Northern California has that clammy feeling once again


Mar 11, 2001
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Northern California has that clammy feeling once again

Tom Stienstra, San Francisco Chronicle.

Thursday, November 15, 2001

THE DAYS have been wet and muddy for much of this week at the mouth of Tomales Bay, and that's exactly how clammers like it.

That's because getting all mucky out here is like earning your clamming merit badge. This is where you can tromp around on the mud flats on the low tides, searching for a tell-tale sign of the neck hole for the giant horseneck clams. Your reward is creating your own gourmet seafood dinner with the big clams as the main course.

This week's cycle of minus low tides marked the start of the clamming season at Northern California's No. 1 clam beds, Seal Island and the adjacent tidal flats just offshore Dillon Beach. In the next four months, 29 days have been identified as providing ideal clamming tides here, with the next cycle set to start the afternoons of Nov. 27-29.

The launch point for this adventure is Lawson's Landing, 20 miles west of Petaluma, about a 90-minute drive from San Francisco. From here you can rent a boat (or launch your own) to reach the nearby clamming beds.

Timing is everything. A low tide of 0.5 feet or lower is required here, when the sea rolls back and unveils miles of tidal mud flats. These tides typically arrive in late afternoon, providing two- and three-hour periods when there is a chance for success, and then returning at sunset.

The trip starts with the short boat ride, usually over to Seal Island; a barge once provided bus-like transport for hundreds of people over to the clam beds, but this has been discontinued to protect the clams from overharvest.

Once on the clamming beds, you start your search, scanning for a small siphon hole in the mud, and sometimes even a miniature geyser of water. These are the signs for the neck hole of a clam. If you spot either, act fast: Plunge your clam gun (which looks like a cylinder with a pump) into the mud. You then withdraw the clam gun, eject its contents at your feet, then pick through the mud with a small garden shovel for a clam.

The neck of a clam is elastic, capable of withdrawing several feet in seconds. That is why you must be quick and accurate, and why clam guns are popular. They can be purchased at Lawson's for $35. Some people simply dig with whatever they have available, such as garden tools, and after a taste of success (literally), will return another day with the best equipment available.

To prepare the clams for a meal, clean them soon after returning to the landing. Trim or peel off the black skin off the neck and body, which can be softened by soaking the clam in warm water for 20 minutes. With the skin and gills trimmed out, only pure white meat is left for your dinner, usually best when cut into thin strips and breaded.

With most horseneck clams, the necks average 3-5 three to five inches. But some old-timers at Lawson's say that clams as big as 5 pounds have been taken. The biggest reported in the past century was 12 pounds, caught in 1938.


-- Clamming dates/peak times: Nov. 27-29 (3:30 p.m.); Dec. 10-13 (2:30 p.m. ); Dec. 26-28 (3 p.m.); Jan. 9-12 (3 p.m.); Jan. 25-27 (3 p.m.); Feb. 5-6 (noon); Feb. 7-10 (3 p.m.); Feb. 21-22 (1 p.m..); Feb. 23-24 (3 p.m.); Feb. 25- 26 (4 p.m.). -- Cost: Day-use fee, $5 per vehicle; boat rental, $38.50/day; boat and motor rental, $77/day (refundable deposit required with credit card); boat launching (4x4 required) $5; boat launching by tractor, $12.50; camping, $14 per vehicle (includes day-use fee). -- Regulations: State fishing license ($29.40) required. Limit is 10 horseneck clams, no size limit; first 10 found must be kept. -- Equipment: Clam pump gun, garden shovel, bucket or sack, rain gear, rubber boots. -- Directions: From Highway 101 in Petaluma, take the Washington Street exit. Drive west 8 miles to Tomales Road, turn left, and continue to the stop sign at Highway 1. Turn right and drive up hill to Dillon Beach Road, turn left and go 4 miles to Lawson's Landing at the road's end. -- Contact: Lawson's Landing, P.O. Box 57, Dillon Beach, CA 94929-0067; (707) 878-2443;

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