MY FIRST GEODUCK hunt was a complete bust. It was late October at midnight on a friend’s beach in the South Sound. The temperature was near freezing, thanks to the cloudless night that also revealed a full moon, making my headlamp pointless. The beach was deserted, save for the occasional splash and grunt of a seal patrolling just offshore.
With a shell that’s too small for its large, fleshy body and an unnaturally long (make that unsightly ), wrinkled siphon that can grow up to three feet, the geoduck is one of nature’s true misfits. Its name, “geoduck,” is neither pronounced like it’s spelled nor does it look anything like a duck: It’s “GOO-ee-duck.” According to David Gordon, author of the Field Guide to the Geoduck, the name likely comes from what the Nisqually Indians called the giant clam— gweduc —which means “dig deep.” Anyone who grew up in the Northwest knows at least a little about them. After all, they’re Evergreen College’s mascot (“Let it all hang out”) and they’re often seen in Pike Place Market displays snaked along the slabs of salmon. And because men may be humbled by the clam’s unique anatomy, they’re always good for a ribald remark. Geoduck hunting, however, is no joke. It requires such a high level of sheer grit and determination that it’s a rite of passage for any self-respecting Northwesterner. I’d never seriously considered that last point until I dined on geoduck steak at Xhin’s restaurant in Shelton—tender, clamlike, and delicious. That did it. The time had come to accept the geoduck challenge.
The geoduck is nature’s couch potato; it’s hard to imagine a life more sedentary. By the time it reaches maturity in the third year of its century-long existence, it will have burrowed as deep as it ever will and spend the rest of its days anchored three feet down in the earth. Its primary activity is to eat dinner, which it does by pushing its long siphon into the water above to filter feed. With an estimated population of over 100 million, geoducks make up the largest biomass in Puget Sound, and most of them live in deep waters. Happily, a good number can be found in the intertidal zone that’s accessible at low tide—especially tides that are minus two feet or more. That means there are only about 20 days during the spring and summer when the tides favor a successful geoduck hunt—but that’s only if you decide to hunt during the day.
What led me to the beach at midnight was a passage from Euell Gibbons’s Stalking the Blue-Eyed Scallop: “Along in late October or early November, there comes the full of what some tribes of Indians call the Mad Moon…. It sounds like a psychotic sorcerer’s formula to say the Geoduck must be sought at midnight, just two days after the full of the Mad Moon, but it happens to be a sober fact.” I’m not sure if Gibbons ever actually dug a geoduck for himself or if when he wrote this passage he was in fact sober, because all I got that night was four horse clams. And while a horse clam is nearly as big as a geoduck and tastes almost as good, it’s not a geoduck.