To find steamers, head out at low tide and look for sandy areas. Walk along the low-tide line and look for tiny holes in the sand – these are clues that steamers live below. Digging steamers is more work than digging quahogs because they live much deeper. Most steamers reside 6 to 12 inches below the surface. There are two methods for gathering them: dry digging and plunging.
Dry digging, the more commonly used technique, is pretty basic, and almost prehistoric. A short-handled rake is a good way to start out, but if you don’t have one, you can simply use your hands to gather these shellfish. I like to wear a pair of rubber work gloves when I’m dry digging because I never know what I might come across. There are things like broken shells, sharp rocks, and lots of big, ugly worms.
If you have a short-handle rake, jam it into the sand several inches past the hole. Pull up a big clump of sand and sift through to see if there might be a clam in it. Once I have a good hole started, I use my hands to start digging around. The hole will start to fill with water, which is okay because it makes digging easier. As you start to develop a nice hole, the sides will begin to cave in. Keep a sharp lookout, as you will usually see the long necks of the steamers extending up through the sand. When you spot the neck, start digging it out, trying to get underneath it. Grab it gently, and slowly pull it out.
Note: In many areas, regulations dictate that you can dry dig only when the air temperature is above 32 degrees. If you do it in freezing conditions, you will end up killing undersized clams.
I have no idea who invented the plunger method, but the person who did was a genius. Basically, you use a toilet plunger attached to a 6-foot pole with a basket on the opposite end. The technique is to plunge a hole in the bottom and then sift through the debris.
I start out looking for steamers in sandy areas between the low-tide mark out to about three feet deep. I prefer to plunge for steamers in the middle of a dropping tide so I can work the proper zone, plus the moving current helps flush the sand out of the hole.
Start out in a spot that has a concentration of tiny holes in the sand and use the plunger-end of the pole. It’s similar to plunging a toilet, except you don’t want the plunger head to make direct contact with the bottom. (Even though it’s made of rubber, it can still crush a steamer’s delicate shell.) Try to stop the downward momentum just before you make contact with the bottom. The plunger will begin forming a crater in the bottom. Go fast and furious on the first go-around since the steamers are going to be at least 6 inches down. Once you get a decent hole started, flip the rake around and use the basket to sift through the debris in the hole you created. You’ll be amazed with the stuff you sift up: old shells, crabs, crazy-looking worms, and other oddities. Don’t be surprised if you get a few quahogs in the top layer.
Keep repeating the process of plunging and sifting, keeping in mind that it usually takes a few minutes to get down into the zone. After a while, you will begin to develop a feel for it, and when you dislodge a steamer, you’ll feel it. Once you get down deep enough and start coming up with steamers, start working the edges of the hole. Going down deeper isn’t going to get you more clams since they all live at approximately the same depth. Often, when I find a good spot, I plunge a trough through the bottom, always moving onward as I plunge.
Note: Plunging steamers is illegal in some towns, so check the local regulations.
A common complaint about steamers is that they are too “sandy,” but nine out of ten times, a sandy clam should be blamed on improper care. It’s important to “flush” steamers before you eat them so I bring a 20-gallon cooler along. When I’ve gotten my share of clams, I fill the cooler half full of sea water and put all of the steamers in it. The cooler serves two purposes: it keeps the steamers at the same water temperature they were captured in, and the lid prevents water from spilling all over my truck.
When I get home, I add a half-cup of cornmeal to the seawater. I then let them soak overnight, or for up to three days in cool weather. Folk wisdom suggests that the cornmeal makes the steamers spit out any sand. Some old-timers tell me that the cornmeal makes no difference; simply soaking the steamers in seawater is sufficient. I’m as stubborn as any old-timer, so I always add the cornmeal. It’s cheap and my clams are rarely sandy.