“I’ll take a bucket of steamed clams with garlic butter and plenty of napkins…”

How can one live in the Pacific Northwest and not know the taste of fresh steamed clams dripping of parsley and garlic butter?

Butter clams can be found throughout Oregon’s nearshore areas and larger estuaries. They are also found at many fine dining locations.

Where are they?

Butter clams are most often found living 6-12 inches down in the substrate of large estuarine systems, such as Coos, Tillamook, and Yaquina and in bays like Yaquina and Netarts where there is higher salinity. The mud and sandy substrates in these areas are some of the easier places to dig.

They are excellent burrowers and abundant in shell, sandstone, and even rocky areas. Like other types of clams, Butter clams create a distinctive rectangular ‘show’ or mark in the sand that exposes their general location. The Butter clam mark looks like an indent created by a flathead screwdriver.

The clam is usually not directly below the mark but relatively close vertically and will burrow away from you (in other words, sneak up on them and dig fast if you want to get them!). Butter clams will dig 50 feet below the low-tide line.

What did you find?

When digging, more than one type of clam may be found. Depending on the type of clam, you must keep anything that you dig up regardless of size or condition. Meaning? You might dig up more than just a Butter Clam. It may be possible to return unbroken clams to the immediate dig site if unbroken (see ODFW regulations).

Butter clams can reach up to 4-inches wide.

Details to know

Be sure to check the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) regulations for licensing, limits and catch requirements, catch activity reports, techniques, tools, and seminars (https://myodfw.com/crabbing-clamming/licensing-info).  A license for Oregon resident in 2020 is a bargain at only $10.00 per year! Butter clams are called a variety of names including Washingtons, Martha Washingtons, Beefsteak, and Quahog.

The ODFW website (above) includes information on seasonal opportunities, identifying the various species, safety, and provides local maps for where to look. Butter clam harvest is possible on the North Spit, Strawberry Island, Clam Island, Pigeon Point, Empire, Barview, and the Charleston Triangle and Flats. The site also lists locations accessible only by boat.

One more note—be sure to back fill any holes you create and have fun! 

There’s gold in those hills – that is golden mushrooms

Pacific Golden Chanterelles became the Oregon State mushroom in 1999. And no wonder, Oregon harvests over 500,000 pounds annually!

Chanterelles (Royalty free from Unsplash)

Chanterelles are one of the most popular wild edible mushrooms and tend to command a high price in both restaurants and specialty stores. Their rich, distinctive taste and aroma often puts them into the same gourmet fungi short list with truffles and morels.

Where do Pacific Goldens Grow?

Chanterelles grow in Pacific Northwest conifer forests that include western hemlock, Douglas-fir, and Sitka spruce (and live oaks in California). It forms a mycorrhizal mutually beneficial (symbiotic) relationship with these trees.

Pacific Gold Chanterelle is one of several chanterelle mushrooms. It is sometimes hard to tell one from another. The Pacific has a long, graceful funnel-shaped stem that tapers to the base. The wavy cap has tiny, dark scales on the pinkish orange-yellow surface. The false gills look like forked wrinkles with a pinkish hue. The scales and pinkish colors are sometimes absent in wet conditions. Look for a distinctive fruity apricot aroma.  

Not the Same

Recent DNA work helped identify the differences between ‘Cantharellus cibarius’ (Golden Chanterelle), ‘Cantharellus formosus’ (Pacific Golden Chanterelle), and other related species. At one time all chanterelles in the Pacific Northwest were considered ‘cibarius.’ Turns out they are not. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chanterelle.

The cibarius for instance grow in clumps among the moss in coniferous forests. Some grow in grasslands, mountainous birch forests, or beech forests depending on the location and specific species. Cibarius are yellow or golden, funnel-shaped, and meaty. Gill-like ridges run down the stem under the cap and they may smell fruity, woody, or earthy. For more information on these findings see: The Wild Mushroom Expert (https:www.mushroomexpert.com/cantharellus_formosus.html).

Lookalikes

Mushrooms can be difficult to identify and several, like the cibarius and formosus, look very similar. There are other mushrooms that look like these including the false chanterelle which is darker almost orangeish with a dark center that grades out towards light edges. False chanterelle is not dangerous, but could upset your stomach. It also tastes bad.

Jack-o-lantern mushrooms are toxic and sometimes mistaken for chanterelles. The gills of a jack-o-lantern mushroom are much thinner, deeper, and more delicate than the smooth, blunt, and shallow gill-like ridges of a chanterelle.

Cooking

Fresh chanterelles are the best to cook with. They dry well, but can become a bit chewy when reconstituted. Chanterelles can be dried and ground to a flour or frozen for short amounts of time.

Cooking releases the complex flavors of a chanterelle, especially when cooking with wine and butter. There are several fabulous recipes around to experiment with (like in sauces, sautés, soups, etc.). Look for Chanterelles at local farmer’s markets, gourmet stores, and gift stores.

The key to enjoying mushrooms is making sure that you have the right one. Some are poisonous (see chart at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mushroom_poisoning). Most poisonous mushrooms will cause vomiting and diarrhea with no long-term damage. Other mushrooms can be deadly and cause damage to kidneys and liver. Do your research, learn how to safely identify your target, and similar mushroom species.

There were times over the years when life was not easy, but if you’re working a few hours a day and you’ve got a good book to read, and you can go outside to the beach and dig for clams, you’re okay.”
~ Mary Oliver

Oregon estuaries have a rich assortment of clams. Some in great abundance, some with great taste, and some are just watching for your shovel.  

Gaps in clams.
The Gaper clam is on the bottom. (Image courtesy of ODFW)

Why go out and harvest? Think clam chowder, fried clams, clam burgers, and more. Clam chowder is an American favorite and was first serve up in the New England area in the 1700s.  

Two species of Tresus gaper clams are found in Oregon: Pacific gaper clam – T. nuttallii and the Fat gaper clam – T.  capax.

Range

Pacific gaper clams range from Baja California north to Kodiak Island. They are the largest common bay clam in Oregon and California.

In Oregon, the shells may measure up to eight inches long, and weigh up to four pounds. In California they can grow up to 10 inches and weigh up to five pounds each.

Mind the Gap

The clams have evolved in such a way that the shell is just a wee bit small. There is just not enough room to totally retrack the large siphon, or neck, in. This creates a gap that cannot completely close.

Both species of Gaper clams and geoduck clams have this problem. The geoducks have larger siphons compared to the Tresus species.

The siphon is one of the reasons this clam thrives. The siphon filters the water for plankton and bits of food during high tide.

It also helps the Gapers avoid many predators as the clam is able to live deep in the substrate (like potentially four feet). In Oregon, the typical depth for finding Gapers is 12 to 16-inches. Trophy-sized catches are found a bit deeper nearer to 30 inches.

These clams are often incidentally taken during harvest along with butter and littleneck clams that live at the same substrate level.   

Shells

Shells are oval and typically are chalky-white or light yellow. The shell may also be darkly stained in a muddy areas. There are patches of brown, leather-like skin on the shell.

The upper shell is whitish with a thin brown membrane coating. It is relatively thin and can be broken during the digging process. Broken clams count towards daily limit. (See Regulations)

The thickest part of the shell is a cavity called a ‘chondrophore.’ In gaper clams, it is very pronounced. As the shell deteriorates, the chondrophore is the last piece to go. It is often polished by sand and surf and found by beach combers.

Annual lines on the chondrophore’s surface are used to age the clam. Gapers grow about one inch per year for the first four years. Growth rate begins to slow after that. They have a life span up to 17 years.

Reproduction

These animals are quite prolific and, depending on the conditions, may reproduce year-around. Young are carried by the water and swim freely until they settle onto the sea floor. They move downward into the sediments.

Where Found and Harvest Tools

Large bay clams are found on firm, sandy or muddy areas. In muddy areas, clammers often use a shovel or shrimp gun. They look for an oblong “show” hole about the size of a quarter. Some use a three-foot PVC pipe about 12-15 inches in diameter to prevent holes from caving in.

They Got Crabs

You may notice a pair of small crabs (Gaper pea crabs, Pinnixa faba) hanging out with the Gaper.  They are ‘room mates’ and the female may live within the mantle cavity. They do not affect the clam as food.

Lucky Us

Gaper clams are great eating and are fun to harvest. Before you go check the Oregon biotoxin hotline at 1-800-448-2474 and read more at https://myodfw.com/articles/shellfish-and-biotoxins and https://www.oregon.gov/ODA/programs/FoodSafety/Shellfish/Pages/ShellfishClosures.aspx. Always check harvest regulations and requirements.  

NOTE: In certain conditions, you can rebury a Gaper. Leaving it on the surface is a sure death. The Gaper needs the pressure of the surrounding sand to remain intact and maneuver.

Go forth, dig and be Okay!

REFERENCES:
–Oregon Dept. of Fish & Wildlife, Crabbing and Clamming (https://myodfw.com/crabbing-clamming/species/clams and …/species/gapers.html)
–Washington Dept. of Fish & Wildlife, Gapers  (https://www.dfw.state.or.us/MRP/shellfish/bayclams/about_gapers.asp and bayclams/cleaning_gapers.asp)
–California Dept. of Fish & Wildlife (https://cdfwmarine.wordpress.com/2015/06/05/creature-feature-gaper-clams/)
–Sole soups, History of Clam Chowder (https://solesoups.com/2018/02/12/history-clam-chowder)
–Wikipedia, Tresus (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tresus)
–Mary Oliver quote (www.azquotes.com/quotes)