The sun was low in the horizon when I arrived at Tashmoo Pond. The temperature was above average for a February day. Mid-forties I guessed. One week earlier, it had been in the teens.
Tom Hopkins, white beard under a wool cap, stood in the water up to his knees raking clams. Tom had walked from his house in his heavy brown neoprene waders to take advantage of the late afternoon low tide.
Tashmoo, a pond in name only, is connected to Vineyard Sound by a single, narrow channel flanked by shallow flats. In the summer, it’s a popular spot with clammers and boaters. This day only a few geese and ducks were about.
Tom said he enjoys the peacefulness of the pond in winter. The cold weather is no hardship for this transplanted Vermonter. Later, he’d put the clams on a hot grill until they opened, then drizzle them with olive oil. A real treat.
In winter, the opportunity to leave the house and return with a basket of clams is one of the outdoor pleasures of Island life. No tourists. No boaters. No white sharks to worry about. With just a modicum of effort, and minimum equipment — thick waders are a must — a hardy shellfisherman can avoid hypothermia and return with dinner.
The key piece of equipment is a clam rake. I’ve watched inexperienced visitors hold the rake as though they are sweeping with a broom. The poor angle affects how deeply the tines probe the sand and hinders success. It’s more effective to hold the end of the rake handle and draw the tines slowly across the bottom until you feel the distinctive scratch of a clam shell. Then repeat the motion and dig up the clam. It’s soon easy to differentiate between stones and clams.
Quahogs are widespread and found in easily accessible shallow flats. Bear in mind that size matters when it comes to identifying a clam as a little neck, a cherrystone or a chowder — or when in doubt, a quahog.
A town shellfish license is mandatory. The cost varies depending on the town and one’s residency status, but it is a bargain for those who enjoy fresh air and fresh seafood — and want an excuse to get out of the house on a pleasant winter day.
The act of drawing the rake through the sand while standing in the water beneath a crystal blue winter sky until I feel the distinct “tick” of a tine striking a hard shell is meditative. I can usually rake up enough clams to make a hearty pot of quahog chowder before a chill penetrates my waders and heavy woolen socks.
The beauty of clamming is its simplicity. That applies once you arrive back in the kitchen. Opening an oyster can be a struggle. It takes practice. And there is always the risk you will plunge the sharp point of an oyster knife into your palm — I speak from experience on that one.
Opening a hard shell clam is a matter of placing your harvest in the refrigerator until it is well chilled and relaxed. A cold clam is a happy clam and is relatively easy to open unless you handle the shell too much, causing it to “clam up.”
Winter is long on an Island. Spending time in the kitchen boiling potatoes, frying bacon, sauteing onions and chopping clams I harvested earlier that day is a pleasure. Sitting down to a steaming bowl of homemade chowder is pure joy.