Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Dig a Pail of Clams on PTown's Tidal Flats

A man digs clams on tidal flats near West End Parking Lot, with Coast Guard pier in
background. Cap'n Jack's Wharf and Provincetown Inn mark harvesting boundaries.
Digging for shellfish has long been a New England tradition, dating back about 4,500 years, though the Pilgrims and early settlers were too afraid to eat very much of it.
These settlers knew that local native tribes ate a lot of shellfish, but they had become ill after trying a bit of it themselves.
Wampanoag and other Native tribes of the New England area had been eating clams and other mollusks for thousands of years, and at some point began carving the shells into decorative wampum beads. Eventually, European settlers affixed a specific value to such beads, and wampum became a kind of currency used in trade. I'll write more about all of that in a future post, but today I want to get you out to dig your own clams for a bowl of chowder or a plate of linguine that you'll really enjoy, having harvested the seafood yourself from the abundant shellfish beds of Provincetown's tidal flats.
Ocean and her son Richard harvested clams from the beach at the
West End Parking Lot, authorized for clamming through March.
Not long ago, I was parked next to the boat ramp at the West End Parking Lot, where I often stop for a while to watch the tiny waves ripple in along the quiet beach that edges its way around Provincetown Harbor.
In the summertime the waterfront is packed with all sorts of boats coming and going at all hours, offering lots to see, but in the off-season a visit to this spot is more about just taking the time to really observe the wildlife you might notice, and watching the sky and water turn colors with the weather or the time of day.
As the light begins to dim, which happens in the late afternoon at this time of the year, from this West End spot on the harbor you can see the beams begin blinking from three lighthouses, spanning the entire harbor, including the white flashing of the Highland light in North Truro. Race Point Light, in Provincetown's northwest corner, can't be seen from this vantage point, but in the center of the harbor the green glow of the Long Point Lighthouse winks on and off in a regular pattern, with Wood End Light taking its time between short red bursts in the Far West End. The colored lights marking the breakwater, green on its east end and red on the west, further syncopate the rhythm of Provincetown Harbor, even on a quiet, off-season night.
Since I was there on a Friday afternoon at low tide, before sundown, I got to watch a few folks walking out amongst the puddles of the tidal flats, carrying clam rakes and pails, and pausing here and there to dig up the sand for the bounty hiding below in patches, where a few tiny bubbles made by clams nestled below the surface gave them away.

17 palm-sized clams are plenty for Ocean and Richard's dinner.
I met Ocean and her son, Richard, as they walked back up to their pickup truck in the parking lot after they'd finished digging clams for supper. They carried a clam rake, of course, and a bucket holding a fair number of three-and-four-inch hard-shelled clams covered with a few inches of sea water.
These were more than enough quahogs (say "co•hogs," from the 18th century Algonquian word for round, hard-shelled clams) to make a nice dinner for these two, who have recently returned to Provincetown after an absence of more than twenty years. They'd had to move away when Richard was a young boy, and are now very happy to be back. And they were happy to be out on the flats that afternoon, gathering juicy, meaty, Provincetown clams for a great meal.
Residents, as well as non-resident property owners, can visit the Town Clerk's office to obtain a recreational shellfishing permit for $15 for the season, which generally runs from mid-November through March each year. Non-residents will pay a $50 fee. The permit is free for seniors aged 65 and older. A sheet of shellfishing regulations will accompany your permit. Informative pamphlets on shellfishing are available at the Harbor Master's office, open every day, out on MacMillan Pier.
The permit allows the holder to gather clams and oysters of adult size from any officially designated shellfishing area on either a Sunday or Friday of each week of the season, with a maximum harvest of one ten-quart pail or a one-peck basket, once each week. Harvesting areas are rotated frequently to preserve breeding stock and prevent over-use of any area, while rules for minimum sizes for any mollusks taken serve the same goal, helping to sustain this very popular community resource.
The area east of the West End Breakwater was just opened to harvesting once again, adding another acre or two to this year's public shellfishing grounds. A few oysters can be found along the breakwater, but make sure that any you take are at least three inches long, which will help to allow breeding stock to grow in this area. If scallops become plentiful enough to allow for harvesting, an area will be designated for their collection. Mussels can be taken at any time of year, with no permit required.
Equipment needed for clamming is simple and easily available. I bought my knee-high rubber boots at Marine Specialties. They may also have clamming tools in stock, and ask for a tide chart as well, or check the newspaper or internet for low tides occurring during daylight hours on Fridays and Sundays. You can also visit the hardware stores for equipment like rakes and pails. You'll want a hat, good gloves, and a jacket that keeps the wind at bay. The breeze can be pretty stiff out on the tidal flats, even on a warmer day, and especially if you get wet, so dress in layers, and unbutton a bit if you get too warm.
Some 500 baskets of quahogs have already been taken from the West End this year, so it's now taking a bit more effort to fill a pail with clams, which must be a minimum of one inch thick to be harvested. A shellfish gauge is available for purchase at Town Hall, along with your permit, and you must carry it with you when when harvesting.
Delicate, soft-shelled steamers are abundant at Hatches Harbor.
For digging soft-shell clams, with a minimum size limit of two inches, head to Hatch's Harbor. This tiny, natural harbor lies between Race Point and Herring Cove, which many old-timers still refer to as New Beach. It has steamers in abundance in the sandy patches near the marsh, according to the mid-season shellfish update just issued by Shellfish Constable Steve Wisbauer.
His notice also mentioned smaller quahogs found in the deeper pools nearby. Be sure to have your shellfish sizing gauge with you, and make certain you don't run off with any juveniles that should be left to reach maturity before they're harvested. Also, be sure to report your "take" to the constable so the town can keep tabs on the total annual harvest.
There's a third area open for the shellfish harvest this winter, in the part of the harbor that lies between Allerton Street and the Truro town line. That's roughly from the brick facade of 627 Commercial Street, still known to many as Mailer's house, to the Holiday Shores condos out on Beach Point. Constable Wisbauer's update mentioned the most productive area there, which is only accessible during the most extreme low tides, when the farthest sandbars are exposed. This remote area can yield quahogs of all sizes, and even very large surf clams, all found in abundance there, if your timing and the tides are right.


  1. i really love reading your posts. i live in truro during the summer and the attractiveness of the area never seems to get old. thanks for your post

    1. Thanks for reading my blog. I,too, am still astonished every time I gaze around me at the beauty that surrounds us here in Provincetown. There truly is nowhere like it, in so many ways.