide. No matter what type you're after, you want to locate the "show" (the hole revealed by a clam on the surface of the sand as the tide recedes) and then dig around it, not straight into it, with a shovel, clam rake, clam gun (pictured above) or your hands, depending on the type of clam you're after. Once you've gotten close to the clam's depth, finish digging with your hands so that you don't damage the neck or break the shell. Remember always to refill those holes so that remaining clams have access to the surface.
If you'd like a seasoned guide for your first coastal forage, John Kallas, founder of Wild Food Adventures and Portland's Institute for the Study of Edible Wild Plants and Other Foragables, regularly hosts daylong coastal clamming and edible seaweed-gathering workshops that teach would-be foragers how to identify holes in the sand that lead to different types of clams, and when to dig like a dog with your paws rather than with a shovel.
Kallas' No. 1 advice for Oregon shellfish-gatherers: "Carry your license with you at all times, and don't take over your limit. They've got parks people out there, and they'll fine you. They give hefty-priced tickets…. They count the tiny ones." According to Sergeant Jeff Scroup of the Oregon State Police, the bail for a "shellfish overage violation" is $150, and a judge can impose a $50 per clam or crab fine, with a maximum punishment of a $6,250 fine and a year in jail. So count your clams carefully.
Additional advice: Harvest only what you know you'll eat—these babies don't keep long—and determine how you'll prepare your catch before you start hunting. Store your haul in a cool place where they can breathe. In other words, honor thy shellfish.
The biggest difference between commercial clams and those you harvest yourself is sand. Most commercial clams are cultivated well above the ocean floor and are deliciously sand-free. With proper cleaning, however, you can eliminate most of the grit and grind from your bounty. Soak clams in saltwater for several hours so they'll expel the sand they brought with them, and give them a good scrubbing with a stiff brush before cooking.
Tainted shellfish can kill you if it contains high concentrations of biotoxins such as saxitoxin or domoic acid, which are responsible for paralytic and amnesic shellfish poisoning, respectively. Even filter feeders that have been thoroughly cleaned, cooked, and eaten with a dainty little fork can land you in the ER. Before heading out with a shovel and bucket, visit the Oregon Department of Agriculture shellfish website (oregon.gov/ODA/FSD/shellfish_status.shtml), or call its shellfish safety hotline (986-4728 or 1-800-448-2474) for up-to-the-minute alerts on when it's safe to harvest. And never take clams that are chipped, broken or open. You only want to eat those that are alive and healthy.
If you want to self-school, Kallas recommends The Beachcomber's Guide to Seashore Life in the Pacific Northwest by J. Duane Sept and Pacific Seaweeds by Louis D. Druehl. And if you're looking for reading material about wild edibles this time next year, keep your eyes peeled for the first book in Kallas' wild food adventurer series.