Foraging Wild Ocean Seafood

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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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Only the pincers and forelegs of the blue crab are blue.
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Blue mussels (left) are good to eat, but not ribbed mussels (right).
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The male blue crab (left) has a narrow apron on its abdomen. The female (right) has a wide apron.
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The quahog is a hard shelled clam.
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A seine net is an effective way to gather in a lot of fish at once. Flouder are found in the ocean, crappie in backwaters.
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Black bass and mullet fish.
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Three edible sea plants: Irish moss, rockweed, and sea lettuce.
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Jonah crabs (left) and dungeness crabs (right) are also good eatin'.
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Giant kelp are an edible seaweed.
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Orach and goose tongue are edible, but not hemlock.

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 noother 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.