Shellfishing is one of the Cape’s most iconic year-round activities. There’s something almost zen-like about heading out onto the exposed flats during low tide and wading around, scratching the ground with a rake.
When clamming, your cell phone (or whatever other device typically distracts you) is safely stowed away elsewhere. You’re surrounded by the Cape's natural beauty for a few hours and you get to come home with something delicious for dinner. Kids love the experience, too, so pack a cooler of sandwiches and make a day of it.
While shellfishing is not at all complicated, there are a few things to keep in mind if it’s your first foray onto the flats.
You’ll need a license
A daily or seasonal license can be purchased at the local town hall. Every town has slightly different rules as far as who can clam (some towns require proof of residency), the type/size of shellfish permitted, how much an individual can take each week, and where and when you can go out, so take a look at the rules according to where you’ll be shellfishing here. Town halls can also provide a guide to high and low tide timing (you’ll want to head out about an hour before low tide, tide charts are also available online) and which areas are open to shellfishing on which days. Some days and areas are restricted, so it’s important to know before you go. Constables do roam shellfishing areas and will fine you steeply if you don’t have your license, so pop it in a Ziploc bag and keep it handy (some display it clipped to their chest in a plastic sleeve).
Types of Shellfish
On the Cape, you’ll find quahogs (pronounced co-hogs). The largest quahog is called a chowder clam and is bigger than 4 inches in diameter; these are best used for a hearty chowder or baked stuffed clams. Next is the cherrystone, roughly 2-3 inches in diameter, and the littleneck, which is 1-2 inches across. These last two are great for eating raw on the half shell, in clams casino, or in pasta dishes; they're even great thrown right on the grill. There are also soft-shelled clams called steamers that are fried or steamed, and eaten with butter.
You can find clamming equipment at any of the local bait and tackle shops on the Cape, including Sports Bait & Tackle in Osterville and Goose Hummock Shop in Orleans. You’ll need a clam rake; these aren’t like garden rakes—they have a special basket attached to the end to bring up your catch and let rocks and sand drain out, plus the tines of the rake. You’ll need a basket with a floatable attachment and a gauge, which is important—smaller clams get put back to grow up and keep the clam population going strong and it is something constables will check. Water shoes are helpful but not needed to clam in the warm months, in the winter you’ll need insulated waders and long gloves to wear over your layers to keep warm. Clams tend to hang out together, so if you find one, you’ll likely find more in the same area.
Storing and preparation
Shellfish are meant to be eaten within 24 to 48 hours after being harvested. Store them in a cool place like the refrigerator, but you can also freeze them for a longer shelf life. Discard shellfish with cracked shells, and if the clams are proving too difficult to shuck, steam them lightly to loosen the muscle keeping the shell shut.