Clams, crabs and other shellfish rank high on the list of seafood delights Long Islanders enjoy. It’s no wonder when you consider that they are often caught locally, which makes them a good bet on the freshness scale at your favorite restaurant or seafood store. If you really want to sample them at the peak of perfection, however, nothing beats gathering a few on your own.
“It really is fun to catch some yourself,” says John Mantione, co-owner of J&J Sports, a fishing tackle shop in Patchogue that sells both recreational clam rakes and crabbing equipment. “And to be able to eat them the very same day — that’s hard to beat.”
Drive up to any South Shore dock between Jamaica and Shinnecock bays on a summer day, and you are likely to find it lined with crabbers. Recreational clammers, meanwhile, saunter about known clamming areas, which tend to be in shallow bay areas or tucked inside North Shore harbors.
“It’s great that clams and crabs taste so good,” Mantione says, “but the fun of catching them is amplified when you go with friends and family. Think of it as a treasure hunt, where you actively search for and scoop up the prizes.
Stacey Kruk-Damiano of Cutchogue agrees with Mantione. She says clamming and crabbing run in her blood because her father was a bayman. “Growing up, I went with my dad,” says the graphic designer, 45. “Now I take my entire family. We gather clams and catch crabs for barbecues and get-togethers. Often, the time spent digging up or scooping dinner turns out to be the highlight of the day.”
TRICKS OF THE TRADE FOR CLAMMERS
Treading, scratch raking and donkey raking — all of which can be accomplished without a boat — are the most popular recreational clamming techniques. Each is easy to learn but takes time to master. (Note that the use of clam rakes may be prohibited in some areas for fear they might damage sensitive sea grass beds.)
TREADING Just shuffle across the bottom, digging your toes into the sand if you feel bumps underfoot. When your toes push up against a buried clam, simply bend down and pick it up.
SCRATCH RAKING Dig the tines of a small basket rake into the bottom and pull at an angle that allows clams to roll up into the cage. Combine treading and scratch raking by using your feet to locate clams and the rake to dig them up. Inexpensive basket rakes are sold at sporting goods, hardware and general stores.
DONKEY RAKING Pull a commercial clam rake — known as a bull rake — in waist-deep water so the tines dig fully into the bottom. This is the most productive — and exhausting — way to clam on foot. Bull rakes are available at commercial fishing stores.
CLAMMING SECRETS OF THE PROS
Just about every recreational clammer has a theory about how to maximize a catch. Stephen Curti, 53, of St. James, who works in the bio-tech field and digs for clams in various North Shore harbors, suggests raking lightly across the surface of the sea floor when the weather is warm and digging a little deeper during cooler periods. He prefers to prospect in a rough sand substrate as opposed to muddy bottom.
Reed Riemer, 68, a window-cleaning contractor from Merrick, says he likes to explore near marsh edges, around isolated rocks or close to shore in knee-deep water. These are places, he says, that other clammers overlook.
Kruk-Damiano arrives at dead low tide so more shallow areas are apparent. “You can really exploit this theme on a new or full moon,” she says. “Tide changes then are most dramatic, so the flats are really exposed.”
WHERE THE CLAMS ARE
As a rule, recreational clamming is best in shallow waters, where the tide draws down to thigh-deep or less. Sandbars and shallow flats are ideal clam habitat. Most areas surrounding marinas are closed to clamming.
Observing other clammers having success is a sure sign you’ve stumbled upon a spot worth investigating — but leave plenty of space between yourself and others as crowding is considered bad form in this laid-back sport.
Permits are not required to take clams from state and county waters, including the places listed below:
CUPSOGUE BEACH COUNTY PARK, WESTHAMPTON
CLAMMING POTENTIAL Consistently good clamming on Moriches Bay. Path to bay is at the northwest end of the parking lot.
FEE $16 ($9 with Green Key pass) for parking 8:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m.
CEDAR POINT PARK, EAST HAMPTON
CLAMMING POTENTIAL Decent clamming in Northwest Harbor is available directly in front of the parking lot
CORDWOOD LANDING COUNTY PARK, MILLER PLACE
CLAMMING POTENTIAL Easy access to prime clamming waters on Long Island Sound.
THE SKINNY ON CRABBING
You can catch crabs from docks, boats or right off the bottom while wading in shallow water from mid-May through October. Crabs tend to hang deep or cling to docks during daylight hours so most people use drop lines or crab traps baited with chicken, bunker or mackerel to tempt them. After dark they often swim just below the surface where they are easier to spot and scoop, especially in the glow of a streetlight.
TOOLS OF THE TRADE FOR CRABBERS:
Long-handled crab net: Spend an extra couple of dollars and buy an extendible long-handled crab net to increase your reach ($45). Use the net at standard size to scoop crabs lifted from the bottom using a drop line, or to scalp crabs that you spot suspended from the sides of docks. Extend the net when crabbing at night. Shine a flashlight on the water ahead of the crab to guide it close enough to scoop.
Box or pyramid trap: Crab traps, baited with bunker, chicken or mackerel, work throughout the day but their effectiveness fades after dark. Drop line: 25 feet of thin cord serves well as a drop line. Tie or hook a piece of bait to the end and toss it out, being careful to hold onto the opposite end. Allow the bait to settle to the bottom and wait several minutes. If the line moves or becomes heavy, inch it back to slowly lift the crab. When it is just below the surface, slide the net underneath and scoop your prize.
Barbecue tongs: Nothing beats a pair of long-handled barbecue tongs for safely handling crabs.
“It’s amazing how quickly you can catch your limit of clams or crabs on a good day,” says Mantione. “Just remember you don’t have to keep them all. Really, how many do you want to clean?”
Mantione also suggests using bunker or mackerel instead of chicken for bait as they contain more oils, a trait bigger crabs seem to prefer.
“You don’t have to toss your traps or drop lines far off the dock,” says Kruk-Damiano. “Often the crabs are on the bottom just out of sight.”
WHERE THE CRABS ARE
No permits are required to take blue claw crabs from state and county waters, including the hot spots listed below.
CAPTREE STATE PARK
CRABBING POTENTIAL Good from mid-July to early October. Set up on the main dock, immediately southeast of the fishing fleet near Captree Bait and Tackle.
FEE $8 parking
UNION AVENUE DOCK, MORICHES
CRABBING POTENTIAL Solid action begins in mid-May. East and west ends of dock produce best.
SILLY LILY FISHING STATION, MORICHES BAY
CRABBING POTENTIAL Excellent if you rent a skiff to access the productive waters of Moriches Bay. Anchor over nearby flats and use traps or drop lines.
FEE ($100 for half day; $150 for full day; https://www.sillylily.com)
CRABBING POTENTIAL The west bank of Shinnecock Canal along Canal Road West can be very productive after Independence day.
FEE Free, but Suffolk County Night Fishing Permit required to park after dark.