In the lush and spectacular Pacific Northwest, where everything seems bigger than life-size and massive white-topped mountains tower above waters filled with fish, the natives have a saying that goes, "When the tide is out, the table is set." Few places in the world can claim so diverse and extravagant an abundance of aquatic life.
Almost 10,000 miles of rivers and streams flow through the state of Washington, teeming with steelheads and cutthroats, Dolly Vardens, rainbows, brook trout and silvers. From Washington's southwest corner, where the great Columbia River rushes to meet the sea and each new tide casts fanciful shapes upon one of the longest sand beaches anywhere, north past tall stands of Douglas fir to stark, rock remnants of vanishing shoreline standing sentry at the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the Pacific Ocean yields a bountiful bouillabaisse of halibut and cod, salmon, sole, flounder, smelt and herring, albacore, octopus and squid. To the east, the 200 square miles of Puget Sound stretch like a vast inland sea around the Kitsap Peninsula and across to the mainland, forming a maze of coves, harbors and long-fingered fjords abounding with shrimp and salmon, Dungeness crabs and Olympia oysters.
In the midst of so much plenty it seems hardly sensible that anyone would bother going after a catch that requires extensive preliminary hunting to locate, as much as half an hour of backbreaking effort to land, is limited strictly to three a day and is taken only at minus low tides which, depending upon the uncertain cooperation of the moon, occur at best no more than two or three days each month. But sense notwithstanding, whole waves of Washingtonians—as well as a sizable number of out-of-staters—rove the flats at these minus tides. To further confound credibility, the quarry that has lured them away from salmon and trout, not to mention family and friends, is, of all things, a clam—a clam with the improbable name geoduc (pronounced gooey-duck by all true buffs).
But, say the geoduc hunters, this is no ordinary clam. A giant among bivalves, a geoduc's body is much too big for its shell. Some weigh as much as 10 pounds, most of which is rich, succulent meat. Even as a clamlet, before it settles into its world of mud and ooze, a geoduc cannot close its shell around its oversized body. By the time it reaches 15 or 16 years, not an uncommon age for the creature, its meager mantle resembles a scanty pair of wings enfolding the meaty breast of a fat roast goose. Indeed, the geoduc is rumored to have been named on a duck hunt. In the late 1800s, while wild-fowling near Olympia, one John Gowey is said to have discovered the giant clam at the edge of a minus tide. He shot no birds that day, but he brought home three of the wondrous bivalves which became known as "Gowey's ducks."
In the early days of the West, the U.S. Fisheries Commission ranked the geoduc the top clam of the Pacific shoreline and tried unsuccessfully to transplant it to the Atlantic coast. The elegant Empress Hotel in Victoria served geoducs at the turn of the century several times each year. So prized, in fact, was this clam that in 1926 the Washington state legislature passed a special bill banning the harvest of the clam. It is still protected today with myriad rules and regulations usually associated with other game creatures. And this is as it sould be, for the geoduc is a game clam indeed—it is always sticking its neck out.
While the rest of the clam's body is settling peacefully into the sandy world below Puget Sound, its neck is invariably poking around looking for action. Since the neck when extended is anywhere from one and a half to three times longer than the body and often grows one to two feet long, the geoduc frequently finds the excitement it seems to seek. As long as the tide is in. such antics are safe. But when the tide goes out far enough, the game is no longer the same.
Up and down the newly bared beaches prowl the geoduc hunters, carefully checking the sand for signs of activity below. Many stagger under an incongruous assortment of oversized stovepipes, shovels and camp coolers. Others carry nothing at all. Sometimes they come in pairs, sometimes they bring the family, but most of the time they hunt alone. For geoduc hunting, like sky diving and cliff hanging, is a solitary sport. It is a lonely contest between man and clam.
Probably no one understands this better than Ivar Haglund, a round and robust restaurateur from Seattle who has locked himself in combat with the clam on all the major beachheads of its range. Geoducs have been found as far north as the Queen Charlotte Islands and as far south as Elkhorn Slough in California. Ivar has stalked them in the soft sands of Discovery Bay, on the long strip of beach at Alki Point where pioneers first landed, through the eddies of the Hood Canal, across the flats of Cultus Bay and down the shores of Vashon Island. His narrow mustache twitches like an electric toothbrush in need of a recharge as he recalls the encounters, citing each geoduc individually, reviewing each conquest and defeat.
"You wouldn't believe the things that clam has put me through," Ivar explodes, and his jowls quiver with the memory. "You don't just go out anytime to hunt them, you know, Oh, they're there all the time, but they're tricky. They stay just outside the regular tides, and you can't find them underwater without skin diving for them. You have to wait for a low, low tide, then you sneak out to about five feet from where it turns. Sometimes you walk so far you think you have crossed into Canada. Then you spot this spout of water coming up out of the sand and you know this is it.
"You get out the clam gun—that's what we call the shovels out here—and you get to work. You dig, and you dig, and you dig. Pretty soon the hole is two feet across and three feet deep and there is still no sign of the infernal clam. That's when you get rid of the shovel.