Clamming Around The Kenai Peninsula
Alaska has an abundance of outdoor activities. There is so much attention put on the king, sockeye, and halibut fisheries – especially on the Kenai River - that many people don’t even know about some of great activities and rivers that exist outside of the Kenai River. One great family activity, and one that can also put some other food in the freezer, is the clamming in and around the Kenai Peninsula.
This article is intended to provide an overview of this sport activity, how to do it safely, and what is involved. As always, if you’re interested in learning how to do this please let us know and we’ll be happy to provide you more information, answer questions, and keep you informed of trips that you can join.
Clam digging is a great activity to enjoy while visiting as Alaska is home to many species of clams available in the world. Razor, Butter, Little Neck, Pink Neck/Surf, and Heart Cockles are all great table fare and found on Alaska’s beaches.
Clams can be found on both east and west sides of cook inlet. An undetermined change in the last few years has caused a clam population collapse on the east side of cook inlet. Clam surveys have yielded such a small population that the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has suspended all clamming activities on all of the western beaches of the Kenai Peninsula from Nikiski all the way to Homer which includes the very popular Clam Gulch area. The west side of the peninsula (east side of the inlet, i.e Clam Gulch) was popular for clamming due the easy motor vehicle access provided by the peninsula in these areas as well as the abundance of plans
Many people are unaware that across the inlet on the west side of cook inlet are some pristine nearly untouched clam beds for those willing to make the trip.
You can see the areas designated on the map to the left ranging from Harriet Point down to Tuxedni Bay. The shortest and easiest way to get there is launching out of Ninilchik. It is then 31 miles across which can take anywhere from 75 minutes to 2 hours depending upon the speed of your boat and the water conditions at time. There are days when the inlet is so calm the speed is almost unlimited and other days when the conditions are so severe that it is not safe to make the trip.
Keeping a constant eye on the weather is important. We use as many sources of weather as we can to get as robust a picture as possible. One source we use a great deal is the NOAA weather which provides a zone forecast. Another source is the current weather information buoys. Live weather buoys provide information such as water temperature, barometric pressure, wind speed, wave height, and wave period. Some buoys only provide a subset of this information.
Winds are what primarily causes ocean waves so when we are operating in Cook Inlet targeting salmon, halibut, or going across the inlet for clams, understanding the weather and winds is important for safety. We are looking for a few things in the forecast as we make our decision to go or not go. The NOAA provides a marine forecast the covers basic weather phenomena such as rain, sun, clouds, along with a wind and sea swell forecast. Ideally what we are looking for is a forecast of what is called “10 & 2”. “10 & 2” means 10 knot winds or less and 2 foot seas or less. This is just about the lowest and best forecast usually provided. Said another way, you won’t generally see forecasts better than 10 & 2. The other thing that we look for is a steady or improving weather trend for entire duration of the trip. We are always prepared to stay the night if needed should the weather arise but we usually do these as day trips. So we want to make sure the weather is good when we begin the trip across and that the weather will be predicted to be good 4-5 hours later when we decided to return.
Without a doubt, the weather is the single most important thing to consider on these trips. Our advice to people is to keep an eye on the weather during the periods where the tides support a clamming trip. If the weather doesn’t look great on the day you’re interested in going clamming – schedule that day for fishing on the river for kings or hiking in for sockeye fishing somewhere. Then use a day that may have been originally planned as sockeye or king fishing to use as a clamming day when the weather is more cooperative.
Clams are bivalves and are filter feeders. They make their homes in the sands where waters provide plentiful nutrients and where the sand can allow them to nestle in and settle in for their life. A wide variety of Alaska’s wildlife eat clams including halibut, bears, sea lions and more.
During the majority of their life the clams are continuously covered by water. However, during certain extremely low tides that happen a few times each year, the sands where the clams are located are exposed making them visible for harvesting.
There are only a few months in each year when these clamming tides happen and only a few days within each of those months. Any negative tide will allow you for digging clams but the bigger the negative tide the more beach will be exposed and the more time the beach will be exposed.
Low tides can extend as low as approximately -5.0ft below the average low water levels for each low tide cycle of which there are approximately 2 each day. You can see the list of clamming tides for 2018 here.
Summer 2018 Clamming Tides
Planning Your Clamming Trip
When planning the trip a few extra details about the tide need to be reviewed. As we discussed earlier, large negative are the best time to dig for clams as the more negative the tide the more beach that is exposed. And the further the tide recedes the longer the beach will be exposed to dig for clams.
The NOAA website provides tide predictions with very high accuracy, even down to the minute. However, not all locations of the earth have a prediction calculated from them. A number of different variables affect the tidal prediction ranging from the orientations of the sun, moon, and earth, but also due to the velocity that the water moves through the earth terrain features. There are no tide predictions at the areas of Crescent Creek, Polly Creek, or Redoubt Creek where we are focused with this article so we will use the tidal predictions of nearby stations. For this example we’ll use the tide predictions at Ninilchik but using those of Clam Gulch should be pretty accurate as well. However, times may differ between those locations by as much as 30 minutes or so with Ninilchik having early low/high tide times during the day.
Therefore, using Ninilchik as the planning station will add even further safety margin to any time calculations to help you arrive on time.
Let’s look at a more detailed example of a day’s clamming trip and the tide associated with it. We’ll use the days from July 13th to July 15th in 2018 as our example. Using the NOAA website we can change the resolution from just providing the high/low tide to the height of the tide in smaller intervals – down to even 1 minute. If we do that for July 13-15, 2018 we get the following graph.
On July 14th for example, the tide will swing from a high of about 23 ft above the average low water level to about -5.2 ft below the mean water level. Any tide below zero will expose beaches for clamming so the clamming times for that day will be between 9:17 AM and 1:04 PM resulting in approximately 3 hours and 47 minutes worth of digging time. The best clamming really starts at about the -1 foot tide mark and generally continues to improve as the depth of the tide increases exposing more the beach that is less frequently exposed throughout the year during modest low tides.
Since the best clamming begins at -1.0 and greater you might wonder why we don’t target the time at which that happens instead of exactly the 0.00 ft tide and that’s an excellent point. The biggest reason is simply time management. By planning to be there at the 0.00 tide point you provide yourself with a little extra margin if the trip across the inlet takes a little longer than you expected, which is common, or if other factors, like getting everyone out of bed and out the door on time, takes a little longer than it should! Additionally, it’s usually only about 15 minutes between the 0.00 tide and the -1.0 ft mark. The tide is going out very quickly at that point.
One thing to keep in mind is that it is definitely better to be early than late. The goal is to get to the location early enough that the tide is still at approximately the 0.00 or -1.0 ft mark. This is the location where you want to put out the anchor and as the sea recedes the boat will eventually sit dry on the beach. It will refloat when the tide comes back in a few hours later. If you arrive too late you’ll find yourself, every 15 minutes or so picking up the anchor and dragging the boat into shallower water as the tide comes in. It’s quite an inconvenient nuisance. And, if you take your eye off it for too long you may find it’s in too deep of water to wade and you’ll either be swimming or asking for a ride to your boat!
Another thing to keep in mind is that most beaches, while fairly flat, still have some high and low spots in them when miles and miles of beach are exposed. As the tide comes in and the water starts flowing into the lowest spots first you can find yourself marooned on a high spot possibly surrounded by water on all sides and unable to reach other dry land nearby. Always keep an eye on your surroundings and how the beach is being covered as the tide comes back in.
Digging Alaska Clams - Let's Get To The Fun Stuff!
Clams extend their bivalves several inches into the water. They draw in water through one valve, filter it for plankton and then expunges the water through the other valve. When the water recedes during one of these very low tides the clam pulls the valve into it’s shell and below the level of the sand. When this happens, there is often a “tell” left in the sand helping identify where the clam is. Usually it’s a small impression described as a tiny crater, a divot, or small depression. Sometimes they are obvious and other times more difficult. Some probably leave no indication because they pulled their bivalve below the sand surface while there was still sufficient wave action to completely cover where the valve broke the surface of the sand.
Clams are actually quite fast at digging and have been said to dig about 1” vertically down per second. If you take too long to dig your hole, or the clam feels the pressure of your weight on the sand this can cause them to begin digging themselves deeper into the sand. Even after you’ve dug your hole and started to search for the clam in a matter of just 8-10 seconds it could be nearly a foot deeper. Sometimes, the just get away! Even after you get your hands on them when the hole that you dug starts to cave in and water starts to fill it now you’ve got to try and get your hand back out while the clam is trying to pull you down with it! It’s actually quite impressive the amount of suction and digging power these little creatures have.
Alaska Clam Gun
There are PVC and metal devices called “Clam Guns” that many people like to use. Essentially it is a long tube about 4” in diameter with a small hole at the top that you place your thumb over. Once you find a clam in the sand you place the gun over the clam and and make sure that the vent at the top of it is unobstructed push the gun down into the sand as much as 3 feet or so. Once the gun is submerged to your desired depth you place your thumb or finger over the hole creating suction. Then pulling the gun out of the sand brings the entire 4” sand column with it. Kick the sand column and see if there is a clam. If not, start digging in the hole as sometimes they are deeper than you clam gun depth. Many people like to use the clam gun but it can be quite easy to break the clam shells using this technique. The gun has to be placed around the hole just right to make sure not to hit the clam. Their shells are very fragile and break even under the pressure of just a tight hand grip.
Alaska Clam Shovel
Using a shovel is the most common technique. The trick with using the shovel is to keep an eye on the angle of the blade as it enters the sand since there is an angle between the handle and the blade. When the blade is perpendicular to the sand the handle is not, and if the handle is perpendicular to the sand then the blade is not. We need the blade to go straight down into the sand otherwise we risk crushing the shell as we push the blade into the sand.
Digging near to the clam we push the shovel all the way in and then pull back pivoting on the heel of the shovel. This scooping motion clears out some sand. Do this a few times near the clam and then reach in to find the clam with your hands. If you get too close to the clam when you pivot the shovel backward the blade comes up towards the clam and if you’ve started your digging to close to the clam you’ll crush it leaving you with a big pile of broken shell to try and clean later.
A very good technique is instead of digging “at the clam” where the shovel is placed where you think the clam is located, dig intentionally directly to the side of the clam. After digging a hole next to the clam with little risk of crushing it, you simply grab the clam with your hands by reaching in from the side. By doing it this way there is very little risk of breaking the clams shell. This not only helps the cleaning process but it also helps keep the clam alive and healthy until it is time to clean it.
How To Dig Alaska Clams Videos
Our Full Trip To Polly Creek 2017
Using a Clam Gun
Open Water Boating Safety!
Safety is always the most important considerations when boating on Alaska’s more exposed waters. Here is a list of things to consider but is not meant to be an exhaustive list. Every mission and trip is unique and it’s up to each person to use common sense and good planning.
Weather – Always have a thorough understanding of weather and sea conditions for the entirety of your trip
Be prepared to stay long enough to wait out marginal conditions
Pack extra clothes, food, and have a plan for shelter
Ensure all the required boating equipment, and any other non-required boating equipment your bringing with you is in proper working order. This includes but is not limited to life jackets, signaling devices, fire extinguisher, throw pillow, lights, and emergency propulsion, first aid kits, working bilge pumps.
Fuel planning – plan for 1/3 out, 1/3 back, and 1/3 in reserve at a minimum
Emergency propulsion – when running far from shore having a secondary or backup means of propulsion is strongly, strongly, advised.
VHF radios for requesting help in an emergency and getting continual weather updates. There is no cellular service once you get approximately 10 miles offshore.
File a Float Plan! Let people know where you’re going, what time your leaving, where you’ll be leaving from, and what time you’re expected back.
PSP - Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning
Paralytics shellfish poisoning, or PSP, is a biotoxin produced by some species of microscopic algae. Shellfish such as clams can filter water contaminated with this biotoxin and have the ability to pass this biotoxin on to the animal eating it. In this case, us! Clams purchased in retail stores are tested for PSP and many of Alaska's waters are as well. However, some are not. Before consuming shell-fish it's good to identify whether the area has been tested and if there has been any closures announced. Polly Creek areas and those south of the Homer Spit across the bay is where we limit our clamming because these beachses are tested. The official state opinion on the subject is "Harvest at your own Risk"
Additional resources can be found at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game as well as the links below.