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Shellfishing 101

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.

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