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Pump it up

Tips for pulling clams from the sand on the Oregon Coast
Photo by John StoecklRob Gensorek pulls a clam from the muck of Coos Bay in Charleston.

CHARLESTON — Rob Gensorek wanders meticulously through the shallow waters of a very low Coos Bay tide, looking for depressions in the muddy strata in search of paydirt.

One dime-size hole looks promising, so Gensorek sticks his right index finger down the hole, tickling away as his digit descends. A creature tickles back.

Game on.

“Got one right here,” Gensorek says. “I’m right on top of one. Let’s see if we can get him.”

He jabs the end of his special clam pump into the hole, powering water straight down until the area is fully exposed, like a tiny muddy crater.

Gensorek reaches in biceps-deep and grapples with his mollusk of choice in the thick muck below.

“Hah, I got you, sucker,” Gensorek says. “You just earned yourself a personal invitation to my dinner table.”

With that, a fat gaper clam weighing well over a pound is ushered from the muck to the bucket, the first of many a fine bivalve to fall in a special kind of afternoon that makes living in Oregon that much more special.

Clamming is one of those things anyone with a 503 or a 541 area code must do at least once in their lifetimes, and it’s a year-round phenomenon that lives up to its billing.

Collecting clams from beneath sandy ocean beaches has been an Oregon staple for decades, particularly for those digging for succulent razor clams along Northern Oregon’s Clatsop County beaches each fall.

But often overlooked are the bountiful bay clam opportunities to dig for large gaper or butter clams.

Gapers are the largest of Oregon clams, resembling the bigger geoducks of northern Washington State waters.

The smaller but even tastier butter clams are also known as Martha Washington or Washington clams for their popularity based on a cookbook attributed to the first First Lady.

Together they comprise the lion’s share of the bay-clamming take that should not be overlooked.

Bay clamming seasons are open year-round, with every so-called minus tides — or tides lower than average — allowing access to clam beds not normally harvested because they are typically under water even at regular low tides.

The daily limits are 20 bay clams per day per person, who must have a valid Oregon shellfish license. Of the bay clams, only 12 can be gapers.

Each digger much collect and carry their own quarry, and all razors, gapers and butter clams must be kept regardless of size to reduce mortality on released clams.

For decades, Oregon clammers have relied on long, flat shovels to dig down to their quarry. But the work can be tough and cumbersome enough for clams, particularly the darting razors, to escape detection.

But the one-man clam pumps that use manually generated hydrology to sluice away sand hiding mollusks from man are the ticket to success.

“I haven’t dug for a clam in eight years,” says Gensorek, who sells and rents clam pumps out of his Basin Tackle shop in Charleston, which is a short walk to the closest clam beds.

“I strictly use these pumps,” he says.

Before you pump, you gotta find the gapers.

Gensorek wanders the receding waters of a very low tide, staying in two inches of bay water looking for the tell-tale signs of gapers and butters.

“The more you clam, the more adept you get at finding them,” Gensorek says. “I can sit in the shop and tell you how to find them all day. But to show you is the only way.”

The trick is to find the right open holes in the sand, where clams are typically buried 18 inches or more beneath the surface. The holes are so the clam’s necks can protrude toward the surface to filter in plankton-rich water for food.

Stick your finger in the hole, and you can feel the tip of that neck vibrate then disappear.

“Once you touch them, they’re afraid of you, as they should be,” Gensorek says. “So they pull their neck back into their shell.”

Stick the pump vertically over the hole and pump slowly and methodically, not jamming the PVC pipe too deep so as to hit and injure the clam.

Let the water do the work until the human-powered erosion seems to stop. That’s often the money shot.

Reach deep into the bowels of the hole and feel for the clam. Often, it resists, but they can be gently dislodged before the 53-degree water numbs one’s forearm.

Last year the state of California temporarily banned single and tandem clam pumps — those with which one person pumps water from a bladder through a hose and into a nozzle operated by a second person.

The concern, California officials said, was the pumps led to over-harvest and poaching not normally associated with shovel-clamming.

But they remain somewhat of a rarity in Oregon, says Michelle Dennehy, spokeswoman for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Oregon’s rules allow the taking of clams “by hand or hand-powered tools,” so Oregon’s shellfish biologists don’t consider these pumps a violation of that, Dennehy says.

Also, pumps are not considered worse for clam habitat than shovels, and abuse of a tool to collect over the limit is considered an enforcement issue more than a method one, Dennehy says.

In less than 90 minutes, Gensorek and his rookie mentoree each have limits of gaper clams, and they waddle out of the black muck in toward a hibachi with charcoals awaiting a light.

“There’s nothing better than cooking clams right out of this bay,” Genrosek says.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@rosebudmedia.com.