Bottoms Up

Bury your head in the sand in search of giant geoducks and your Pacific Northwest wings.

By Harry Edwards December 28, 2008 Published in the July 2008 issue of Seattle Met

Image: Ron Wurzer

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.

Image: Ron Wurzer

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.

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Image: Ron Wurzer

The three feet necessary to dig up a geoduck may not sound like much, but on a wet, sandy beach it can feel like 30. The trick to getting a geoduck (or horse clam) is keeping the sides of your excavation from caving in as you dig. Some use a “geoduck gun”—a homemade tube made of steel or PVC about 18 inches or more in diameter that you push down on (or stand on) as you dig. I didn’t happen to have any extra steel hanging around my garage, so I cut out the bottom of a galvanized garbage can with a pair of metal shears. You’ll also need a shovel to dig with and a bucket to store your catch.

The best spots for geoducks are the mud flats and sandy beaches around the Sound. As you walk along the beach at low tide, look closely and you’ll see dimples in the sand, also known as shows, that are the siphons of geoducks and horse clams. Touch a protruding siphon and you’ll get a squirt in the face as the clam, sensing danger, withdraws into the sand. Only the most seasoned of geoduck hunters (not me!) can tell the difference between the tip of a geoduck or a horse clam siphon, so your best bet is to simply start digging.

"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." —Euell Gibbons

Begin by excavating around the siphon, digging down about a foot or so deep. Depending on the geography of the beach, you may also want to dig a small drainage canal to funnel the water out of the hole. Then plunge your garbage can or geoduck gun into the hole and continue digging inside the can, being careful not to damage the clam by cutting off its siphon or cracking its shell. At some point you’ll need to start excavating by hand, and this is where the real challenge begins.

Commercial geoduck harvesters use a hydraulic water jet to liquefy the sandy substrate around the clam to make it easy to extract it from the bottom. That’s not an option for recreational diggers—your best bet is to reach down into the hole as far as you can (bottoms up!), feel for the edges of the shell, and slowly pry the clam loose with your fingers. At this point it’s just you and the clam, mano a mano. It’s exhausting, tedious, and a not a little claustrophobic, and you may be tempted to give up, but don’t. The exhilaration of pulling up your prize makes your effort more than worthwhile, even if it’s just a horse clam.

Two trips to the beach and six horse clams later, I claimed my first geoduck—with a little help from friends on a spring tide during the day. At last, I finally consider myself a true Northwesterner.