Just outside of Bandon lies one of Southern Oregon's most productive places to play in the mud.

Just outside of Bandon lies one of Southern Oregon's most productive places to play in the mud.

When the Coquille River estuary is at low tide, the walk onto the Bandon Marsh National Wildlife Refuge off Riverside Drive will take you across a platform and down some stairs, where your hip boots will touch the miraculous muck favored by soft-shelled clams.

All it takes is a $30 clam gun, hip waders, a bucket and a shellfish fishing license for inlanders to parachute into the estuary for a round of Catch the Clam.

Softshell clams are the easiest clams for beginners to tackle, and Bandon Marsh not only is loaded with them, it's also the closest place to the Rogue Valley with good clam beds.

"It's not as busy as places like Coos Bay, but it's certainly a place that's available and easy to get to," says Bill Bridgeland, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist who works at the refuge.

Softshell clams are native to the East Coast, where they provide an important commercial fishery. East Coast investors introduced them to the Oregon Coast about the same time as they first infused oysters here.

Now softshells inhabit most bays along the Oregon Coast and are one of the most sought-after clams, largely because of their abundance.

They are readily identifiable by the concentric rings on their slightly oblong shells, which are slightly pointed at the neck end. They typically are 2 to 4 inches long and are most often cooked by steaming.

First-time clammers who stick to the following steps can have an enjoyable time getting their feet wet at places like Bandon before extending their reach to other Oregon estuaries.

Buy a license: Oregonians can buy a calendar-year license for $7, while out-of-staters can get a three-day license for $11.50. Oregon law requires everyone in a clamming party to bring and carry his or her own container for clams.

Watch the tides: The best clamming tides are called "minus" tides, when moon phases cause the low tide to drop a foot or so lower than normal, giving you access to more clam beds. During the spring and summer, minus tides that come in the morning will be best, because that time of day tends to be less windy.

Websites such as www.saltwatertides.com can allow you to check tides based on specific bays, such as Coquille and Coos.

Wader up and hit the flats: The mud flats of the old Bandon Marsh provide good first-time clamming spots. Get close to the water's edge, where the mud is soupier and the clams usually more abundant.

Find the show: The so-called "show" is the air hole that denotes a clam living under it. They're often about the size of a pencil eraser and sometimes they even have bubbles coming out of them.

Dig it: Put the hole at the end of your clam gun over the show and push down slowly but firmly. Clams can feel vibrations and will dig deeper to flee from you.

Once the gun is submerged in the mud, put your thumb over the hole at the gun's upper end or in the handle. That creates the pressure lock that allows you to suck up the mud as you lift the gun. Take your finger off the hole and the mud flops out.

If there's no clam in the muck, reach down in the hole to feel for it.

Keep going: The basic limit for bay clams — gaper, butter, littleneck, cockle and geoduck — is 20 per day, of which only 12 in aggregate may be gapers or geoducks. But each clammer can keep up to 36 softshell clams a day, while the limit for purple varnish clams is 72 a day.

Watch the water: Many clammers can tell you stories about having to ford channels with water up to their chest or higher when they became so engrossed in pursuing clams that they forgot to watch the incoming tide. If you're digging on the ocean beaches, never turn your back on the sea — sneaker waves got that name for a reason.

Tips: Leave bracelets, watches and rings at home. They can easily be lost in the mud. Boots are recommended. Expect to kneel on wet mud and sand.

Clam shells are sharp, so pry clams out carefully. Some diggers prefer gloves, but they can slip off and become lost in the mud.

Clams that remain open when removed from their habitat are dead and should be discarded.

If transporting clams, leave in their shells and store in a wet burlap bag, keeping cool on ice.

Clams can be frozen cleaned or in the shell for about three months. Clean gapers and razors before freezing.

Call the hotline: Clamming is closed from time to time because of the presence of naturally occurring toxins. Before you go clamming, call the Oregon Department of Agriculture's shellfish safety hotline, which provides the most current information regarding shellfish safety closures: 1-800-448-2474.