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Reel Time Fishing Northwest

Mark Yuasa covers fishing and outdoors in the Pacific Northwest.

June 22, 2009 at 1:41 PM

Hunting for one of the world’s largest shellfish right here in Puget Sound

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With his head nearly buried in sand and saltwater, Victor Mizumori of Redmond was hunched over inside a custom made stainless steel canister with his hands on one of the world’s largest bivalve buried in 4 feet of sand.

After several minutes of prying the geoduck (pronounced goo-e-duck) loose from the sand it probably has inhabited for eons Mizumori emerged from the canister with a jubilant smile and lifted the 4 pound creature into the air.

This was our annual trip up to Whidbey Island at a beach I cannot name for the sake of secrecy among my fellow shellfish aficionados or else face banishment from the group.

This past weekend, it was Father’s Day and well this is how us dads like to yuck it up, by getting down and under the sand, and a little dirty with Mother Nature so to speak.

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I had missed the early part of the trip on Saturday with my family and friends because of an event in town, but got the report on how they did via cellphone as we waited in line for the Mukilteo-Clinton ferry.

“We got five geoducks, and they [my brother-in-law] got four, but we only dug for about two hours,” said Victor, who has this technique down to a science.

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Then this past Sunday, I got my chance at going after the geoduck, which is one of the oldest and live as long as 140 years, and can weigh as big as 10 pounds.

The night before involved a little more happy hour than I had anticipated so getting up for most of my group was a chore, although I awoke on Father’s Day morning at 7 a.m. and had breakfast made for the others who had a little more trouble getting up.

We got the three phone calls from Victor wondering what was taking us so long so quickly we shoved the food down and carted all the gear into our cars and headed for the beach two hours before low tide.

Just getting to the beach takes a lot of effort and gear [two custom made garbage can-sized stainless steel cylinders, thick wooden planks, dollies with wheels, shovels, small and large plastic buckets].

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After pulling all our gear about half a mile onto the sandy flats we started the exploration, which was to look for shows, the brownish tip of the geoduck’s neck poking out of the sand. This often takes some nohow in that you need to not confuse them for their brother the less sought after horse clam.

Mike Mizumori immediately found the first few shows and marked them. You could see where the tip of the neck was sticking out just above the sand or others that had disappeared, leaving a depression in the wet muck.

Now for the hard work.

We started to dig with a shovel around the depression and the geoduck’s neck immediately retreated into the sand below.

Then two of us began to shove the cylinder that resembled a hollowed-out garbage can.

The wall of the cylinder surrounds the clam and prevents wet sand or mud from collapsing inward.

Once it was almost completely buried into the sand we started scooping sand out of the interior with the small plastic buckets.

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After we dug deep enough I went head first into the cylinder to feel around for the geoduck, and started to pry it loose, but I had no luck. Victor took over the work and after a few minutes loosened it enough to pull the first one out of the sand.

Sometimes, when the sand was a little less forgiving, we’d put wooden planks across the top of the cylinder, and one or two people would get on top and jump up and down. This was to sink the cylinder farther into the sand to get it down deep where the geoduck was hiding.

Most of the geoducks we came across were buried in the sand about 3 to 4 feet deep.

The big myth is that the adult geoduck digs down to escape when pursued. The retraction of the long neck fools one into thinking the clam is escaping downward. A burrowed adult geoduck’s siphon can stretch about 39 inches into the sea bed.

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Another technique for those who don’t have a metal or plastic cylinder or a metal stove top cylinder is to dig a trench about 2 feet deep, leaving a column of sand to support the siphon. Then expose the siphon by knocking away the sand and continue to dig until you reach the shell.

The geoduck’s name originated from a Native American word meaning “to dig deep.”

Its gaping, oblong shell is whitish with concentric rings. The siphon and neck of the geoduck cannot be withdrawn into the shell like its cousins, the Manila or razor clam.

The geoduck feeds on phytoplankton (single-celled marine algae), mostly diatoms and flagellates.

Age and growth studies have shown that geoducks grow about 1 inch per year in shell length for the first four years of life. The growth rate slows down after that. The average size of 2.2 pounds is attained in six to eight years.

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Geoducks reside along the West Coast as far south as Baja California, but harvestable populations are found only in Puget Sound-Hood Canal, British Columbia and southeast Alaska.

Puget Sound’s bays and estuaries host the highest density of geoducks in the United States.

In a story I wrote for the paper a couple years ago, Bob Sizemore, a state Fish and Wildlife shellfish biologist in Olympia said “abundance of geoducks historically has gone up, and their population is fairly steady. Public-access areas are where the bulk of people tend to dig, and usually those areas are fairly slow to recover.”

“When you get below that intertidal area beyond the zero [feet] to minus-2 [feet] down to about 80 or 90 feet, that is where the bulk of the population exists.”

The trend of increasing biomass in recent years is due to additional areas being surveyed, which state fisheries began in 1967.

Biomass estimates taken in 1998 showed 159,200,000 pounds of geoducks inhabited the sand and mud flats of Puget Sound. This year, that figure increased to 180,824,000 pounds.

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State and tribal fish managers take a very conservative approach to the fisheries.

“The recreational harvest is very minimal,” Sizemore said. “But the last I saw it, it was on the order of 4,000 or 5,000 pounds per year.”

While the geoduck won’t win any beauty contests, it is by far one of the most tastiest clams in the shellfish kingdom.

Guidelines to follow when pursuing geoducks:

-Before going to a beach, check the marine-toxin hotline at 800-562-5632 or

the state Department of Health Web site for information on red tides and beach closures.

-For beach locations and emergency closures go to state Fish and Wildlife’s Web site. The regulation pamphlet also lists public beaches that are open for shellfishing.

-The daily limit is three geoducks per person with no minimum size limit.

-Avoid grabbing a geoduck by the neck or siphon. If you inadvertently break off the neck, be sure to take the siphon and the body in the shell.

State Fish and Wildlife imposes a penalty for discarding dismembered clams.

-Rinse clams well with seawater, then keep them moist by putting them in a wet gunny sack or covering them with a wet cloth.

-Before leaving the beach, refill the holes you’ve dug.

-Be sure to have a valid state Fish and Wildlife shellfish license, which must be worn visibly when digging.

-Minus low tides of one feet or more are usually the only times you’ll find geoducks. Next best tides are: Today [June 23], minus-4.1 feet at 11:54 a.m.; June 24, -3.9 at 12:34 p.m.; June 25, -3.2 at 1:22 p.m.; June 26, -2.0, 2:10 p.m.; July 4, -1.3 at 9:44 a.m.; July 5, -1.5 at 10:22 a.m.; July 6, -1.6 at 10:58 a.m.; July 7, -1.6 at 11:33 a.m.; July 8, -1.5 at 12:09 p.m.; July 9, -1.2 at 12:44 p.m.; July 18, -1.4 at 8:07 a.m.; July 19, -2.4 at 9:01 a.m.; July 20, -3.1 at 9:53 a.m.; July 21, -3.5 at 10:43 a.m.; July 22, -3.5 at 11:31 a.m.; July 23, -3.0 at 12:18 p.m.; July 24, -2.0 at 1:04 p.m.; Aug. 16, -1.2 at 7:41 a.m.; Aug. 17, -1.8 at 8:42 a.m.; Aug. 18, -2.3 at 9:37 a.m.; Aug. 19, -2.3 at 10:27 a.m.; Aug. 20, -1.9 at 11:14 a.m.; and Aug. 21, -1.1 at 11:59 a.m.

How to clean a geoduck

-Blanch the geoduck in boiling water for 10 seconds, then submerse it in cold water with ice cubes.

-Using a knife, carve the clam away from the shell or simply pop off the shell with your hands.

-Separate the viscera from the meat of the neck (siphon) and breast (mantle). Peel the skin from the siphon and mantle. Wash thoroughly to remove any sediment and sand.

-Cut the siphon by inserting scissors or a knife into the lower siphon hole and cutting up toward the top of the neck. Wash inside of siphon.

-The breast meat below the siphon can be split down the median line and cut into small lengths.

(Photo taken by Mark Yuasa, Seattle TImes staff reporter)

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