“How have you lived here this long and never crabbed?”
That’s the question I kept asking my friends and gracious hosts in Seaside.
It’s a question I could very well have directed at myself. I had, after all, been coming here at least twice a year for nearly a decade. And even though I don’t live on Oregon’s North Coast—or in the state, for that matter—I’ve been here enough to basically be an honorary resident.
This annual trip between Christmas and New Year’s Eve wasn’t supposed to be anything out of the ordinary: jogging on the beach, hikes up Tillamook Head, strolls down Broadway just for fun. And, of course, golfing. Come winter in the Pacific Northwest, Oregon’s North Coast is my brief reprieve from inland skiing and freezing temperatures.
Crabbing, clamming and other fishing activities had never been on my radar—or that of my friends—mostly because I had a perception that it was way more complicated than it actually is.
My friends have an 8-year-old son, Hank, and this year seemed like as good a time as any to try out a new activity. Opting for something Seasiders would do, we decided on crabbing and digging for razor clams.
Asking the Locals
A quick Internet search (“Crabbing in Seaside”) generated helpful tips, as did the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife website. As any seasoned traveler will tell you, though, getting the local perspective from those people on the ground is usually most helpful.
Luckily, Seaside is welcoming enough of visitor inquiries that I got the inside scoop, not to mention a good hookup on equipment from my friends’ neighbor, who’s caught lots of crabs and dug up buckets of clams from the very spots we’d be hitting today.
That’s the beauty of crabbing and clamming in Seaside: ask anyone you see and they are probably experienced at it—or know someone who is.
With free (borrowed) equipment, the only expense was the license—and that was a bargain. A non-Oregon resident will usually pay $20.50 per year for a shellfish license, but since my stay would be short, I opted for a very reasonable $11.50, three-day temporary license bought at Trucke’s 1-Stop gas station on Highway 101. Trucke’s also rents crabbing and clamming equipment, and their staff knows a thing or two about shell fishing.
Oregon residents pay only $7 per year. We were pleased to find Hank’s license was free since he’s under age 12. This was proving to be a worthwhile activity and we hadn’t even thrown a pot in the water. Plus, we joked, it was cheaper so far than playing golf.
Clamming on the Beach
I’m not entirely sure what I expected clamming and crabbing to be like, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have some illusion (or delusion) of wild ocean waves crashing down as I emptied pots into the deep hull of a ship. I’d even dusted off an old Boy Scout knot-tying handbook just to practice and be safe. Clearly, I’d been watching too much Deadliest Catch. The reality was much more tame—perfect for something aimed at being a fun, laid-back family activity.
We were told to find the lowest tide possible and a good sandbar to start digging for razor clams. A quick study of the tide chart showed a low tide around 1 p.m. Thank goodness—no early wake-up required.
Hank, his parents and I walked along the beach at low tide, looking for the classic sign of dimples that would indicate clams beneath the surface. The tool we used was a long, hollow plastic tube, often referred to as a razor clam gun, capped at the top with handles. It’s meant to plow down into the loose, wet sand and dig up, well…something. It was like taking core samples of a glacier and each plunge down into the soupy sand brought back a load of soggy mud, sometimes mixed with a few pieces of long-forgotten shell. The anticipation built with each plunge into the sand, each time thinking that would be the dig loaded with clams! Luck wasn’t with us, though, since we didn’t unearth any live clams on our outing.
Hank wasn’t fazed. He seemed thoroughly excited just to have an excuse to get wet and a little dirty. “Do we have to go so soon?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I said. “We have to try for some crabs, too.”
Trying Our Luck with Crab Pots
It was a short walk from where we were at the north end of the Seaside Promenade to our crabbing spot, the popular 12th Avenue Bridge over the Necanicum River. Hank seemed to forget all about clamming when he saw what our next job entailed—cutting up dead fish as bait and throwing pots over the bridge. How could a kid not find that fun?
“Oh, that’s gross,” he said as the gutted salmon, still partially frozen, left slimy trails on his hands. But it was the kind of “gross” that’s fun for a kid. Hank helped cut the fish bait and enclosed it in the bait bag while I figured out some sort of knots that seemed to work. My Boy Scout training had paid off, or maybe it was seeing the knots of all the other crabbing lines already tied to the bridge.
We threw over our two pots and took great joy in the splash as they hit the water and sank to the bottom, where we hoped a few crabs would be waiting near low tide. We’d decided that rather than waiting anxiously a few hours—a watched pot never boils—we’d pass the time doing an activity we already knew very well: golf.
A somewhat chilly but otherwise clear, beautiful day made it impossible not to enjoy the outdoors—in whatever activity we were doing. (Of course, the fact that I beat Hank’s dad in golf made it even better. But who’s counting?) Hank and his mom joined, too, driving the cart and practicing their putting skills around the green. That’s one thing we’ve always enjoyed about golf—and Seaside in general: All the activities we do are fun for the whole family.
As the sun set over the Pacific, just a few blocks west, we returned to the bridge to see if our pots had indeed boiled. Pulling the lines out of the water and anticipating a crab inside was strangely far more exhilarating than I’d imagined. It’s like the excitement a kid feels on Christmas Eve waiting for the coming morning and promise of presents. Hank was jumping up and down and almost dancing on the bridge, so excited by the prospect of a crab that I was half scared he’d jump right off and into the water, just to see it faster.
Unfortunately, there were no gifts to unwrap. I pulled the empty pots over the bridge railing and untied them, admittedly disappointed. But I knew there were crabs around to be caught—plenty of them. Everyone I talked to in town said this spot was the place to get crabs. And I’d seen them in other people’s pots. I looked up at Hank as he poked at the bait bag, still intact, and mused about the slimy fish parts inside.
“Gross,” he said. “But cool!”
As we gathered all the gear, a car pulled up beside us and for a moment, I thought it was a local about to tell us we’d been doing it all wrong.
“How’s the crabbing today?” the driver asked. “We’re down from Seattle and we’re going to throw some pots in tomorrow. Never done it. Is it worth the effort?”
I looked down at Hank, still beaming from his day out on the beach and on the bridge, cutting up chum like he was an experienced fisherman. He seemed to forget all about coming up short on the catch and was just reveling in the fact we’d spent the day doing something exciting and new—or, really, that we’d just simply spent the day hanging out together.
“Yeah,” I said. “It totally is.”
As we walked away and loaded the gear, Hank was already devising strategies for next time.
“Maybe we should try another bait next time,” he said. I was surprised, thinking he wouldn’t want to try again, given the empty pots of his first experience.
“Oh, you mean you want to go out next time I’m here?”
“Of course,” he said, and he thought for a second, the way kids do when you know the wheels are spinning in their heads and they’re going to say something insightful.
“But I want to go again, even if you’re not around.”
It may have taken my friends close to 10 years to try crabbing, but it’s amazing what the encouragement of a kid will do.
I have a good feeling the next time I come back we won’t have to borrow equipment. They’ll be getting their own very soon.
Editor’s Note: There are lots of opportunities for active adventure in Seaside and on Oregon’s North Coast, so much, in fact, we’ve made an Active Adventures video showing some of the highlights. Also, local clamming expert Ken Axt created a video here in Seaside that promises you can “Learn to dig razor clams in six minutes.” Check it out!