Last week, anytime between Tuesday and Saturday, if you'd wandered over to Clam Beach in the early morning you might have felt as if you'd also wandered back in time. The shoreline teemed with clam diggers -- a spread-out crowd of them near the Little River Beach parking area and others down near the Clam Beach parking lots entrances. Some were wading into the breakers with their shovels and bags; others were stamping about or methodically tapping the sand with a stick on the little islands of sand the receding tide was exposing.
Such a sight had not been seen since the 1970s, when Siliqua patula, the Pacific razor clam, was at a peak. By the early 1980s the razor clam population had plummeted and a dreary spell followed. But now, apparently, the local razor clam fishery is coming back. Tuesday's -1.7 low tide and Wednesday's -1.66 lured the mobs to the beach, and even in the following days -- especially Saturday, by which time the minus tide wasn't much to speak of but more people had time off to go to the beach.
"This is as many razor clams at Clam Beach as I've ever seen," said long-time fisherman Aaron Libow, in a phone message left late Wednesday evening. He was too busy to talk, really. Busy, like so many other clam diggers, with clamming, cleaning, cooking, eating, sharing and then going back out for more.
By Friday morning, at low tide on the dot (-0.95), the more serious clammers had already come and gone. But a few stragglers remained.
Kevin Yokoyama, of Eureka, and Steve Schlerf, of Hydesville, were just pulling off their waders in the parking lot. They'd both been itching for a day off work to get out here to clam.
Neither had got their 20-clam limit, but they seemed happy with their catch even though the clams were on the small side, about three to four inches. "It's better than nothing," said Yokoyama, who got seven clams. "Shoot, there were a lot of people out here before us. Last time I went clamming, a couple of years ago, I only got one or two. I've been here 30 years, and 20 years ago you could get good-sized clams, and they were big -- seven or eight inches."
Schlerf, who started clamming when he was in high school, in the early 1970s, said the clamming got so bad here that he resorted to abalone diving. This was the first time he'd gone clamming since he was kid, he said. But, he added, he'd be hard pressed to say which sport he liked better.
"Abalone's good," said Schlerf, who got eight clams this day. "But I think razor clams are sweeter. But I can say that out here, clamming, you're only seeing half of creation because everything you see is above the water. Abalone diving, you get underneath and see what the people who stay on land never see."
Two women, one in bright yellow rubber overalls, walked up from the beach into the parking lot, arms full of buckets, bags, a little black dog named Monte Pepe and metal "clam guns" -- long tubes for digging into the beach to bring up a plug of, one hopes, clam-inhabited sand. At their truck, Jeanette Suhay, of Kneeland, and Holly Crownover, of McKinleyville, set down their burdens and began organizing their catch.
This was Suhay's second day of clamming, ever, and she'd caught 17. Crownover, who's gone clamming some in years past, hadn't gotten as many. But between the day before's and this day's catch, which they planned to divvy up, they had enough.
"I've been requested to make New England chowder," said Suhay. Looking at Crownover, she added, "And you're going to make Manhattan, right?"
Saturday was pretty good too. And everybody was here, including lots of families. One man, while obviously experienced, was old enough and die-hard enough to require his son's hand up out of the surf every time he dove into it with his shovel to chase a speeding clam. Several guys steadfastly stamped up and down the high wet sand mounds to force clams to dig down -- their escape forced up air bubbles, which popped on the surface of the wet sand, revealing their presence. Dig dig dig dig.
Debbie Pierce was keeping an eye on her kids, Ashley, 8, and Wyatt, 7, as they tromped around producing sand crabs and other such cool things.
"I guess they're getting a ton of clams out there," said Debbie, pointing at her husband, Aaron, and her father-in-law, Allen, atop a mound of sand repeatedly washed over by waves.
Allen Pierce said he'd been clamming for 60 years, since he was 8 years old, and this was indeed an unusually good year.
"On Wednesday there were a thousand holes out here on this island" where people had dug after clams, said Pierce, who was planning to grind some of his clams up to make clam cakes. "But they've even been getting them on plus tides. Seem like they're starting to come back. In the mid-'90s, it was just horrible. I'd come out here and maybe get two or three or four clams."
He said the clams they were getting now were no bigger than four inches. But that was good -- two years from now, when this beach was open again for clamming, they'd be bigger.
California Fish and Game marine biologist Pete Kalvass, in Fort Bragg, said this Tuesday morning that his department hadn't surveyed the clam population at Clam Beach in recent years so he didn't know the specifics on the clam's return. He did say that the razor clam fishery was huge at Clam Beach in the 1970s. Between 1971 and 1973 there was an average of 13,000 clam diggers and an average catch of up to 115,000 clams per year from the north end of Clam Beach, and 7,000 diggers and 45,000 clams from the south end of Clam Beach.
Between 1981 and 1983, the population dropped by 50 to 70 percent. The decline, and a similar one in the 1950s, was attributed to El Nino conditions bringing warm water that made it hard for the cold-water-loving razor clams to reproduce.
Following the El Nino event, a parasite called NIX infected razor clams, contributing to their decline, Kalvass said.
"But not every clam is killed," he said. And it's a good sign they're catching a lot of small clams out there now, he added. "That means that there may be some recruitment, some new ones coming in."
Razor Clamming rules:
People 16 or older must have a sport-fishing license on their person, though it doesn't have to be displayed.
You may use spades, shovels, tubes and some other hand-held tools. Gaffs, spears and mechanized tools are forbidden.
You can only have 20 clams in your possession at any one time -- counting the ones in your bag as well as at home.
You must keep every clam you catch, even if it's small or broken, and each counts toward your 20-clam limit.
In Humboldt County in even-numbered years you can clam from the mouth of the Mad River to Strawberry Creek. In odd-numbered years you can clam from Strawberry Creek to Moonstone Beach/Little River.
Clamming hours are from half an hour before sunrise to half an hour after sunset.