It is springtime on the Oregon coast and adventure waits at every turn.
When the tide goes out, the dinner table is set for thousands who gather to dig razor clams at Gearhart Beach in Oregon’s Clatsop County.
Astoria native and longtime clam digger, Steve Fick, used a short handled shovel with a long steel blade as he walked the beach and looked for the clam “show” in the surf:
“Well, sometimes when they’re feeding, they stick their neck up and out right in the shallow surf line – it makes a little v and we call those ‘neckers.’ Once you get the knack for spotting them, it’s easy.”
“Go down about two inches on the side of the hole and then you pull the shovel toward the hole. Then pull the sand up and as you do that, reach your hand in underneath and feel for the clam’s neck. Pull the clam up but not too hard or you pull the neck off.”
It takes some time and effort to get the feel for this sport, but it’s a satisfying reward on a morning’s adventure.
“Oh, there’s a lot of enjoyment down here early in the morning, digging clams and just walking the beach – plus, you can bring the entire family here too."
Fick was quick to remind clam diggers that each person must keep the first 15 razor clams that they dig – regardless of size. In addition, each clammer – 14 years old and above – must purchase an Oregon Shellfish License. Further, each clam digger must dig their own clams and have their own container.
It is best to time your visit a couple of hours before the low tide – and the lower the tide the better, so check an Oregon tide table for the best dates and times.
If you go, keep this in mind: when the clam tide ebbs and turns to flood there’s another fishing sport that takes over.
Brad Fresh is a longtime surf angler and he wears neoprene waders to keep out the bone chilling cold water – plus, he always wears an inflatable life vest too.
“It’s not that I’m a bad swimmer, I’m actually pretty good, but if I fill these waders up with water – well, I wouldn’t stand much of a chance – the water is so cold.”
Brad – his partner Chong Chang (that’s him with a starry flounder) and their friend Jim Milanowski are dedicated surf fishermen who like to “prospect” along the beaches. That is, they cast, then move and then cast some more ---again and again as they search for the "eager biters" among ever-moving schools of pink fin perch.
“Generally, you want to be here closer to high tide,” noted Fresh. “About an hour or two before high tide would be best. But we like to get here at low tide and look for the depressions and coves and other beach irregularities that might be a good place for the perch schools to feed as the tide comes in. Other than that, it’s pretty easy fishing; back to basics really.”
He’s right! Dave Neels of Fisherman’s Marine and Outdoors in Oregon City said it’s a simple fishery to master and it doesn’t cost an arm and a leg to get started.
“You don’t have to have a bunch of expensive surf fishing equipment,” said Neels. “You really can catch surf perch on smaller, lighter gear.”
Neels loves to cast baits into the surf for perch and he has pictures prove it!
He recommends anglers start with a fishing rod anywhere from 9 to 12 feet long.
“That longer rod keeps your line out of the water and you can cast a lot further with a longer rod too,” said the longtime surf angler.
He suggested a spin casting reel that can handle 150 yards of 14-20 pound test line.
Neel's terminal gear uses standard “crappie” rigs that have spreaders to keep up to three hooks tangle-free.
At the bottom of the rigging is a lead weight – anywhere from 2-4-ounces of lead (pyrimid or "sand" style) “gets the job done.”
He also cautioned that salt water can take a toll on fishing gear so remember to rinse your gear with fresh water and lubricate the reel…”Every time you return from a trip to the ocean. Don’t wait even a day or two or it’s too late! If you fail to do that you’ll have a rusty piece of junk in no time.”
Neels said that what he loves about surf casting for perch is the solitude of the sport: “You’re standing in the surf on a sunny day and once you find the fish, it’s often a fish every cast. I’ve got a grin on my face for three hours straight. It’s really a hard fishery to beat.”
Back on Gearhart Beach, Milanowski agreed that he loves the isolation of the surf fishing experience – although he enjoys the company of his friends that join him too.
I followed Jim’s lead and used clam necks for bait – although he added that "sand shrimp are tough to beat too."
I quickly learned that safety is important when facing the power of the ocean – so be sure to consider these measures when you go:
An Oregon angling license is required.
Never turn your back to the ocean!
Fish with a partner!
Stand sideways to the waves! You take less punishment from the power of the surf that way.
Wear a life vest! I prefer the lightweight inflatable style but I also will wear my USCG approved float coat.
Fish the incoming tide – you’ll have more success!
Jim said his reward is not only an exciting and unique coastal fishing trip, but the chunky surf perch are fun to catch and delicious to eat.
“They are a softer, white delicate meat so you cook them really fast. I prefer frying the filets – usually I fix them as I would razor clams. Just a minute per side and then enjoy the delicious, flaky, light meat.”
Moreover, the experience provides a uniquely satisfying and somewhat intimate day with the coastal environment.
“There aren’t a lot of people out here,” said Milanowski with a grin. “But that’s what makes it special for us die-hards. There’s plenty of elbow room and it’s easy to get away from the crowds. Now is the best time of year to go too – it is fantastic.”
Cooking Surf Perch
Filet each perch and douse each filet in an egg bath.
Coat each side of the clam in panko and a handful of crumbled soda crackers.
The combination provides a nice coating to both sides of the perch filets.
The preheated and hot frying pan contains a generous amount of vegetable oil.
Cook the perch filets quickly – less than two minutes a side (until golden brown on each side.) Drain each filet on a paper towel.
I enjoy combining the cooked perch with a generous serving of cole slaw. Enjoy!