Mussels Clams Oysters

Pity the wild hunter of shellfish. They get no stuffed trophies to hang on the wall. Videos of the hunt aren’t as dramatic as those for big game. Their special gear requires no camouflage. Their clothes are not going to be the next big fashion trend. Island shellfish hunters, however, get an amazing variety and supply of ultra-locally grown food. Just make sure to wash off the mud from it and from you.


The topic comes up because of an event that’s coming up, Musselfest, March 7&8 in Coupeville – “Bold, Briny and Blue”. The festival is about much more than mussels. Aren’t all festivals about more than one thing? In addition to being in the heart of downtown Coupeville where there’s already plenty of shopping and art, the festival is also a good excuse for cooking classes and demonstrations, tasting and eating, and of course, beer!

Tom Trimbath-DSC_8154

Penn Cove Shellfish is more popularly known for Penn Cove Mussels. Their probably what the bold, blue and briny refer to. There’s good reason for that. The mussels are farmed (ranched?) from a network of rafts in Penn Cove, but they’re shipped far beyond the island. Maybe the only thing limiting them are cold packs and shipping times.

The company is also known for clams and oysters because, why not? The Salish Sea supported the first nations for thousands of years. Shellfish filter sea water for their food, which also means they can clean it as they grow. A definite bonus for the local environment and economy.The first nations didn’t wait for companies to come along.  Kick over rocks to find other clams.

Around Whidbey Island the shores host carpets of mussels, carpets that are hard to walk on. Check driftwood, rocks, and now pilings for barnacles. Oysters grow in beds, but not beds for humans to sleep on. Not much word about pearls, however. Clams are as happy as clams can be, borrowing under pebble beaches or tideland sands. Wander a beach and get to know which clams are poking their necks out of the sand.

Tight Community

Clams is a broad term that hides their diversity. Butter clams are shallow, at least that’s where they live. No commentary on their personality. There also also Little Neck and Manilas. One of the consequences of globalization and marine traffic is introduced species. Want to help eradicate an invasion species? Melt some butter, garlic, and salt together and eat your way through to helping the local seawater fauna. The royalty of the local clam world may just be the horse and geoduck clams. Horse clams get as large as some crabs, growing shells to more than half a foot across. Follow their neck down to find them, but be prepared to dig because they live more than a foot into the sand.

Geoduck is even more impressive and serves a double purpose. Call it a geo-duck and locals will know you aren’t local. Call it a gooey-duck, and have a chance of finding something else to get tripped up on. You can dig for horse clams with a shovel. Digging for geoduck might just be ripe for a video because it is much more involved. Geoducks have somewhat larger shells than horse clams, but much longer necks and much longer lives. They dig down about three feet and can live for over a hundred years. That’s a lot of time to grow a really big anchor. If you see someone walking the sands with a large tube, they might be on a geoduck hunt.

There probably are good videos for harvesting geoduck by shovel (instead of by commercial means which can involve diving gear and pressurized water hoses). In general, find a pair of necks barely rising about the sand at the low tide line. OK. Step one is finding a tide chart to know when there’s a good low tide because geoducks no longer are easy to find nearer shore. The clams hear or feel you coming. Grab the neck and hold on, because it is about to retreat. Now, take that big tube that’s shoulder-width and about an arm’s length, place it around the geoduck’s neck, and get ready to dig down through three feet of sand. Three feet down at the low tide line means digging below sea level. Oh yeah, and getting that tube around the neck? Keep in mind that your arm is someone else’s is in the way. This can be a team effort. As the clam tries to retreat, hang on. As the diggers dig, hang on, and wait as they shove the tube deeper into the sand. If the hunt goes well (from the hunters’ point of view) the hunter will end up upside down with their head below sea level (but hopefully not below the water). This is not a catch-and-release activity. Eventually, a human should be strong enough to slowly pull the geoduck from its anchor, and deliver it to the surface. One clam for a lot of work, but geoduck is considered a delicacy.


After that description, maybe it is easier to find a local shellfish farmer and vendor, or a restaurant that knows what and when to buy, and how to prepare and serve it. Don’t forget the beer.

A sobering note: While it sounds like the island is ringed with shellfish ready to be harvested and consumed, it isn’t that easy. There are licenses, limits, and restricted areas and times. Check the county and state information about what’s available. Another good reason to take the easy approach and buy from someone who hunts or at least harvests for a living.

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