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A little coaxing reveals crowd-pleasing clams from Cook Inlet beaches
Nicky Szarzi is crazy about clams. As a Homer-based biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, she's a mollusk maven who studies the sandy life and times of Alaska's clams. Off the clock, she's a regular clam digger along the beaches of the Kenai Peninsula and beyond.
Szarzi's favorite thing about clams? Eating them, of course.
"Heaven," Szarzi said without hesitation when asked about the experience of eating fresh Kenai Peninsula Razor Clams. "I like eating them raw, particularly the feet. And I really like them breaded in corn meal and fried in butter. They're kind of sweet, like a scallop."
While there are many beaches around Alaska to harvest different clams, none are more accessible than a set of beaches just a few hours south of Anchorage on the Sterling Highway on the Kenai Peninsula. There rests a 50-mile bivalve bounty along Cook Inlet beaches from near Kasilof to Anchor Point, which includes Deep Creek, Ninilchik, Whiskey Gulch, Cohoe Beach and, naturally, Clam Gulch.
"There are at least four developed public access points, and once you get down to the beaches you're immediately in clam habitat," explained Szarzi, who recommends Ninilchik and Clam Gulch as the highest concentration spots for razor clams. "You have spectacular views across the inlet, and the beaches themselves are very flat and mostly sandy.
"And it's just fun, and they taste wonderful."
The clamming in this region picks up as early as April but unofficially kicks off on Memorial Day weekend as the weather, daylight and tide patterns make for easiest pickings. Most clammers put their shovels away around September.
The process of getting in the shell game is simple. Purchase a sport fishing license and grab a tide book -- knowing the tides, and pouncing when tides are low, is critical. So is knowing the regulations: Clam diggers must keep every clam they pull out (their shells are fragile and many won't survive if put back) and there's a limit of 60 per day with a possession limit of 120.
Gear is basic and affordable -- a combination of water boots or hip waders, rain pants, windbreaker or rain coat will keep diggers clean and dry; a clam shovel or tube and bucket are all you need to dig; and a good knife is needed for cleaning.
That's the easy part. Now the work begins. Finding hiding clams in the beaches takes a little bit of C.S.I. (clam scene investigation).
"You're looking for a dimple," Szarzi said. "It looks like somebody put a small hammerhead or the handle of a shovel down in the sand ... about the size of a dime or a quarter. Then there's a bubble, like a little volcano of sand."
First-time diggers should fight the urge to dig into the dimple. Instead, Szarzi said, choose the bigger dimples -- the bigger the show, the bigger the prize -- and move 2-3 inches away from it. Then dig parallel or at an angle to the show, pulling sand away from where the clam is hiding. When you see them, get ready for the action -- yes, clam digging action!
"Clams move away from you at a rapid pace," Szarzi said. "You've got to chase along with your shovel as they bury themselves and pluck them right from their hole.
"It's kind of an athletic activity," she added, "but the learning curve is pretty quick."
Cleaning clams, however, takes a while.
"Cleaning them is not as much fun as digging them, which can lead to burnout," Szarzi said. "You have to take the dark parts out of the clam, cleaning the digestive system, the gills, various organs ..."
But the payoff? Dunk the fresh, clean catch in some egg, then dredge in flour or corn meal, followed by a quick swim in some hot butter. Perhaps splash the clam with a squirt of lemon or a dip in some horseradish. No matter how you prep it, when you pop it in your mouth you'll be happy as a clam.