The Mast-Head: Clamshell Mysteries

Clams, plowed from the sand by the waves, ended up on the beach in long rills

I did not get around to gathering a few surf clams to freeze for bait when thousands of them washed up along the ocean last week. Those who did could have put away enough to last the entire porgy season.

High surf from a passing storm had pounded the near-shore bottom hard over a couple of high and low tides. Clams, plowed from the sand by the waves, ended up on the beach in long rills. Seagulls feasted until they could feast no more. 

Surf clam shells have always been a presence in our house, put to utilitarian purpose as soap dishes. I am quite certain they were there even when I was a child. My own kids pick up the soap, wash their hands, and place it back on the shells without thinking a bit about it. 

As a free source of bait, storm-blown clams make me very happy, when I can get them. Take the meat out of one or two and pack it down in a food takeout container, with or without a handful of salt, stuff it all down under the chicken nuggets and ice cream in the bottom of the freezer, and I am ready. Only I didn’t this year.

Porgy season opens in New York on May 1, but the month or so between now and then is not likely to be stormy enough to drag another round of clams up on the beach. Those from the last storm are but empty shells now.

Years ago, what my father called skimmer clams were abundant in the bay in front of our house. It was easy at low tide to wade out waist deep and feel around for them with our toes, relatively quickly digging out enough to take fishing. Now there are none. Only a few hard chowder clams can be produced in an hour’s scratching with a proper rake. 

What happened to the skimmers is a mystery. Perhaps their abundance in the 1960s and 1970s was an aberration. Perhaps rich effluent from the Smith Meal fish processing plant to the east sweetened the waters for them, and when it closed in about 1968 conditions in the bay changed. Perhaps the building boom that followed once the processing plant’s foul smell was no more had something to do with it; groundwater flows quickly through the sandy soil here, and every toilet flush ends up in the bay sooner than it might elsewhere. 

Cycles on the bay are long and have no obvious explanation. Herman Mel­ville remarked that listless youth could see in the water’s dark shapes the embodiment of elusive thoughts from the soul by continually flitting through it. Okay, so it might be a bit of a stretch to pin an existential reverie on the comings and goings of clams, but you get my point, I hope. Life by the beach has its rewards even if you don’t manage to put a container of bait in the freezer every time.