Bait Fishing with Clams
by Bob D'Amico
ALL ABOUT CLAMS
Atlantic surf clams, Spisula solidissima, are distributed along the western North Atlantic Ocean from the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence (Canada) to Cape Hatteras, North Carolina [Map]. Commercial concentrations are found primarily off New Jersey, the Delmarva Peninsula (Delaware/Maryland/Virginia), and on Georges Bank. The surf clam is the most important commercial clam harvested in the United States. Commercial landings of surf clams in New Jersey and Virginia account for about half the total U.S. annual landings of all clam species. The surf clam catch in recent years--in shucked meats-- ranged from about 41 to 63 million pounds.
Surf clams are found from the intertidal zone to a depth of about 200 feet (60 m) but densities are low at depths greater than 130 feet (40 m). Maximum size is about 22.5 cm (8.9 in.) shell length, but surf clams larger than 20 cm (7.9 in.) are rare. Maximum age exceeds 30 years and surf clams 15 - 20 years of age are common in many areas.
The western Atlantic surf clam, is commonly referred to as the "bar clam," "hen clam," "skimmer," or simply as the "sea clam."
They are filter feeders using their siphons to pull in and then filter fine particles of organic matter and plankton from the surrounding seawater [anatomy diagram].
Reproduction: Clams may be male, female or both (hermaphroditic) depending on the particular stage in its life cycle. They reproduce through a spawning process in which females release large numbers of eggs into the water, while males release sperm. Fertilization takes place in the open water.
Females can release from 1 million to as many as 24 million eggs at one time, and spawning may continue for several months, depending on the water temperature and the availability of food. A single female may release up to 60 million eggs in a season, of which only a small number will become fertilized and grow to become adult clams.
Once fertilization takes place, the young clam goes through a larval stage where it is carried by waves and currents. Eventually it develops a shell and sinks to the bottom. Using its muscular foot, it can then move about the bottom to some degree.
History: Surf clams have been used for food as well as bait for at least a millennium. Long before the arrival of Europeans, the eastern Native American Indians would migrate to coastal waters during the spring and summer months to feast on clams, oysters and fish. The Lenni Lenape Native American Indians are historically noted for these annual summer camps. The Lenape living in southern New Jersey, harvested clams year-round.
The Lenni Lenape, although not as well known as Native Americans Indians popularized by Hollywood, played a prominent and tragic role in American history. Used and abused by “white men” from the very beginning of European settlement and throughout the history of the United States they nevertheless, as a “tribe” and as individuals rank as one of best examples of fortitude, decency and honor.
Although they were never politically unified, like the Iroquois Five Nations, the area they inhabited is referred to as Lenapehoking ("Lenape country"). Lenapehoking hosted over two dozen Lenape polities, organized societies based on dialect oriented geographic areas. Historians divide the region into four distinct dialects. Many of their names, such as Raritan (NJ), Manhattan and Tappan (NY), are known around the world. The Lenape peacefully greeted the first European explorer to North America, the Italian explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano in 1524 off of Sandy Hook, New Jersey, it was the beginning of their demise.
The Lenape were called the “Delawares” by European settlers, they lived throughout all of New Jersey, southeastern New York, all of eastern Pennsylvania and northeastern Delaware (Map). The Lenape of southern New York are noted in American history as the Native Americans who “sold” Manhattan Island to the Dutch West India Company in 1626. In reality Dutch colonial Director-General Peter Minuit was only granted permission to build a fur trading settlement on Manhattan in exchange for trade goods worth 60 guilders, often said to be worth $24 US dollars, though it actually amounts to around $1,000 in modern currency. The European concept of private land ownership was totally unknown to Native American Indians.
USING CLAMS AS BAIT - “DEAD OR ALIVE”
The best clams are Live Whole “Skimmer” Clams, they measure about 4 to 5 inches long in the shell. They can be either be purchased from a bait and tackle shop or scavenged off the beach as the high tide ebbs.
Clams are one of the key baits in the Northeast United States, especially from the south shore of Long Island, the New York Bight, Sandy Hook, NJ and south into Delaware Bay. In the very early Spring, sand and bloodworms are popular, then fishermen switch over to both clams and cut baits (“chunks”) such as Menhaden. The reasons for the popularity of clams are simple, the massive clam beds are concentrated in the area which naturally attract fish and for fishermen, their abundance makes them relatively inexpensive.
It is illegal to take clams off the beach in some states since clams must be harvested from approved sites and you must have a state issued license. You should be able to scavenge a few clams without any problems but don't over do it. [In New Jersey it is illegal to harvest clams on Sundays.]
- Clams harvested from the beach and especially those purchased at a bait and tackle shop are NOT fit for human consumption! Edible clams are harvested only from approved, non-polluted clam beds.
A partially open clam doesn't mean it's dead, knock on the shell with your knuckles, it should close up. If you insert a bait knife it will close up really fast! And to be perfectly clear about fresh live clams, a lot of bait and tackle shops claim their clams are “fresh live clams” but if they've got them in a cooler packed in ice, they are dead or nearly gone. Why? Because fresh water kills clams! Look for a tackle shop that keeps their clams in refrigerated storage units and/or in a cooler with those re-freezable ice blocks such as “Blue Ice.” Dead whole clams have a distinct (atrocious) odor, live clams smell like clams but with a saltwater aroma. Sniffing clams in a bait and tackle shop is perfectly fine.
If you can't buy whole live clams buy, in order, (1) “fresh, shelled” clams, (2) “fresh, frozen” or (3) salted. Salted clams hold well on the hook. If you open up a package of “fresh, shelled” or “fresh, frozen” clams and the odor is very strong, i.e. they stink, they are not “fresh” they are rotten. Bring them back to the bait and tackle shop and complain, the only thing they will catch are sea robins, skates and dogfish.
CHEAPER BY THE DOZEN
How many clams do you need? For a full day, sun up to sun down you'll need 2 to 3 dozen clams, if the water is full of skates, sea robins or schools of aggressive “short” fish get 4 dozen. Trust me on this, there have been times in the Spring and Fall when we've been catching “shorts”, run out of clams and either begged a few from other fishermen or had to make a run back to the bait and tackle shop.
PURGE YOUR CLAMS
Back in the 1940's when $100 a was a fantastic weekly wage you could buy a dozen clams for two bits. Today $4.00 - $6.00 is the going rate for a dozen clams, not a lot of money, but you can stretch your money if you purge your clams as soon as you hit the beach or load them on the boat. This will keep them alive all day or over the weekend. Just put them in a 5 gallon bucket, fill it with saltwater and let them set there for 15 to 20 minutes to expunge the old water they are holding. Next take them out of the water and put them in a ice chest. If you don't have “blue ice” you can use block ice or cubes as long as:
The next day put the clams back in a bucket of fresh saltwater for another 15 to 20 minutes and then back in the ice chest.
- The ice is on the bottom of the chest.
- A thick layer of newspaper is placed on top of the ice.
- The chest's drain plug is Open.
- The clams are placed on top the layer of newspaper covering the ice. You do not want the clams to have any contact with the freshwater from the melting ice.
WHICH RIG TO USE
Clams are “multi-talented,” you can use a High Low Rig, Fish Finder Slider Rig or Slap Shot Rig - they don't care...but most fishermen in the Northeast like to use them on High Low Rigs.
JUST THE MEAT or the “BIG GLOB”
I prefer to use only the foot of the clam and get rid of the rest; mantle, gills, adductor muscles, altogether called “salvage.”. Thread the foot onto the hook, turn it and do it a 2nd time, do not bury the hook point in the clam. The clam on the hook should look like the one in the picture below — note that it is a Circle hook with a rubber band and the point of the hook is exposed.
There is another school of thought, the “Big Glob” theory which you can use when you are using large hooks, such as 8/0 Octopus or 8/0 Circle hooks. Whatever way you go, don't become obsessive/compulsive, its just a clam and a hook. You will need to use smalll rubber bands or elastic thread to hold all of the clam in place, the color doesn't matter.
Georges Bank is a large elevated area of the sea floor between Cape Cod, Massachusetts, USA. and Cape Sable Island, Nova Scotia, Canada. It separates the Gulf of Maine from the Atlantic Ocean. [Map]
2: Salted Clams
Leftover clams can be saved for future use.
Required items: Kosher or coarse salt, plastic or glass container with lid, large bowl to temporarily hold shucked clams and their juices.
- Do NOT wash or soak clams in freshwater!
- Shuck all clams and their juices into the bowl.
- Add a thin layer of salt to the bottom of the container.
- Add 1st layer of shucked clams.
- Sprinkle the 1st layer with salt, only ½ of the amount used on the bottom.
- Continue layering shucked clams and layers of salt.
- Leave extra space at top of container. After approximately one hour the salt will pull additional fluids from the clams. Don't drain this fluid as it helps hold the clam scent and keeps the clams from becoming overly tough and leathery.
- Seal with lid.
- Store in refrigerator or freezer.
3: The primary edible portion of a clam is the foot, which is normally cut into strips, breaded and fried - “Clam Strips.” The salvage, primarily the adductor muscles are ground up for use in chowders, sauces, and dips. When eating fried clam strips and a piece is very tough and chewy it's probably an adductor muscle or piece of the mantle. If some of the strips are very “mushy” you should find another place to eat fried clams.
More information on the surf clam at the Northeast Fisheries Science Center - NOAA