LONG BEACH — The rain wasn’t really falling at all. Rather, the drenching onslaught seemed to be shot out of a cannon from beyond the great horizon. Sheets of rain ripped towards the coast, running parallel to the surging waves and blasting exposed clam diggers like overextended flanks of continental soldiers.
By the time the sun sank into the Pacific Ocean and darkness enveloped the beach the familiar sway of lanterns and headlamps grew scarce. Soon, Washington’s longest beach was all but deserted even though low tide was still more than an hour away and the best digging typically occurs in that window directly preceding the ocean lowest ebb.
This preamble is a long-winded way of saying that I was soundly skunked last Saturday while trying to take advantage of the first razor clam digging tide at Long Beach since last spring’s razor clam festival. Thankfully, both anecdotal evidence and counting stats from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife show that this reporter isn’t some inferior hunter of the succulent bivalve. On the contrary, the onslaught of aggressive ocean conditions simply weren’t conducive to success.
“I was down there myself on Saturday night and it was pretty darn rough. It was blowing a steady 20 miles per hour with gusts above 35. That and the surf was way up in the pouring down rain. It almost couldn’t have been worse,” confirmed WDFW coastal shellfish manager Dan Ayres, who was on hand helping to collect data on harvested razor clams.
Ayres noted that new data on clam size and density will be used to determine the frequency of future openings on the Long Beach Peninsula. However, that data was hard to dig up on Saturday due to sustained blustery conditions that depressed turnout and kept most of the resident razor clams from revealing themselves.
“Normally we won’t stop people and measure their clams unless they have a limit but there were no limits to be had. We were measuring three here and four there just to gather what information we could,” added Ayres. “It was a smaller crowd than we expected but I think most people looked out their window and said it seems foolish.”
Ayres said that during the peak digging hours at Long Beach the Coast Guard issued a warning for water spout activity off the coast of Northern Oregon and Southern Washington. He noted that he’s never heard a similar warning come over the radio during his career and explained that those wind driven water spouts had potential to turn into tornados if they’d made landfall. For good measure, there were occasional flashes of lightning and booming thunder, too.
“Whether anything materialized out of that I don’t know but it’s just an indication of how extreme things were,” said Ayres.
Still, there were plenty of dogged diggers who were intent on trying their luck during the first opening at Long Beach since April. Some of them even garnered modest rewards for their efforts.
Ayres noted that most of the clams surveyed by WDFW staff at Long Beach on Saturday measured between three and four inches in length. He said the best digging results were found on the northern most sections of the peninsula where Willapa Harbor provided some protection from the elements. However, south of Ocean Park there were no clams counted at all — Only cold, wet and frustrated diggers.
Two diggers who braved the ocean’s fury were Brenda Kohlschmidt and her fiance Ken Gustafson, both of Longview. As I approached their lonely lanterns on Saturday I had a hunch they were into a mess of clams since their lamps seemed to be holding a steady position along the surfline. As I drew near, though, the two lanterns suddenly seemed to combine and only a single beacon was left shining.
When I finally reached the couple they were cutting a beeline across the sand and heading for their truck after a sneaker wave had swamped Gustafson’s lantern and washed out any remaining enthusiasm for the extreme digging episode.
Still, Kohlschmidt and Gustafson had about eight clams in their possession between the two of them including a girthy six inch specimen. When Ayres heard of the couple’s haul, which is just more than half of a single daily limit, he said it would have represented the biggest cache of razor clams he’d encountered all day.
Kohlschmidt and Gustafson were inspired by their taste buds to hit the beach during the heart of a raging winter storm.
“The prospect of the wonderful clam chowder I’m going to build. I have a wonderful recipe and you always want to look for that and to eat them. They’re good stuff,” insisted Kohlschmidt. “We love fried clams too, so that’s what makes us come out on a day like today.”
Kohlschmidt bragged that she has a secret recipe for her clam chowder that takes it beyond the pale. However, she was willing to share some insight to cooking up a classic cup of chowder.
“You’ve got to make a lot of bacon in it. You’ve got to saute your onions and your celery in there and you’ve got to put your clams in there just to get them enough done,” said Kohlschmidt. “Then there’s a secret ingredient I can’t share. It was passed down and the guy who gave it to me is passed away now so I’m keeping his secret.”
Kohlschmidt did add that it’s imperative to use low heat in order to prevent the chowder curdling mistake of scorching the milk. She had additional advice to share with anyone who might be considering hitting the beach and hounding clams for the first time.
“Come out when it’s dry and not raining!” Kohlschmidt cackled through the rip of the wind and rain. “We’re enjoying it as much as you can on a night like this.”
Gustafson chimed in and added that drying out can be the most rewarding part of any clam dig.
“I think we’re going to go back to the hotel and get warmed up,” Gustafson said as he packed his wet gear into the truck.
“Get dried out, have a nice drink, and chill,” clarified Kohlschmidt.
At Dennis Company outfitters in downtown Long Beach the floor manager and resident razor clam expert, Casey Shope, said that the long-awaited opening helped to bring a crowd to the beach town during the traditional offseason.
“A lot of that has to do with the holiday weekend as well. It just kind of worked out well with people coming home to visit family for the Christmas break and stuff, plus there’s the clam tide, so why not,” said Shope.
He said that full-time locals tend to have a saltier outlook on the recent razor clam struggles at Long Beach.
“I think they were kind of disappointed with the last couple digs with just undersized clams, and not a lot out there,” said Shope. “Ever since they did that 25 (clam) limit it just really killed off the population and then I believe there was a problem with the toxins to where it killed off a lot of the adults so they’ve just been letting them mature up to this point.”
Before nightfall on Saturday Shope stated his intent to hit the beach in search of his own clams once his shift ended no matter the weather. His parting comment seemed to predict the dour results that were in store due to the pounding surf and wild horse wind.
“Don’t turn your back on the water, that’s for sure. Those waves will sneak up and get you,” Shope said. “The clams could be on their way to China right now for all we know.”
As for the official results, Ayres says that additional digging may be necessary just to get a handle on what the clam population really looks like and how much digging opportunity Long Beach can handle.
“The overall population is decent they’re just on the small side. They’ve grown but I’d like to get another look at it,” said Ayres, who hinted at another possible opening in Long Beach sometime in February. “We have promised these (Razor Clam Festival) dates in April and there will definitely be clams to dig. They are growing but how fast they grow will be depend upon how much food was out there.”
In the meantime, the WDFW has finally come to an agreement with the Olympic National Park that allows for at least six razor clam tides on the west coast of the Olympic Peninsula. The first of those proposed digs will take place over the Martin Luther King. Jr. holiday weekend so long as marine toxin tests prove the clams are safe for consumption.
“They are on two three-day weekends which gives people who want to go up and camp at Kalaloch the opportunity to do that,” said Ayres, who noted that the WDFW asked for even more openings. “We had asked the beach to consider all the opening we have for Twin Harbors and these are the dates that they came back with. I’m pretty happy with it. We have six days and I’m not sure that will be it.”
On Wednesday the WDFW approved a five-day razor clam dig that’s set to begin on Jan. 2. That set of digging days is set for the following beaches, dates and evening low tides:
Jan. 2, Wednesday; 4:22 p.m.; 0.2 feet; Twin Harbors
Jan. 3, Thursday; 5:06 p.m.; -0.2 feet; Twin Harbors
Jan. 4, Friday; 5:46 p.m.; -0.4 feet; Twin Harbors, Mocrocks
Jan. 5, Saturday; 6:23 p.m.; -0.4 feet; Twin Harbors, Copalis
Jan. 6, Sunday; 6:59 p.m.; -0.4 feet; Twin Harbors, Mocrocks
Additional razor clam digging opportunities have been proposed for the following dates, beaches, and evening low tides in January:
Jan. 17, Thursday; 3:39 p.m.; 0.4 feet; Twin Harbors
Jan. 18, Friday; 4:30 p.m.; -0.4 feet; Twin Harbors
Jan. 19, Saturday; 5:18 p.m.; -1.1 feet; Twin Harbors, Mocrocks, Kalaloch
Jan. 20, Sunday; 6:05 p.m.; -1.6 feet; Twin Harbors, Copalis, Kalaloch
Jan. 21, Monday; 6:51 p.m.; -1.8 feet; Twin Harbors, Mocrocks, Kalaloch (Martin Luther King Holiday)
The other dates proposed for Kalaloch Beach include Feb. 16, 17, and 18 over the President’s Day weekend. Up to date information on razor clam tides and regulations can be found online at https://wdfw.wa.gov/fishing/shellfish/razorclams/current.html.