I’m not sure if you know this — I sure didn’t — but you can dig clams for free, anytime you want at Maine’s state parks. It’s not hard and you leave with a “free” meal, feeling like you got a bit of a workout and a tan. Plus, the taste of clams dug out of their mud pockets hours earlier is heavenly. Heavenly.
My friends and I headed to Wolfe’s Neck Woods State Park with buckets and garden trowels (not a good choice, FYI) knowing exactly nothing about clamming. Andy Hutchinson, the park manager, was there to show us some basics. Here’s what we learned:
To find a clam you look for aspirin- to dime-sized holes — ideally you’ll find two or three in a spot before you rake. This year you’ll find the clams near rocks (away from green crabs, which eat them in open water), which makes for rough digging. Once you’ve spotted your hole cluster, you swing your rake into the mud about 6 inches from the holes, otherwise you’ll stab the little guys to death. You then push your rake prongs down until they’re totally sunk in the mud. You pry up the handle to “flip the mud.” If you did it well, the fleshy end of a clam will poke out and maybe squirt at you. Then you dig him out by hand. Stay near the shore for regular, soft-shell steamer clams, go to a rocky ledge for hard shells.
Sounds easy? I dug seven in 90 minutes. My friend Matt dug 8 and Sarah dug 18. A true fisherman, she wasn’t sharing her success secrets.
If you’re thinking, “I could buy seven clams for less than the $3 park admission” you’re missing the point. Playing in the mud and sun with friends is super fun. And sometimes a clam will spray you with ocean water, which — warning — sends some people into giggle fits.
There are some rules to clamming: Each person can take only a peck (2 gallons) of clams. Each clam’s shell must be 2 inches long. State parks are the only place laypeople can clam for free, without a permit (Wolfe’s Neck is the best, there are flats at Popham and Reed too). You can’t clam at night. Not that you’d want to.
-Don’t expect to bring home pounds of seafood, unless you want to WORK for it.
-Bring sunscreen, water, a net or bucket, waterproof gloves (essential), a pitchfork or clamming rake, sneakers you don’t care about, a way to measure your clams to make sure their shells are longer than 2 inches. Andy cut slivers of 2-inch PVC pipe; if the clam could fit through it, it was too small.
-Expect worms and sea-centipedes. They’re squirming around everywhere.
-If you go to Wolfe’s Neck, you’ll take stairs down to the clam flats. Stay to the right. Don’t dig near or on that sea grass. Park Rangers say it’s a sensitive area.
-Check to make sure it’s safe first. The local sewage facilities are shaky and overflow easily, it seems. It’s not uncommon to have pollution clamming closures. You’re not allowed to clam on those days, and you wouldn’t want to anyway. Freeport’s clam hotline is 865-2904.
-Keep the clams in a dry bucket or net. Do NOT keep them in fresh water, it will kill them. An hour before you’re ready to cook them, you can put them in a bowl of fresh water (with some corn meal, if you’d like) so that they spit out as much sand as possible.
If you’re nervous about taking up clamming, Freeport’s adult education is hosting a learn-to-clam class, free with $3 park admission 6-8 p.m. Wednesday, May 28 at Wolfe’s Neck Woods State Park in Freeport. UPDATE: That class filled up. Andy says they’ll have another clam dig in June and to check the park’s website for an event listing.
Put an inch of water in a pot and get it boiling. Crush and chop the garlic super small. Once the water is boiling, add the clams and cover the pot for three minutes (If you have more than a pound of clams, consider putting them in separate pots or cooking in batches. If you cook too many at once, the bottom ones will be rubbery while the ones up top are undercooked). Meanwhile, put the butter and garlic in a pan until the garlic seems perfectly delicious, then set aside.
After three minutes, strain the water from the clams and crack them open (use a butter knife, they’re hot). When they cool a bit, take the scarves off the clams’ necks.
Heat the butter and garlic on medium-high. Add the cleaned, shucked clams to the pan and toss for about 30 seconds or until adequately hot and buttered.