How to Go Clamming in Washington State: A Beginner’s Guide

Razor clams are an especially delicious type of clam, and catching them is just the sort of activity my little boys love. When I first moved to Washington, I accidentally ended up in the razor clam capital of the world. However, I didn’t know what a clam looked like, or what a clam gun was, or how to go clamming, or how to clean a clam or a single thing about cooking clams. (In case you are wondering, yes, I embarrassed myself. Several times.)

Now that I have learned everything there is to know about clamming in Washington state, I am here to share the knowledge. Let’s be honest: it has taken me decades to fully appreciate the razor clam. But now that I have, I understand why people are willing to head to Washington beaches in droves in dark, freezing rain to chase down these surprisingly fast-moving bivalves.

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Clamming 101

The Pacific razor clam, or Siliqua patula, is a bivalve only found on the western edge of the North American continent, from southern Alaska to northern California. However, it is most plentiful on the wide, flat sandy beaches of southern coast of Washington, around Long Beach and Ocean Shores.

The razor clam is a funny looking affair, fitting in a long and skinny shell with its foot sticking out of one end and its neck out of the other. Razor clams live buried in the sand, foot down and neck up, and you can only get anywhere near them at low tide. To catch a clam, you first guess at its location, then dig a hole with a clam shovel or tube, and grab the clam before it digs down farther in the sand and gets away.

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) regulates the harvesting of razor clams, and you must have a permit. You may only dig clams on specific beaches on specific weekends (or “clamming weekends”) and sometimes the state will open those beaches only a couple weeks ahead of time. The state’s website has the calendar and details.

On the appointed day, drive onto the beach and you’ll notice people starting to cluster and dig an hour or two before low tide. There’s a party atmosphere around a clam dig that makes you understand why people would stand outside in 40 degree rain for this type of thing. People decorate their trucks with twinkly lights — the better to find their vehicle in the dark after the dig.

Washington state clamming
Catching razor clams is a time-honored tradition on the Washington coast! Next time we will rinse the sand off one before we take the photo…

Razor Clam Season and Regulations

If everyone dug clams all the time, there would be no razor clams left on our coast. Clam season runs from fall through spring. Check the state website to see which beaches are open for which weekends.

You’ll want to look at the state’s map of clamming beaches. They refer to the north jetty at Ocean Shores clear up to the Copalis River as Copalis Beach, and from the Copalis River to the border of the Quinault Indian Reservation as Mocrocks. Razor clams are also found at Kalaloch, Twin Harbors (around Westport and Grayland), and Long Beach. Native populations have different rules and different dig times, so just because you see people digging on a beach doesn’t necessarily mean you can dig there.

The WDFW does check licenses and limits so this isn’t a place to cheat the system. Each person has a 15 clam limit per dig. Each adult and child needs a clam permit. Permits are $10 for adults but free for kids; however, kids have to be actively digging to be allowed their limit (i.e. you can’t leave your five kids in the car and collect their 75 clams for them).

Clam gun
Three boys watch intently as Dad demonstrates usage of the clam “gun” or tube.

Clamming Equipment

If you want to make locals laugh, look terrified when they mention a clam gun (like I did when I first moved to the Washington coast, a young, single out-of-stater, fresh out of grad school).

You can catch clams with a variety of tools, but on Washington beaches you will most likely see clam shovels and clam tubes (or “guns”). The easiest tool for a beginner is a clam gun, a long hollow tube with a handle on top. Cheap ones are made of plastic; more expensive ones are metal.

In addition to your clam gun or shovel, you’ll need a clam bag for collecting your clams (this net bag can be tucked into your pants, keeping your hands free); a bucket for putting the clams in when your haul gets too heavy for the bag; a strong flashlight (we like headlamps, and a good lantern is recommended as well, so you can find your bucket!); and proper clothing.

It is very likely that it will be cold, dark, and rainy, and you will definitely be at least ankle deep in the surf. You’ll want tall boots and a raincoat at minimum. If you have waders, great. Putting my kids in fishing waders was one of our best ideas. Without them, we would have had very sandy and wet children when we got home.

Washington coast clamming
After you remove the sand with your clam gun, you will (hopefully) have a clam in there. If not, peek down the hole left behind to see if you can catch the clam scurrying to the bottom and catch him before he gets away.

Catching Razor Clams

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has great information about how to dig for razor clams on its website, including a very good instructional video. As a beginner, it’s easier to start with a clam gun rather than a clam shovel.

First, you look for the “show,” a little dimple or hole in the sand right at the water line at low tide, where the clam has stuck its neck out. The clam is buried under there vertically, neck up, foot down, so you then work your long clam tube into the sand, hoping to catch the clam in the pillar of sand in the tube. As you do this, you have to be quick, assuming the clam will try to dig down farther. Once the tube is down in the sand, you put your finger on the hole on the top of the tube to create suction and then pull the tube out, pulling out the sand and (hopefully) the clam with it.

If you’re lucky, the clam comes out cleanly, just like in the videos. If you’re a clumsy beginner, like me, it’s possible there’s no clam in the tube — but the kids might be able to still catch the clam by sticking their hands down the hole. And they LOVE this, trust me.

You’ll put your caught clams in to your net, hoping some of the sand at least will shake off of them. Most people then transfer their clams to a bucket full of sea water to keep them fresh until they get home to clean them.

Razor clam
This is a raw razor clam neck. As you can imagine, there are plenty of jokes to be made while you clean the sand out of the crevices of this delicious bivalve before chopping and cooking it up.

Cleaning and Cooking Razor Clams

Cleaning razor clams is best done the night you catch them. This is not my favorite part, and let’s be honest — I make my husband do it. The first step (after rinsing off as much sand as possible) is just to dip them in boiling water long enough to open the shells. I like this step-by-step guide to cleaning razor clams, although in my experience it involves way more sand than they show in their photos.

Razor clams make excellent clam chowder and clam fritters, but honestly the most delicious way to eat them is cut fresh clams up into bite-sized chunks and saute them in garlic butter. You deserve it. You’ll have worked up an appetite after digging them and cleaning them. Delicious. You’ll realize that all that work was really worth it!

Razor clam fritters
Clam fritters are a delicious way to cook razor clams.

Tips and Tricks for Beginners

  • Low tides in the fall and winter are usually at night; if you want to try clamming for the first time when it’s not pitch dark outside, try a spring date.

  • Make sure you are dressed appropriately and have plenty of strong flashlights with you.

  • Bring a light to mark your car so you can find your way back to it in the dark! Battery operated colored fairy lights will make your car stand out from the others.

  • Watch what the locals do and be friendly. Especially if you have kids. Our kids have been the beneficiaries of the kindness of strangers who were willing to point out of a good spot for digging multiple times.

  • It’s tempting to run all over the place, but you’ll notice most people find a good spot and plant themselves there. Razor clams are buried densely together in the sand; if you find a good one, chances are there are a bunch more nearby. Stay put and keep your eyes open.

  • Sometimes, you just have a bad night —  a bad tide and a bad beach. Don’t give up (like I almost did after our first disastrous attempt)! Try, try again!

  • If you are heading out to buy clam guns, consider buying at least one that is metal. The plastic clam guns are cheaper, but when you are pulling hard on the sand, the tops can break. I’ve done this more than once, and you’ll be glad you had a better quality back-up on hand.

  • Above all, BE SAFE! Every year, it seems like, somebody dies clamming. Clamming is done right at the tide line, and rogue waves can suddenly crash over people. Stay together and watch the ocean. Be especially wary at night and with children.

If you want to read the world’s best book on razor clams, check out Razor Clams: Buried Treasure of the Pacific Northwest by David Berger.

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Northwest clamming