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Friday, August 5, 2011

Stalking the wild quahog


The other day, I wrote about some ways people could stave off hunger by foraging if the federal government had defaulted and social security and food stamp benefits had not been paid this week. But most of us are not vegetarians and would not relish a meatless diet. If you own a gun or a fishing rod you always have the option to either shoot or hook some protein sources (though the state now requires a fishing license for both salt- and freshwater fishing), but here in the Ocean State, there's an easier and more reliable way to obtain protein: quahogging.

Quahogs, steamers, and mussels are readily available year-round here in the salt ponds of Charlestown and environs. (You can get oysters, too, but they're harder to find and cannot be taken legally from May 15 through September 15.) Some people mistakenly believe that the word quahog—from the Narragansett word poquauhock—refers only to the large chowder clams, but littlenecks, top necks, cherrystones, and quahogs are all the same species of clam; the different names merely refer to the various sizes. Quahogs have growth rings in their shells similar to tree rings, and counting them tells you the clam's age. A four-inch chowder clam can be as much as 40 years old.
Roughly a peck of quahogs, some 30 pounds.

You can legally harvest half a bushel (4 gallons dry volume) of each type of shellfish per person per day, during daylight hours—it's illegal to take shellfish after dark. However, Ninigret and Quonochontaug ponds are special shellfish management areas, so there you're only allowed one peck (2 gallons dry volume) per day. This is still quite a lot, enough that you should have some left over to barter with your local farmer for produce.

So now that you know how much you're allowed to take, how do you get them? The best time to go is at low tide. Mussels are the easiest to get because you don't have to go in the water and you don't have to dig for them; they live in the eelgrass along the shoreline. You want to make sure you feel a slight tug when you pull them up; if they're not feeding and therefore not holding onto anything, they're probably dead or dying.

In the summer months, you can walk into the ponds and dig for clams with your hands or feet without any tools. Quahogs, having hard shells, live fairly close to the surface, usually no more than 4 inches deep. Steamers, having softer shells, live deeper down, up to 10 inches deep. There are helpful videos on YouTube that show you how to find them. If you don't want to go in the water, you can also dig for them along the edge of the water in the tidal zone.

There are plenty of good reasons to go quahogging even if it's not a matter of survival. It's a time-honored Rhode Island tradition and an activity the whole family can enjoy. Plus it's good exercise and a pleasant way to spend a sunny summer afternoon. Not to mention that you always know how fresh the clams are if you dig them yourself. If you like eating them raw, bring along a clam knife and a bottle of Tabasco sauce and eat them straight out of the sand. Delish. See you at the pond!

Author: Linda Felaco