Our river once had abundant soft-shelled clams, and you could dig a bucket in a few minutes. There was no fishing license required, but you could only take ones over a certain size, so we carried a homemade gauge to ensure we only took legal ones.
I wouldn’t eat them as a child, but grew to love them later, and I spent many hours swimming and playing in the water while my mother dug them. Most people dig on the beach at low tide using a garden fork, but this wasn’t my mother’s method as she said too many get broken that way, and that’s true. Another less common method was to use a homemade plunger made from a section of a car tire attached to an old broom handle, and dig them in the water, which was less destructive. But she was the only one I knew who dug them the way she did.
At our favourite spot, just a 5-minute row from our house, my mother would walk with bucket in hand in knee-deep water, looking for the holes that clams make with their siphons. She would then sit in the water and pat a hole with her hand, creating a vacuum that moved the sand and would start to excavate a larger hole. When she felt a clam, she would pull it out, examine it to see if it was alive and the right size, and then put it in the bucket beside her that was kept in place first by the volume of seawater it contained and then, little by little, by the clams.
Once her bucket was filled, we would return home, but we never ate the clams right away as they were gritty with sand. My mother would tie the bucket to the railing of the stairs that went down the bank in front of our house and leave the clams submerged in the bucket in the river overnight to clean out, expelling the sand that was in their system.
The next day the clams were placed in a large enamel pot with no water or anything else, just steamed as they were until they opened. Those that didn’t open were discarded, and the rest piled into a big bowl and placed in the middle of the dining room table. Everyone got their own bowl of melted butter, fresh homemade rolls and maybe potato salad.
We might dig a feed of clams every couple of weeks in the summer, and there never seemed to be any fear of them being overfished. Then commercial fishers started working on our river using mechanical vacuums a couple of decades ago, a similar idea as my mother’s manual method except they could dig out an entire bed in a few minutes. The last time we tried digging clams would be over 10 years ago now, and there weren’t any left, just empty shells. It will probably take decades for them to return in the numbers that existed before the commercial harvest.
You can buy clams, but they never taste as good as my memory of them. It was the whole process: rowing to the digging spot, having a swim, hearing the neighbour’s cows or dog, watching the clouds passing overhead, waving at a neighbour in a dory coming home from fishing oysters, looking back at our house, the little waves lapping the shore, the birds, the sun. The tang of our river, deeply salty and briny, alive with eels and lobsters and crabs and fish. The feeling that this harvesting had been done forever and would go on forever.