It's amazing that so few outdoors people that love to eat shellfish don't try the fun experience of harvesting their own clams, mussels and oysters right in their own home state.
This is one of the easiest (not counting the labor) of outdoor pursuits to try and one of the most rewarding if you are successful, which eventually you should be. In fact, there's no reason that even on your first clam digging trip you won't end up with at least enough good, fresh clams to make a chowder with.
Although there are limited places where shellfish can be harvested along our Seacoast, the mother lodes of clams, oysters and mussels abound in the better known Hampton/Seabrook Harbor area and Great and Little Bays. Know that shellfishing in New Hampshire is for residents only and for recreational use.
With the Hampton area is probably the most "digger-friendly" as there are usually boats that ferry diggers back and forth from the State Pier docks out to the best clam areas on the days that are open to digging.
Which we should explain here first. The Hampton/Seabrook clam flats are constantly monitored for pollution, with the spikes of pollution usually coming as the result of a big rainstorm. New Hampshire provides a telephone service that by calling 1-800-43-CLAMS (1-800-432-5267) that will announce openings in these flats for clam harvesting. Also know that a clam or oyster license is required for each, as is a proper sized container (10 liquid quarts for clams) or ½ bushel for oysters. Your name, address and license numbers are required to be shown on your container.
For a small fee, the clam ferryboat will drop you off at one of the most productive areas and will return to pick you up when you're done. There are almost always more than one boat for this service to insure nobody gets left out on the flats, which are also usually monitored by NH Fish and Game Officers or biologists.
Digging clams in Great Bay can be a bit more tedious and often includes a long walk to the clam flats but the solitude, and when you find them, the quality of the clams, is well worth the effort. But also at Great Bay it's not that hard to harvest both clams and oysters at the same time.
The oysters are most often attached to rocks or hard bottom and can usually be found by just wading and picking them up. A very handy way to move your oysters when hip-deep in water is to use a basket set inside the proper sized inner tube to float your load, which can be quite heavy if you are successful. Most of these wader/oyster people like to tether their floating basket to their waist and also carry other tools such as a carpenter's hammer to knock off empty shells from the good ones or to separate rocks from the oysters. A good idea is to attach a lanyard to your hammer to avoid losing it in water that is often darkened by your wading.
Clams are really not that hard to learn how to shuck the meat out of but oysters are a different breed of problem. A special oyster knife is best to use. It's dull enough not to be stabbed with but rugged enough to pry open the muscle where the two separate shells are hinged together. Take it from this old shucker that a pair of knife-proof gloves that are available at most saltwater tackle shops are a great investment.
Since shellfish areas and flats can be opened and closed at any time for any reason, the phone call is very important before you go.
The best access to the Hampton/Seabrook clam flats are by boat from the NH State Pier at Hampton Beach but there are plenty of walk-in areas where a fairly short jaunt will put you onto some good clam areas. A good idea is to check out some of these back areas and one of the best sources for this is at Defiant Lobster at Landing Road in Hampton (off Rte. 101) where Pete Tilton will not only show you the way and sell you your license but also will rent you proper digging gear and even demonstrate it's use.
A stop at either Taylor's Trading Post in Madbury or Suds-n-Soda Sports should furnish you with enough info to enable you to gather up both oysters and clams at Great Bay, with one new access point that has been recently opened for shellfishing has a parking area adjacent to the Bellamy River Bridge (Scammel) on Rte. 4 providing a relatively short walk and great, onsite parking.
Dick Pinney's column appears weekly in the New Hampshire Sunday News. Email him at DoDuckInn@aol.com.