Clamoring for Surf Clams

And who has the brains and guts to argue with Mother Nature?
Dave Debaun of Southampton landed a large thresher shark off Block Island last week on the charter boat Blue Fin IV. Capt. Michael Potts

Last week’s unusually turbulent summer weather, which included extended wind gusts to over 30 miles per hour on several days mixed in with a few tropical downpours, certainly stirred up our local waters. Rip current warnings were posted up and down the coast for most of the week and weekend. It was best to stay out of the drink most days.

Without a doubt, it was not exactly the ideal “Hamptons” week that many of our short-term residents wish for, expect, and ultimately pay for around these parts. It truly was a very tough time if you happened to play or work on or near the water. But it happens. 

And who has the brains and guts to argue with Mother Nature? No matter the wager, I’ve got my money on the old lady. She knows her stuff.

In particular, the strong winds deterred most boats from venturing out to the distant Atlantis Canyon and the Tails east of Montauk to see if the bigeye and yellowfin tuna bite of a week ago was still on. Adverse weather usually alters the fishing scene, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse.

While the wild and woolly conditions put a crimp in many fishing efforts, as well as sunbathing in general, there was at least one positive I saw as the much-agitated ocean happened to stir up the bottom sufficiently to unearth a plethora of large Atlantic surf clams (commonly referred to as skimmer clams around these parts). Lined up by the dozens high and dry above the sand in a steady line at the high tide mark, they provided easy pickings for those in the know.

Large in size, the hard shells of this stout mollusk can measure nearly 10 inches in length and adorn many a patio or house as an informal ashtray or aesthetic nautical accouterment. 

While they provide a colorful, local detail to any abode, they are also edible in many forms. If you are old enough, remember the fried clam strips from Howard Johnson’s? Loved them as a kid. The clams have also made their way into sushi restaurants. Enjoy clam chowder or clam juice in your Bloody Mary mix? Most commercial manufacturers use them. Even up north in Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, and eastern Quebec, a burgeoning and lucrative surf clam business has expanded greatly in the past few years. Most of the harvest is shipped overnight to Japan and Asia. 

On the other end, the surf clam is an extremely popular bait to lure anything from flounder to striped bass to porgy to cod to a baited hook. Prices for the mollusks have skyrocketed as well. A few years ago, a bushel of surf clams would go for about $20. Last time I checked, they were selling for around $75 or more, if you can even get your hands on them. Unfortunately, the warming waters off Long Island and New Jersey, a traditional hot spot for over a century, have gradually moved the harvesting of the clams to more cool, northerly climates. Lots of people are clamoring for clams these days.

“It’s almost impossible to get fresh surf clams,” said Ken Morse at Tight Lines Tackle in Sag Harbor. “I ordered as much frozen product before the fishing season started to make sure I had enough on hand. I was not certain my supplier would be able to provide me with enough as the season went along.”

Sadly, by the time I got down to the ocean with a large bucket in tow the day after they washed up, the clams were all gone. You snooze, you lose. I missed my chance. Memo to self: Always keep a five-gallon bucket in the car. 

While striped bass fishing at Montauk continued at a good clip leading up to and after the full moon, the aftermath of the rough seas seemed to pick up the spirits of those focused on fluke fishing, as catches increased in both size and numbers.

“The fishing really turned on when the seas calmed down,” said Kathy Vegessi, the veteran shoreside support arm of the Lazybones party boat out of Montauk. “It’s been the best action we’ve seen all year, with some really nice fluke landed up to nine pounds.” Vegessi even took time to wet a line herself on Friday morning and quickly limited out with four keeper fish. The newly anointed Queen of Fluke donned her crown with pride, along with a big smile and gentle wave of her hand at the end of the trip. God save the Queen.

Over at the Tackle Shop in Amagansett, the owner Harvey Bennett was beaming over the fact that the baseball camp he supports for underprivileged children in the Dominican Republic with donated baseball equipment and clothing, won the local championship last week. “How cool is that?” he asked with a wide grin on Monday morning. “To see the smiles on their faces from the pictures and videos was priceless.” Bennett is still looking for more baseball wares and plans to head to the Dominican in November with his next delivery. “The response from people out here has been great,” he said. “But I’m still looking for more stuff to box up.”

When finally convinced to talk about fishing, Bennett said that the action has been excellent on many fronts. “Snappers are all over and larger blues have moved into the waters around Montauk,” he said. “Fluke up to seven pounds have been taken at Napeague and large porgies are everywhere. If you want blowfish, try the docks in Three Mile Harbor.” Bennett added that striped bass remain plentiful along the various ocean beaches and that a few sharks are around to spice things up. “Don’t forget to try a live snapper for bait if you go fluke fishing,” he finally added. “It’s the best bait around if you want to catch a larger fish.”

Back at Tight Lines Tackle in Sag Harbor, Morse said that weakfish can be had at the Middle Grounds and in Noyac Bay, while bluefish are taking diamond jigs at Jessup’s Neck on the incoming tide. “Fluke fishing has been hit or miss at Gardiner’s Island, but some nice sea bass are around there,” he said. “Plus, porgies of good sizes are there too, as well as over on the north side of Plum Island, along with sea bass.”

On the commercial side, the summer fluke season reopened on Tuesday after a two-week closure; however, the black sea bass season closed on Saturday and will remain closed through Aug. 31. Effective Sept. 1, the daily trip limit is set at a rather paltry 50 pounds for the over- abundant fish.

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