West of Woolwich: A clam is a clam is a clam ...

Posted Wednesday, August 15, 2012 in Features

West of Woolwich: A clam is a clam is a clam ...

by Fred Kahrl

Unless it’s a Quahog


The best way to learn about clams is to get down on your knees and stick your hand into the mud.

That’s what my eleven-year-old granddaughter Brigid did last weekend for the first time, and if the tide hadn’t come in, she would be out there still. And the chowder that resulted from her digital digging was reportedly all the sweeter for the experience.

That’s the way I got started … 60+ years ago … when first allowed out alone onto the Sagadahoc Bay flats in Georgetown. It wasn’t the tidy task pictured above because I was digging for the soft-shelled clam known locally as “steamers”, but also preferred for chowder and fried clams.



The young man above is fully clothed on hard sand where steamers are rarely found. Softshelled clams prefer mud or muddy sand. In Georgetown most steamers are dug in sticky mud up to at least your ankles that belches swamp gas when you turn it over with a clam hoe. But, you learn more about how the clam lives in the mud if you start out with your hand.

You will probably also slice one or two finger-ends before you get the hang of just how aggressively to dig, and how to spread your fingers on both sides of the clam when you reach his depth. And, when you are done’ you need to find some place to wash off, because you will be covered with mud.


Yet, even with such a young start at gathering mollusks, it has only been in the past few weeks that I have finally worked out what is a clam and what is not. But with the help of a retired marine biologist, I will now share my belated clammy wisdom.

Wading barefoot at the edge of a low-drain I next met quahogs. They were fairly solitary but were easy to find because they were so close to the surface that you could feel them when you stepped on them. Low tide in Sagadahoc Bay put you almost half a mile away from the steamers, which were in the last flats covered before the tide started up the beaches themselves.  Where steamers preferred the mud, quahogs preferred sand, and also preferred to spend all their life underwater.

For the young explorer, they were very satisfying to find. As large as a child’s hand, with a sturdy shell, they seemed to promise abundant reward.


Mother, on the other hand, had no use whatever for quahogs. The meat was tough and … lacking a blender to chop it up … I was directed to leave them out in the bay. Bummer.

I would later learn that quahog meat was not only minced, but usually mixed with stuffing and spices and generous butter and baked on the half shell. Mother steamed and chowdered, but did not quahog. So, back to the steamers.

About halfway back up the bay, just before you get back to the “bedroom” where steamers were worth digging, was a sandy shoal over against the west shore. There were many attractive vent  holes in the sand there which we kids eventually also investigated, though we never saw commercial diggers there.

At first we couldn’t find what had made the holes, until someone finally persevered deep enough to touch the occupant: a razor clam. Of course, we had grown up seeing razor clam shells on the beaches, but did not know where they lived. Now that we had discovered them, we found out how hard they were to dig.

They retreated quickly to a much lower level in the flats when disturbed and “held on” to the bottom of their holes much more tenaciously than the steamers. In fact, having shells about as delicate as the steamers, it was almost impossible to pull them up by hand without crushing the shell.

Also, Mother had no truck with razor clams either. In fact, it wasn’t until I got to Kodiak, Alaska did I find razor clams being regularly dug and used for all the things we used steamers for back in Maine.



Through the years I have heard folks speak of “Surf Clams” or “Hen Clams”. I now realize that most of the cottage ash trays were surf clams, not just very big steamers. I just didn’t know where they came from, especially since there was a lot of bad identification going on among vacationers who mixed up quahogs and hen clams. In fact, if you go on the web and ask to see pictures of hen/surf clams, there will be a lot of quahogs mixed right in.


I am told … belatedly … that surf clams live in the same places as quahogs … below the edge of the low tide line and on out into deep water.  Folks who know where there are surf clams wait for low “dreen” tides and then wade around feeling for the clams. If it is relatively calm … as it can be in Sagadahoc Bay … Marine Warden Jon Hentz says that the surf clam’s habit of staying just at the sand surface when older means that there is often a telltale sprout of seaweed showing.

But I am told that these big clams are also tough, and either are cut up small for chowder or go the “stuffed clam” route like their Quahog cousins.

Speaking of quahogs, there is another twist to this story.

Several years ago, after the resident pollution was finally reduced sufficiently, there was an explosive harvest of quahogs in New Meadows Lake on the West Bath/Brunswick line. These mollusks were harvested using what were once called oyster rakes since, while shallow, the lake never drains out completely with the tide.

But these are not the common quahog found in our tidal bays and and whose shells appear on our beaches.

They are Mahogany Quahogs, which normally live in deep water because they can’t survive winter freezing. This splinter colony was “trapped” in New Meadows Lake when U.S. Route 1 was first built, using culverts instead of a bridge when crossing tidal New Meadows River. Leaking septic systems had for years prevented harvesting until environmental sensibility intervened.

Mahogany Quahogs have a big commercial footprint because they are sold in all sizes, each size having a different “market” name. And I quote:

“In fish markets there are specialist names for different sizes of this species of clam. The smallest legally harvestable clams are called countnecks, next size up are littlenecks, then topnecks. Above that are the cherrystones, and the largest are called quahogs or chowder clams.”


Where common quahogs usually have a black stain on their shells (above), Mahogany Quohogs have a brown to golden hue. To wit:

So, there you have it.

Without getting hung up on exact taxonomy, suffice it to say that steamers, hens, and razors are true clams, while quahogs … of whatever stripe … are quahogs, whatever fancy names are attached in the marketplace.

Oh, and I almost forgot … “Quahog” is the Abenaki word for clam. No wonder I was confused.

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