September October 2013

Shellfishing 101

Cape Cod Life  /  September/October 2013 / , ,

Writer: Susan Dewey / Photographer: Maddie McNamara 

Recreational shellfishing is an easy Cape Cod pleasure: even for raw rookies who don’t know a cherrystone from a little neck.

Recreational shellfishing is an easy Cape Cod pleasure: even for raw rookies who don’t know a cherrystone from a little neck.

Photos by Maddie McNamara

There is something so simple, yet deep-down satisfying about shellfishing. On a warm summer day you can pull on a pair of shorts, a t-shirt, and a pair of old sneakers, grab your rake and basket and head to the beach to dig for steamers. Later, you can steam up these soft shell clams and serve them hot with bowls of clam broth and melted butter to grateful friends and family.

A good trick for finding steamers is to look for small spouts of water, or holes in the mud, on tidal flats. When we were kids, we used to drop the biggest rock we could find on the mud to make the steamers spout before they burrowed back to safety.

If you are a fan of quahogs (there are two sizes of these hard-shelled clams: larger cherrystone clams for chowder, stuffing, or sauces, and little necks, which are great served raw on the half shell), you can walk out until the water reaches your knees and drag a special shellfishing “basket” rake through the sandy mud for bounty. It’s a good idea to attach a floatable device (we sometimes use a shortened child’s styrofoam ‘noodle’) around your wire basket so you don’t lose it.

This is more work than just scratching around with a long handled tines rake such as that used for digging steamers, requiring a little more muscle. The good news is that quahogs are much closer to the surface of the sand, so it can be easier to fill your basket and head home to make chowder or one of our favorites, spaghetti with clam sauce made with lots of garlic, olive oil, and fresh chopped parsley or basil. (Enjoy this recipe on our website at

On brisk fall and winter mornings when the oyster beds are open, you can bundle up in several layers, pull on your waders or your high rubber boots and a pair of Neoprene gloves (both of these are essential for cool season shellfishing and can be bought at several of the local shellfishing supply stores listed at the end of this article) and head out for one of God’s greatest gifts—Cape Cod oysters.

I have gone oystering on cold winter mornings in West Barnstable and Osterville. Last November, my son and I arrived at the flats off Scudder Lane as the sun rose over Cape Cod Bay. The golden and rose-colored light glistened on literally thousands of oysters on the flats, treasure for the taking.

It was 40 degrees out and our fingers—even with wool gloves encased in Neoprene—were soon stiff from the cold. We endured, though, and gathered our allotted bushel (every Cape town has their own limitations on how many oysters or clams you can harvest), carefully checked the size of each with our gauge (oysters must be three inches or more for harvesting), and headed home.

Recreational shellfishing is an easy Cape Cod pleasure: even for raw rookies who don’t know a cherrystone from a little neck.

Photos by Maddie McNamara

The next day was Thanksgiving at my mother’s house and those oysters were savored down to the last morsel. Just thinking about it makes my mouth water.

Since we live in the mid-Cape area, my recreational shellfishing license can be used in designated areas in Barnstable’s seven towns. I shellfish mostly in Barnstable, West Barnstable, and Osterville. Some day I would love to shellfish in Dennis, Provincetown, and Wellfeet. Lots of oyster lovers contend that Wellfleet’s oysters are the sweetest—I can’t imagine anything sweeter than a West Barnstable oyster, but I’d love to give it a try.

Residents of Cape Cod towns from Bourne to Provincetown can get a shellfishing license for varying prices from around $20 to $40. All you have to do is head to your Natural Resources office or Town Hall and prove your residency. You can also buy the small rectangular shellfishing gauge at most offices. Wherever you dig, you MUST have your license with you and it is a good idea to always have your gauge on hand. Most towns have non-resident and seasonal licenses available as well for higher fees.

Recreational shellfishing is an easy Cape Cod pleasure: even for raw rookies who don’t know a cherrystone from a little neck.

Photos by Maddie McNamara

Shellfish wardens are a hardy, committed lot and won’t let you dig if you don’t have your license displayed. Even on that frigid November morning in West Barnstable, a cheerful young shellfish warden carefully checked through our entire wire basket to make sure all the oysters were big enough. Shellfish that are too small will be dumped quickly back into the water for another season’s harvesting.

When you get your license, you can usually get easy-to-read maps that will show you where you can—and can’t—shellfish. Sadly there are rivers, coves, and beaches on the Cape where you can’t dig because of pollution.

The Wampanoag Indians so valued the Cape’s then abundant shellfish that they used it as a form of currency. When the Mayflower arrived in Provincetown in 1620, the English settlers found enormous piles of discarded shells along the beaches. Called “middens” by the Colonists, the shells were burned for their lime.

Today, recreational shellfishing is a strictly regulated pleasure. Every town has a schedule of specific days when shellfishing is allowed. In Barnstable’s towns, you can dig on Wednesdays, Saturdays, Sundays, and holidays. You are only allowed to take a single 10-quart wire basket per week.

Recreational shellfishing is an easy Cape Cod pleasure: even for raw rookies who don’t know a cherrystone from a little neck.

Photos by Maddie McNamara

These regulations allow for the regeneration of the species. “These minimum sizes have been determined to enable the shell stock to be able to reproduce before being harvested,” reads a flyer from Barnstable’s Marine and Environmental Affairs office at 1189 Phinney’s Lane in Centerville. “[This will] ensure that they can produce their progeny to advance the next generation—a shellfish population needs to spawn before the adult broodstock is stripped from an area.” Spawning on the Cape usually takes place in June and July. The clams spawn when they are 2 years old.
There are a few other things about shellfishing you should know before heading out to dig. As a child, I used to dig for quahogs with my feet in Mount Hope Bay. When we moved to the Cape year-round and I went shellfishing for the first time, I took one of Barnstable’s helpful shellfishing classes at Osterville’s Bridge Street Landing to get the lay of the land.

The instructor recommended wearing old sneakers or rubber boots. Shunning her advice, I happily waded in to West Bay barefoot and dug up a bucket of tender, succulent little necks to bring to a cookout. The next day my feet and ankles erupted with small itchy bumps—the itch was as bad as poison ivy and lasted for several days.

This is called “Shellfisherman’s Itch” and it’s caused by a nasty little parasite. It’s said you can avoid this discomfort by drying your feet off quickly when you are done clamming. Not everyone is susceptible to it, but believe me, don’t take the chance. The other reason to keep your feet covered is that shellfish cuts can get infected very easily. When I go digging now, I always wear old sneakers or my rubber boots . . . and socks as well.

There is a very helpful nonprofit organization called the Barnstable Association for Recreational Shellfishing (BARS), which can be of great assistance to recreational shellfishermen. Their mission is to advocate for good water quality, promote and assist shellfish propagation and education, and share techniques and resources like shellfish recipes etc. The group meets on the first Tuesday of every month at 7 p.m. in the West Barnstable Community Building on Route 149, West Barnstable. Dues are $20 a year. For information, visit

In addition to adult classes, the town of Barnstable also holds children’s clamming classes at the end of June. For information on these classes, call 508-790-6272.

Those are the basic ABCs of shellfishing. Winter, spring, summer, or fall on Cape Cod, shellfishing is a timeless pleasure. It will bring nourishment to your body—and your soul—especially when you share the fruits of your labor with grateful family members and friends.

Susan Dewey

Susan Dewey, former associate publisher and editor at Cape Cod Life Publications, lives in Centerville where she grows vegetables and flowers for Cape farmers' markets, designs perennial gardens for her son’s company, Dewey Gardens, and enjoys living on beautiful Cape Cod year round.