When you live on Cape Cod there are two schools of thought about clam chowder. Of course, it will have to be New England style, made with butter and cream. The question comes “What variety of clams will you use?” The two main varieties are the soft-shell clam known as a steamer and the quahog, a hard-shell clam that likes a muddy/sandy bottom and has a very pronounced and salty flavor. When small they are called little necks or cherry stones, and often eaten raw as an appetizer. When they grow larger than three inches across, they become a little tough for eating raw and are often ground up and used in chowder or stuffed clams called stuffies.
When harvesting quahogs, they are often dug using a clam rake, a long-handled rake/basket tool that scratches the clam up from the sea floor and rolls them into the basket.
The hardest part of quahog fishing is finding where the clams are, they are easy to scratch up as they lie just below the surface of the muddy bottom and it is frequently possible to see a small 3/8” or so oblong blowhole in the bottom directly above the clam. The other clam often used in chowder is called a surf clam or sea clam. These clams have a less intense and sweeter flavor and can be very large, as much as 6” or 7” from edge to edge. They can be found in both shallow and intermediate water depths. Wading and scratching them up with a traditional clam rake works well, the challenge is finding a bed of clams.
During the time that I lived on the Cape I would visit the clam flats once or twice a week, depending on what I felt like having for dinner. During my clam digging experiences I often met commercial shell fishermen and I became acquainted with several. One afternoon while digging quahogs I ran into Mike, who was filling an order for one of the local restaurants. We talked for a bit and then he asked me if I would be interested in joining him on his sea clam bat, he had an order for eight bushels of sea clams and was going out in the morning. How could I refuse? I had never been on a hydraulic clam boat before and looked forward to the experience.
When you drag for sea clams it is not overly sensitive to the tide, especially since we had less than three feet difference between high and low tide. Mike had left a marker buoy where he had good clamming recently, so we headed for his spot. The buoy was not large, less than a foot across. There were not very many hydraulic clam fishermen in the area, so the odds of one of them finding his buoy and “secret” spot were slim. Commercial fishermen are a very secretive lot and their livelihood depends on their catch, so they guard all information carefully.
We stopped the boat at the buoy and rigged up the drag basket and lowered the gear into the water. We went for less than ten minutes when Mike put the boat into neutral and brought the basket on deck. It was loaded with large sea clams, probably at least a half bushel. It didn’t take too many more runs before we had filled his order and put some aside for me to use in a chowder.
Once I got the clams home, I immediately began shucking them. I had built a special table out of 2X6 lumber behind my garage that I used to shuck clams and fillet fish. This is messy work, and best done outside. When done, I had more than a gallon of clam meat, enough to make several batches of chowder. What a wonderful day on the water!
Epilogue: Earning a living as a commercial shell fisherman is hard work. There is a sense of freedom in that your income is directly proportional to how much effort you put into harvesting shellfish and your skill in finding the best beds and locations to fish. For a wading shell fisherman, the cost of entry into the work is modest: good quality waders, an assortment of clam rakes and collection containers and a vehicle that you are willing to watch rust out as you constantly load shellfish coming from salt water. Many of the pickup trucks I would see parked at the landing had rusted out beds replaced with wood planks, which do not deteriorate as much as metal when they encounter salt water.
The bottom line is that clam chowder tastes even better when you find and dig the clams yourself!