Digging In (pt. 2)

Digging In (pt. 2)

Steamers, eastern oysters, northern quahogs, blue mussels, bay scallops, razor clams, surf clams and whelks live along the state’s coastline, according to the Connecticut Bureau of Aquaculture. It’s okay to dig or forage for these guys as long as you follow local regulations for recreational shellfishing, including where and when it’s permissible and how many you can take home. That information, including contact numbers to check whether or not a town’s shellfishing beds are currently open, can be found on the bureau’s webpage in the “Recreational Shellfishing” section.

I know how to dig for steamers, but I want to learn more about finding those other shellfish. As low tide approaches on a weekday afternoon, I meet Joseph Gilbert, a longtime commercial fisherman and owner of Empire Fisheries in Milford and Stonington, for a lesson. With temperatures in the 70s and cumulus clouds overhead, a carpet of smooth sand rolls out in front of us, welcoming us from the shores of Milford into the Long Island Sound. Gilbert grew up near here, and he says he can tell what kind of creature is underfoot by the shape of the siphon hole it left behind, so for a little while we study the sand, looking for the round mark indicating a razor clam. “They’re tasty, but the razor clam is an escape artist,” Gilbert says, explaining that at any sign of trouble, it backs up into its pre-dug hole.

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Here we find none of the razor’s marks, only small snails, plus a huge whelk and a couple of oysters resting on sand and rocks, so Gilbert heads into the water, and I follow. The temperature is perfect; good thing since I’m wading up past my knees. I’m sort of feeling at one with the sea as he begins dragging his rake gently along the bottom. He tells me it’s best to look behind the raised ridges of sand and along the troughs between them where the water is calmer. Out here, he says, we can find hard-shell clams, whelks, moon snails, oysters and speckled lady crabs.

There’s a simple, intuitive method to the raking. Gilbert drags the prongs along the bottom until he feels them hit something solid, which he then “explores.” After a few swipes in one spot, he pulls up a large quahog. After about 45 minutes, we’ve got a half dozen of them. “They’re great for chowders, stuffed clams, all kinds of recipes,” Gilbert says.

The hot summer months are coming to an end, but that doesn’t mean it’s time to put away your water shoes. “It’s how cold you can take it,” Gilbert says, adding that he has fond memories of plucking out buckets of clams for Christmas, back when “everybody owned a clam rake.” Days gone by, he laments.

I’m not sure I’m tough enough to rake the sea floor in December, but I’m hoping to get out into the Sound again at least once before its water chills. As for clam-digging closer to the tide line, where it’s easier to stay dry and warm, that’s something I’ll do well into the fall, reveling in the sunsets, the solitude and the thrill of pulling buried treasure from the mud.

Written and photographed by Jill Dion.

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