Get Ready, Get Set, Shuck

At the clam-shucking contest at Harborfest in Sag Harbor last weekend
Peter Ambrose was the top shucker in the Harborfest clam-shucking contest on Sunday in Sag Harbor, besting The Star’s fishing columnist, among others. Terie Diat

I’m pretty good when it comes to opening a bay scallop. I have probably opened well over 500 bushels over the course of 50 years. As such, I have to admit I’m pretty quick with my white, blunt-end Dexter scallop knife. When it comes to oysters, it’s a totally different story, as my pace is significantly slower. Unlike scallops, oysters are tricky little creatures, as each one is never completely alike in shape and size. I’ve even had to make two trips to the hospital to get stitched up after losing a battle between my left hand and an oyster knife while wrestling with an overly stubborn bivalve. I’ve also had many more close calls. 

As for the hard-shell clam, I’m more in my realm and comfort zone. While I will never achieve the natural dexterity and pace I’ve honed over the decades by opening a scallop, I believe I can hold my own among a number of folks when shucking our popular local quahog.

It was with that thought in mind that I decided to enter the clam-shucking contest at Harborfest in Sag Harbor last weekend. Saturday was a nearly perfect day with some strong hints of fall showing in the air. A cool, northerly breeze blew in off Shelter Island Sound as I signed up and paid my $10 entry fee at the windmill on Long Wharf for the 4:30 p.m. event. 

But there was a major problem at the shucking table behind the Sag Harbor Food Pantry stand. I was the only contestant who had entered. The contest was rescheduled for the same time on Sunday. This was truly a very anti-clam-atic turn of events. Crestfallen by the delay and solemnly standing with my very clean, yet lonely clam knife in my hand, I walked over a few feet and got in the long line for a tasting of the Montauk Brewing Company’s latest beer. 

Seems like the throngs of people clearly had a stronger thirst for the suds than a desire to taste some clams. But I admit that the icy cold beer did help soothe my disappointment.

Arriving back at the table on Sunday afternoon, it was a welcome sight to see that six people had entered the contest. Game on. The rules are pretty simple. Each contestant receives 12 chilled clams and has five minutes to open them “restaurant-style” — meaning that the inner meat cannot be sliced in half and must remain whole and free from its bottom shell. Clam knife at the ready, it was time to shuck away. 

Fumbling away with my first clam, which proved to be unusually difficult to open because it had literally clammed up, I noticed from a quick glance to my peers that I was already behind the pace. Within 30 seconds, it was game over for me. The first person to finish, well under the five-minute deadline by the way, was Peter Ambrose, a local caterer and veteran clam shucker who has won the contest several times in the past. Ambrose wears the crown as the Mickey Mantle of clam openers in my book. 

Despite my rather poor showing that afternoon, I did pry open my dozen clams (one of them was actually an empty dud), and had the pleasure of downing every one of them. Cold and briny, the clams matched well with the local beer on a beautiful, late summer afternoon.

Away from the shucking table, those fishing ocean skimmer clams for bait continue to reap a solid catch of black sea bass and porgies in Block Island Sound. As a reminder, while recreational anglers can retain 30 porgies over 10 inches, those fishing on party and charter boats can keep 45 fish through Oct. 31. However, as of last Wednesday, commercial fishermen saw their daily trip limit reduced to just 70 pounds of the abundant, silver-sided fish. The bad news for the commercial fleet started with the closure of the fluke fishery on Sept. 1. 

This combination of actions by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation was a strong one-two economic punch to the stomach for sure. 

Much farther away from the porgy grounds, the action offshore has perked up of late for many anglers. “The canyons are coming alive,” said Capt. Steven Forsberg Sr. of the Viking Fleet. Forsberg took the Viking Five Star on a 48-hour trip to the distant canyons over the weekend and was enthused by the catch, which included a load of large yellowfin and bluefin tuna, a large swordfish, and a bunch of colorful and tasty mahi-mahi. 

Closer to shore, despite a long-period swell that lasted for several days, fluke fishing continues to remain strong in Montauk, with a good number of fish over 10 pounds landed as the season nears its conclusion next Thursday. Most of the action is now focused in the deeper waters on the south side of Montauk off the radar tower. Large strips of squid or fluke belly have been the popular bait of choice for those hoping to land a large, late-season flattie. 

Over at the Tackle Shop in Amagansett, Harvey Bennett was enthused by a win by his beloved Oakland Raiders on Sunday and by the excellent false albacore action taking place around Gardiner’s Island. “The fish are everywhere, but the best action has been near the Ruins and on the east side of the island,” he said. Bennett said blowfish can still be had in Three Mile Harbor, while bass and blues can be picked up near Gurney’s and White Sands on the ocean-side beaches. 

“The action on false albacore has been really good, especially at Shinnecock Inlet,” said Ken Morse of Tight Lines Bait and Tackle in Sag Harbor. “Any small metal lure will suffice, but make sure you fish it with a very thin leader.” Albies, as they are commonly called, have keen eyesight and shun lures fished with a thick leader. Morse added that bluefish can be taken on diamond jigs on the incoming tide at Jessup’s Neck, while porgies, weakfish, and blowfish can still be had from Noyac Bay to Cedar Point. Those focused on blue-claw crabs continue to experience excellent catches as well.   

“More and more guys are heading north into the Peconics to escape the robin invasion in Shinnecock,” said Scott Jeffrey of East End Bait and Tackle in Hampton Bays. “There they have found porgies, weakfish, blowfish, blues, and even a few fluke. Shore-bound anglers at the Shinnecock Canal continue to get a mixed bag of action, including snappers, porgies, and blowfish.

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