Foraging Wild Ocean Seafood

From fish to clams to crabs, foraging for wild ocean seafood is easy, fun, and nourishing.
By Suzanna S. McDonald
March/April 1972
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The soft shell clam should be one of your easier finds when searching for wild ocean seafood.
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Scrounging for wild ocean seafood — everything from clams and mussels to crabs for bait, cat food, and fertilizer — is both easy and fun, and the booty can be mouthwateringly delectable. One of my favorite crannies for practicing the art is a small cove in Maine. The inlet is ringed with red granite boulders, quiet pine forests, low heaths and dark bogs and contains bits of masts, hand-hewn beams, ribs and other weathered remnants of an eighteenth-century merchant shipwreck.

I'm told that — although the ship's passengers managed to get ashore safely when the vessel ran aground — many of them then slowly starved to death. Not because there was no food available, but because the passengers were unable to recognize and harvest that food. They needn't have perished. I know, because I personally have taken clams, crabs, fish, huckleberries, cranberries, and rose hips from that same cove. I've also noted an ancient Indian trash pile there that contains an unbelievable number of clam shells. It stands to reason that wild foods, abundantly available both before and after the ship's disaster, must have filled the bay just as profusely at the time of the wreck.

Of course, this one little inlet has not been unusually blessed with free-for-the-gathering fare. Most coves, estuaries, and bays along the coasts of every large body of water in the world seem, in their natural state, to teem with edible life. It's not necessary to have power boats and super-double-whammy fishing rigs to harvest that bounty either: simple nets and poles are the most complicated tools you'll need to practice the art of the sea scrounge. The following general guide should get you started.

How to Be a Sea Scrounge

First, let me remind you that just as you don't pick any old weed or mushroom for your table, you don't pick any old clam or fish to eat, either. And never, never, NEVER cook or eat any shellfish that are dead when you find them. If the mollusk doesn't resist your efforts to open his shell, or if the shell is broken, don't take any chances with food poisoning. Keep your eyes open when choosing a scrounging spot and follow these rules:

(1) AVOID POLLUTED AREAS. Diseases found in human waste, such as typhoid and hepatitis, can be carried by shellfish. Public health boards try to keep polluted beds posted with warning signs, but signs have a way of disappearing. Check before you take any shellfish.

Unposted pollution is another problem. Use your own judgment, but I never scrounge near heavily traveled highways or boat marinas where lead from exhaust fumes is sure to have drifted onto the land and water. I stay far away from any industrial plant that dumps mercury or other chemical wastes, and I avoid areas where crops are treated with herbicides and pesticides that wash off the land and into the sea. Steer clear of oil slicks too, unless you happen to crave wild foods that taste of petroleum.

(2) OBEY LOCAL REGULATIONS. Laws that regulate the harvest of seafoods were not made to thwart your good life but to protect it. Restrictions, such as those governing the size and quantity of clams and crabs that may be gathered, allow the species a chance to replenish themselves.

(3) RESPECT PRIVATE PROPERTY. There's no need to get into a trespassing hassle. Town docks and beaches are usually open to the public, although nearby parking areas are sometimes restricted to residents. If that's the case, park your car somewhere else, walk in and ask an old-timer where to fish, clam, or crab. Old railroad beds, bridges, wharves, and public land are almost always OK.

(4) TAKE ONLY WHAT YOU CAN USE. It's a sad kind of murder to gather too much seafood and then let it just die in a pail. All excess live critters should be put back to survive and propagate.

Clams and Mussels

Clams are dug and mussels are plucked at low tide. The soft-shell or steamer clam (also called the nannynose or long clam in some parts) is especially easy to harvest. The clam, found from North Carolina to Labrador on the East Coast and from California to Alaska on the West, digs itself only a few inches into sandy or muckish mud between the high and low-tide lines. It feeds itself by making a small access hole (through which it extends its "neck" to siphon water) to the mud's surface. This siphon hole is the clam's undoing because, if you stamp your feet while walking across a good steamer clam tidal flat, you'll be able to locate every one of the tasty shellfish by the little squirt of water each sends up as it retracts its neck.

Steamer clams tend to group and, when you've found one, you've most likely found a lot of them. Check local regulations to learn how many you may harvest, then grab a basket and head for the flats. Almost any good digging tool can be used for gathering steamers but there's a special clamhook with long, thin prongs that makes the job easier and is less damaging to the soft shells of this variety. Foraging a meal-sized mess of nannynoses is generally a quick and easy task.

You can clean the grit and mud from clams by hanging them off the end of a dock in a wire basket (which will attract a lot of fish and provide you with some truly superior angling). You can also soak steamers (but no other saltwater clam) and fresh water shellfish in a tub of fresh water to which you've added a handful of cornmeal. Change the water and add new meal twice a day and let the long clams clean themselves for 48 hours. Scrub the clams before you cook them.

The most common way to eat steamers is, you guessed it, steamed. Place a bunch of the soft-shells in a kettle, cover them with water and boil for about twenty minutes. Then eat 'em right out of the shell dipped in your favorite melted-butter sauce. Just flip the clams out, strip away the papery brown membranes, swirl the delicious little critters in the butter and pop 'em in your mouth. If you're one of the queasy uninitiated, have someone else prepare your first clam and keep your eyes closed until it's down the hatch. The unaesthetic appearance will be quickly forgotten once you discover the delectable taste.

Soft-shells can also be eaten raw, boiled, fried, baked, chowdered, curried, spaghettied, and stuffed. Check any good cookbook or Euell Gibbons' Stalking the Blue-Eyed Scallop for recipes. You'll have to shuck the clams for most of these dishes but, with steamers, that's a snap. Just slip a thin knife into either end of the shell and sever the adductor muscles. When the shell comes apart, cut the meat loose and trim off the siphon with scissors. Raw clams can be juicy, so open them over a bowl to catch the liquid which can be drunk hot, mixed with tomato juice and Worcestershire sauce or added to stuffings.

Hard clams or quahogs are also found up and down the East Coast but are harder to spot than steamers since they grow under three or more feet of water in the muddy bottoms of inlets and estuaries. Once located, however, this particular shellfish is usually easy to harvest because it has a very short siphon (this clam is sometimes called the littleneck) which forces it to live just beneath the mud's surface. You can, in fact, gather littlenecks as the Indians sometimes did by feeling for them with your toes as you walk in the offshore muck. Hard clams, just like the soft-shells, tend to be social creatures and, where you find one, you'll generally find more.

Scrub and carefully inspect the shells of your hard clams before you eat them. Very small quahogs are called cherrystones and are delicious raw. Larger hard clams will open if steamed for 20 minutes and can then be gobbled down as is or served in any of the dishes suggested for soft-shell clams.

Mussels can also be prepared in the same manner and perhaps the best of the lot is the very dark-colored blue mussel. It's found on the East Coast from North Carolina all the way up to far, far northern Canada and on some parts of the West Coast. Many other varieties are also edible, but steer away from the 4-5" straited mussel which ranges from a brownish to a yellow-greenish color and is disagreeable in taste.

Mussel hunters on the West Coast must contend with a special problem. Pacific mussels are contaminated during the warmer months by a poisonous micro-organism which the shellfish strain from the water while feeding. These plankton-like little plants are luminescent. At the height of their season they lend a sparkling, fiery glow to wave crests and boat wakes. The danger of contamination from these creatures is so great that California forbids the gathering of mussels from May to October. During the remainder of the year, though, these West Coast shellfish are just as nourishing and delectable as their eastern brethren.

Mussels are found on wharf pilings at the low-water line or on rocks just reached by the shallow waters of low tide. Live, useable mussels will be attached to their roosting spots by a web of strong, silken black threads called the byssus. Never take an unattached mussel. Pluck the good ones and remove their "beards" by pulling the threads toward the large end of the shells with your thumb and forefinger.

These tough little mollusks are almost impossible to open raw, but that's no loss because uncooked mussels are pretty unappetizing. Scrub the shells with steel wool or a wire brush and steam them for 20 minutes until they open. Serve with melted-butter sauce.

Before we move on to crabbing, I would like to again emphasize that all shellfish should be scrubbed well and inspected closely before being cooked or eaten. Immediately discard any mollusk that doesn't close tightly when handled or that has a cracked or broken shell. Never cook or eat a dead clam or mussel.

Crab Catching

Crabbing can be exciting, challenging, and a lot of fun. The best-known East Coast variety is the blue crab (known in the South as the sea crab). This crustacean is large (about 6" across), its back is dark green, stomach white, trim red, and legs blue. It frequents muddy shores, estuaries, and the bottoms of bays, although the best hunting is often the channels that cut through salt marshes.

Crabs can be difficult to see in the shallows. Their natural coloring is such an effective camouflage that they are easily mistaken for just another ripple in the dull green water. The trick is to keep a picture of the crab in your mind and search the waters until the image in your head merges with the real live crab on the bottom.

There are three ways to go after the blue: with a net, baited line, or trap. The first is a real sporting proposition.

The crab is a sensitive, alert creature and sneaking up on one with net in hand requires some doing. Wear sneakers to protect your feet and proceed with the utmost silence and caution. When you locate one of the crustaceans, approach him from the rear (if you can) and scoop him up with a long, quick sweep. Your scoop has to be faster than his swim and, chances are, you'll miss. That's when the fun begins, because if you pursue the defiant little devil he'll soon turn and offer to fight you with his dexterous — and dangerous — pincers.

Once your crab turns, scoop him into the net or just wave a stick in front of him. The spunky crustacean will most probably clamp a claw on the proffered piece of wood and tenaciously hang on until you can pick him up and dump him into a box or bag. If you have to handle the ornery little dickens, grab him only from the rear. A snap from those pinchers can inflict a jagged and dirty wound that will be quite painful.

The other two crabbing methods aren't nearly as exciting but are surer bets, especially for the inexperienced forager. When a weighted line is baited with a fish head and dropped to the bottom of likely crab waters, the crustaceans will latch onto the offering just as firmly as they'll pinch the piece of wood I mentioned earlier. When they do, haul them up and net them. Increase your haul by working as many as a dozen of these drop lines at once. Crab traps work much the same way except that they close up around the unsuspecting blues when they gather to feast on the bait fastened in the centers of the snares.

Many other crabs make good eating, too. As a matter of fact, all true crabs are edible, but some are so small that the effort is hardly worthwhile. Most coastal areas of this country have at least one notably famous local crab.

In New England look for the oval-shaped yellow-brown rock crab on sandy bottoms in shallow water just below the low-tide line. You'll also find rock crabs hiding along the zone between the tides. The Jonah crab, with its brick red back, yellowish belly and rough carapace favors the open sandy shores of northeastern waters, too. State laws in the region forbid non-residents from using crab pots on the crustaceans but both crabs can be netted or caught on baited lines quite easily.

The best eating on the West Coast is provided by the large dungeness crab, a reddish-brown member of the Cancer family that can be taken in traps from the bottoms of tidal flats and bays, and the South has its stone and lady crabs.

Hard-shelled crabs should be boiled or steamed in sea water or in fresh water to which some salt and vinegar has been added. Dump the crustaceans into the boiling liquid and cook them for ten minutes after the water has come back to a boil. Just as with lobsters, this is the quickest, most humane way to kill the hard-shells.

Cool, but do not soak, the crabs in cold running water after they've finished boiling. Break off the claws and legs and lay them aside. Remove the craw, the devil's fingers and the abdomen or "key", which is the fleshy part tucked under the top shell. Break each body into two pieces along the seam made by the recess from which you removed the abdomen, crack the legs and claws with a pair of pliers, and you're all set to pick out the meat to use as is or sauteed, deviled, gumboed, or added to salads.

The so-called soft-shelled crabs are really just blues that have moulted out of their shells. Until their new coverings harden the crabs are sluggish and helpless and can be picked up without fear. Look for them on the bottom under large rocks where they sometimes hide.

Once the craw (a sac located just behind the eyestalks) and devil's fingers or lungs (spongy strips found under the tips of the upper shell) are removed, the entire soft-shelled crab can be sauteed in butter, broiled, or dipped in egg and bread crumbs and fried. Fried soft-shell makes a great sandwich on a hard roll spread with mayonnaise, sprinkled with a little cayenne pepper, and garnished with lettuce or nasturtium leaves.

Hard shell or soft, though, remember to always check local limits and regulations before harvesting crabs and never cook or eat a dead crustacean.

Pole Fishing

There's nothing like a simple 10-15 foot bamboo pole for fishing off docks or in coves, inlets and estuaries. No need to lay out lots of bread for swanky rods, reels, and lures. Tie a hook to your cane pole with 15 feet or so of line, bait it with a fish head, a worm, or some meat and dangle that hook in the water. It'll do just as well as the fancy rigs and can be put together, complete with snap-on bobber, for less than $5.00.

A myriad of fishes—including mullet, bluefish, sea bass, flounder, and fluke in the ocean, and perch, black bass, crappie, and catfish in the brackish backwaters—can be caught in sea scrounge territory. While the sport fisherman might get bigger thrills and tell bigger tales, the sea scrounger gets better meals for less money in a shorter time.

Some of the best pole fishing can be done from wharves, especially around the canneries of New England. On good days you'll take smelt and pollack as fast as you can get your hook in and out of the water. Bait with whelk foot or some other tough meat so you can catch several fish on the same piece of bait, and set your snap-on bobber to hold the hook at a depth of 4 to 8 feet.

Two more fish that can be found around wharves, as well as among the rocks along the coast, are the cunner and the tautog. The cunner is aggressive and hits the hook hard, while the larger tautog is a cautious sneak who darts out from his hiding place to take a quick nibble at your bait before scooting back to cover. Fish for both close to the bottom using a small hook baited with just about anything.

These four fish are all very tasty and easy to prepare. Cut the heads and tails off your smelt, squeeze them from the tail forward to eviscerate them, and fry in butter. Smelt are also good if you roll them in egg and bread-crumbs before tossing them in the pan. The other three are best filleted: split them down the back on either side of the dorsal fins and along each side approximately in the middle, then remove the boneless sections of meat from the upper halves of the bodies. They can be baked, boiled, fried, or corned.

When you latch onto an eel — and every sea scrounge fisherman will once in a while — don't throw it away in disgust. Eels are mean, ugly, slimy, hard to clean ... and some of the best eating you'll find anywhere. Once you've landed an eel and removed the hook (for which a hook disgorger can be a lifesaver), cut its skin all the way around the body just behind the head and peel it off with a pair of pliers. Then slit the snakelike fish all the way up the bottom, take out the intestines, and sever the head. The cleaned eel can be cut into fillets after the meat has been firmed by a short stay in the refrigerator. Boil, fry, pickle, or use the eel fillets in Bouillabaisse.

Seine Fishing

The easiest, quickest way to obtain bait for your pole fishing, food for your cat, fertilizer for your garden, and sometimes a surprise or two for your supper is by making a sweep with a seine net. The seine is a relatively small-meshed oblong net with floats on the long top edge and weights along the bottom. The short vertical sides of the rectangle are tied to poles which are used as handles when pulling the net through the water. Make sure your seine is at least 3' x 6'; the smaller postage stamp varieties are inefficient and utterly frustrating.

Seining is a two-man operation, one person on each pole. Try to keep the weighted side dragging the bottom for greatest efficiency. The net must billow out behind you as you walk along, to form a pocket in which small fish and other shallow-water denizens can be trapped. Quickly sweep through an area near the shore, bring the poles together at the end of the turn and dump your catch on the beach or into tubs. Sort through the pile of sea life, taking what you can use and returning the rest to the water.

Most of the rewards of seine fishing will be fish one to five inches long — too small for the table but just right for bait, cat food, and fertilizer — but occasionally you'll come up with something worth eating. Schools of deeper-water fish are sometimes driven in close to shore by storms or predators and we once captured a fine mess of whiting in our seine.

You can purchase a net at fishing supply stores, or make one from cotton or linen mesh. Use corked plastic bottles for floats and big fishing sinkers for weights. The poles can be bought at the lumber yard or found in the woods.

Rounding Out Your Meal

EDIBLE SEAWEEDS: Few people consider seaweed when they're planning dinner, but there are at least six common varieties that are both nutritious and delicious. Seaweed has long been appreciated in the Orient and on the islands of the Pacific. The North American sea scrounge should also learn to eat the palatable varieties.

Look for rockweed clinging to the higher rocks along rough coastlines. It's great thrown into the pot to steam with any kind of seafood and contributes a delicate, sweetish flavor to the finished dish.

Tide pools, especially in rocky areas, will provide you with the other five varieties. The undulating bright green leaves of sea lettuce make a colorful addition to your salads if chopped into very small bits while still fresh, and give you a salty seasoning when dried and powdered.

Dulse is a dark red plant with fan or tongue-shaped leaves and is found attached to rocks, shells and other seaweeds near the low-water mark. Fresh, the leaves are tough and rubbery, but when dried they become tender, and—unlike most dried plants—will remain soft when stored. Use the cured dulse in salads, add it to chowders and meat loaves, or chew it plain — as the Irish have done for centuries — to take advantage of its exotic tang.

Perhaps the best of the seaweeds for cooking is laver. This tongued or lobed frond with a smooth red, purple, or purplish-brown sheen also grows on rocks, boulders, and pilings near the low-water line. Use it in soups, brown it in oil seasoned with garlic and ginger root, or stuff it as you would cabbage or grape leaves.

Irish moss is the most common of these sea vegetables and completely carpets the rocky mouths of many tidal pools. The plant is a very dark olive green, purple, or black, 3-6" high, and grows in close, many-branched profusion. Raw, it's tough. Dried, it's tougher. But boiled, it's perfectly tender and a wonderful side dish to any seafood dinner. Usually, though, Irish moss is boiled for 30 minutes and then cooled to give body to soups and to make a nourishing gelatin.

The sixth food-quality seaweed is edible kelp, a 1-10' long, 3-6" wide olive green or olive brown frond. It can be distinguished from other kelps by its pronounced mid-rib and the small, ribless leaves that grow out from its base. It's these parts that are eaten. Add the chopped rib to salads and use the fresh or dried leaves as a vegetable or in soups, stews, and noodle dishes.

SEASIDE PLANTS: While you're down at the beach scrounging, keep an eye out for rose hips, the sweet and vitamin C-packed fruit of the wild rose. Easily identified as a rose, the shrubby bush has thorns, saw-tooth-edged oval leaves, and five-petaled mauve or pink flowers. Rose hips can be eaten just as you pick them, sprinkled with a little sugar, or made into tea, jam, or jelly.

Orach, or seaside lamb's-quarters, looks almost exactly like its relative, the common lamb's-quarters or pigweed, and is just as good in salads or lightly boiled and buttered. Find orach among the rounded stones above the water line, sprawled on the ground, or growing upright as high as 5 or 6 feet. Its dark green, scaly-looking leaves are shaped like arrowheads and will more than take the place of spinach or chard as a vegetable.

The glasswort, which starts off as a patch of small translucent green shoots and grows into a jointed, apparently leafless cactus-like plant a few inches high, is found on clay shores and in salt marshes that are barely covered by high tides. Another spinach substitute, the glasswort (or samphire, as it's called by some) is a fine salad green.

Should you come across a collection of fleshy, gray-green leaves sending up 4-8" spikes of dull greenish flowers, you've found the goosetongue, a beachcombing version of the common garden plantain. Goosetongue, which grows along clay shores over most of the coastline of the U. S. and Canada and even on the inhospitable-looking rocks of sea bluffs, can be used in salads or prepared like green beans and served hot with lots of butter.

And if you hanker after a little dessert, gather some beach plums, a strange relative of the domestic plum and cherry found on 3-10' high shrubs in the dune sands of the East and Midwest. The bush is covered with magnificent white blossoms in the spring and later bears an abundant crop of red, purple, or yellow-orange fruit ranging in size from one-half to an inch in diameter. The beach plum can be eaten as picked, made into tart jams and jellies, or used in pies.

There are many other edible plants to be found at the seashore, too many to cover here. But there's one plant the sea scrounge should take care to avoid, because it's definitely NOT edible: the poison hemlock.

If you're tempted to take home a sprig or two of that wild parsley you found up the hill from the beach, or those wild carrots (Queen Anne's lace) growing in the field by the Old Shore Road, be mighty careful. Hemlock is very difficult to distinguish from either of these plants and a mistake can be your final undoing. The seeds of the hemlock are deadly too, and are often confused with caraway, anise, and fennel. It's not really that big a problem (after all, how many poison hemlock deaths did you hear about last year?) but forewarned is forearmed.

The sea has fed and fascinated people since the beginning of time and still holds a magical allure for the sailor and the sportsman. It can hold more than allure for the careful sea scrounge: the ocean and its shores can be the cheap and plentiful source of all the delicious food he cares to gather.


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