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Harvesting Oysters with Clammer Dave

Libby Wiersema Libby Wiersema
Libby Wiersema lived in California and Alabama before settling in South Carolina 38 years ago, where she's covered the state's best culinary offerings and tells the stories behind the food.
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South Carolina's coastline is rich with them - those magical places where tidal rivers course through the salt marshes. And between the gentle lapping of waters and the tall Spartina grasses, craggy formations reach up from the piquant mud like knobbed fingers pointing toward the heavens. It's a sign, for sure, and wise folks - rubber booted, gloved and armed with hammers - heed it from their flat-bottomed skiffs, scavenging bays and tidal creeks for their share of the state's abundant crustacean supply.

When the weather turns nippy and there's an "R" in the month, it's prime time for oysters (though the season officially ends mid-May.) If you've experienced the earthy pleasure of crabbing from coastal piers and bridges, you might be ready to graduate to the next level. South Carolina's waters are brimming with oysters and clams, and under the right weather and water conditions, they are there for the picking.

Admittedly, there's more to this harvest process than meets the eye, but don't let that deter you. We recruited one of our most expert sea farmers to explain the finer points of snagging your supper from the beds and reefs in our bays and tidal creeks. Dave Belanger, known professionally as Clammer Dave, is a South Carolina treasure responsible for growing some of the sweetest, meatiest oysters and clams in the nation. A longtime sea farmer, his shellfish varieties are sustainably grown in Capers Island Wildlife Refuge just north of Charleston. His renowned Caper's Clams and Caper's Blade oysters and other products grace the tables of some of the most highly regarded dining establishments in the state and beyond. But, first things first, says Clammer Dave. You'll need to do a little research and preparation before you set out on the water.

Taking care of business

Harvesting shellfish requires a saltwater fishing license if you're between the ages of 16 and 65, so take care of this important bit of business before you go any further.

Consult the SC Department of Natural Resources website to identify recreational public and state shellfish grounds. Go over the regulations for recreational harvesting as there are catch limits and other pertinent rules that must be adhered to.

Check SC Department of Health and Environmental Control's website for the latest advisories to make sure your chosen site is open for harvesting. Sometimes weather and other conditions make it necessary to close a particular area.

Ask an expert

First-timer harvesters and people unfamiliar with boating South Carolina waters should go out with an experienced harvester, recommends Clammer Dave. "Try to find someone who knows the waters, how to harvest and is familiar with regulations," he suggested. "Once you've done it a few times, you'll feel more confident."

Harvest time

A day on the water with Clammer Dave revealed these tips for the recreational harvesting oysters and clams:

Wear tall rubber boots or waders. It's muddy out there - as in pluff mud, that thick, slippery goo coating our marshes and tidal flats. It is capable of creating serious suction on your feet, often pulling you down knee-deep. Think of it as quicksand's friendlier cousin - it won't suck you under, but it will make walking very difficult. "The best thing is to boat up to the reef, then get out," said Clammer Dave. "Check to make sure the ground is pretty solid first."

Watch your tides and weather conditions. You will want to plan your excursion during low tide and when the winds aren't too strong. It gets cold out there, especially when you're motoring along. Use sunscreen on your face and bring a scarf or face mask for more protection while you zip across the water to your chosen oyster grounds. Allow plenty of time so you don't get caught by bad weather or a rising tide.

Bring a sturdy hammer with a straight claw. You will need this important tool to break away barnacles, dead oysters and oysters that are still maturing from the clusters you pick. "This is called ‘cull in place,'" explained Clammer Dave. "Basically you pick out the larger oysters - about 3 inches long - and leave the smaller ones on the reef so they can continue to grow. It's important that you harvest responsibly."

Oyster shells are dirty and sharp, so wear a pair of lined rubber gloves to protect your hands.

To harvest clams, run your fingers down into the mud a couple of inches and pull them sideways. "We call it ‘scratching'," said Clammer Dave. "Just dig your fingers down in and scratch through the mud." Make sure clams are at least 1-inch thick; leave the smaller ones in the bed.

Bring a couple of 5-gallon buckets to place your "keepers" in. That's about two bushels - the legal harvest limit. Once you get your crustaceans home, spread them out and give them a good washing with a pressurized hose. Some may require further scrubbing with a good stiff brush before they go into the pot or on the grill.

Recycle your shells. "This is an important part of responsible harvesting," said Clammer Dave. "There are recycling centers all over where you can take your empty shells, so don't skip that part."

Libby Wiersema
Libby Wiersema lived in California and Alabama before settling in South Carolina 38 years ago, where she's covered the state's best culinary offerings and tells the stories behind the food.