Find fresh shellfish in Yarmouth’s coastal waters

Thinking of making your own creamy clam chowder, savory clams casino, or chilled littlenecks served on the half-shell? Here’s some good news. All those dishes can begin the same way – with fresh quahogs plucked from Yarmouth’s coastal waterways.

Hard-shell clams or quahogs (pronounced KO-hogs), are found throughout the town’s saltwater bays and estuaries. To harvest them, you’ll need a recreational shellfishing permit, which can be purchased from Town Hall. You’ll also need to follow the local shellfishing rules, advises Yarmouth’s Director of Natural Resources Karl von Hone. Here are some of the basics:

  • Yarmouth residents pay $30 for a one-year recreational license that covers quahogs, soft-shell clams (steamers), and sea clams, along with oysters and bay scallops, which have shorter seasons beginning in the fall. The permit price for non-residents is $80, and senior citizens (75 or older) pay $15.
  • Quahogging and clamming season runs year-round in Yarmouth, beginning in April and ending the following March. But areas are subject to temporary closures during summer months – especially after heavy rains, when water quality sometimes drops below state safety standards for shellfishing. The town’s waters are tested regularly for bacteria concentrations under supervision of the Mass. Division of Marine Fisheries, von Hone said.
  • Summer shellfishing in Yarmouth is limited to Sundays only. But during colder months, when weather is more likely to be inclement, Wednesdays are added.
  • Family members can work together under a single recreational permit, raking in up to 10 quarts of quahogs and 10 quarts of soft shell clams per week.
  • While Yarmouth has ample areas for quahogging, von Hone said that digging for soft shell clams (steamers) is limited.
  • Quahogs must be at least 1 inch across the thickest part of the shell (near the hinged end), and soft shell clams must be at least 2 inches long. Local hardware shops and fishing tackle stores often sell gauges for measuring shellfish.
  • Find complete information on Yarmouth’s shellfishing rules at the Division of Natural Resources website.

Safe family activity for social distancing

During summer, when both the air and water are comfortably warm, quahogging makes a great family outing, van Hone said. Think of swimming in the ocean for a couple of hours, and then returning home with your dinner.

It’s also a workable activity for social distancing under COVID-19 protocols. You’re outdoors in nature – often with a stiff ocean breeze in your face – and there’s generally room in the water to keep a safe distance from others. But you should still exercise caution when using limited parking areas or walking on paths to and from your destination. Be courteous and stop to allow others to pass with ample space, von Hone said. Since parking is limited at many of the popular shellfishing locations, it might be a good idea to have someone drop you off and then pick you up when you’re finished.

What gear will you need?

Collecting a 10-quart limit of fresh quahogs takes an hour or two of moderate work – more like play really, as you slosh around in waist-deep water and stop every minute or so to drop a couple of shellfish into your floating basket. To make your basket float, squeeze it into an overinflated tire tube and tether it to your waistline so that it bobs along wherever you go. It’s also wise to keep a shellfish gauge tied to the handle of your basket.

Chest-high waders are a good idea when the water is cold, but swim trunks will suffice during summer months. The only other equipment you’ll need is a quahog rake, which is a strong, steel-headed rake with long tines to pull the shellfish from their muddy beds. Shellfish rakes have sturdy wooden handles and a metal basket behind the tines to catch the shellfish. Once you get the hang of working a shellfish rake, you’ll actually feel the difference between scratching quahogs and dragging up a pile of rocks.

If you don’t have a rake, try feeling around with your feet. As kids growing up on the Cape, we always waded out at low tide to where the water was roughly waist-deep. Then we crouched down low, so the water covered our shoulders and we felt the bottom with our feet. The bay water was always murky, so we wore an old pair of sneakers, just in case we bumped into a menacing blue crab. Today, water socks make sneakers obsolete, and lightweight gloves with rubberized palms can help allay the fears of being pinched by a startled crab.

Where can i go quahogging?

Yarmouth has plenty of sheltered waters for scratching quahogs, but the town opens and closes different areas in a rotational plan, working with the state Division of Marine Fisheries, von Hone said. That’s why it’s important to check the Yarmouth Division of Natural Resources website for information.

For example, winter-season quahogging is allowed off Wilbur Park in Bass River, but during summer the open area rotates to Lewis Bay or Lewis Pond, said von Hone. In the fall, the open area is switched to Mill Creek, which is off of Lewis Bay, he said. Next it returns to Wilbur Park or Bass Hole, and it later switches back to the summer location, von Hone explained.

Lewis Pond, which is typically a popular summertime area, will be closed this year, von Hone said, noting that quahogging will be allowed in a section of Lewis Bay (stretching roughly from the end of New Hampshire Avenue to the mouth of Mill Creek). Find updated shellfishing locations on the Yarmouth DNR website.

Managing quahogs stocks for the future

As the town opens and closes its quahogging areas, the Yarmouth Division of Natural Resources is working to make sure the shellfish population remains strong, von Hone said. Yarmouth and some other Cape Cod towns participate in the shellfish relay, a program that dredges quahogs from the Taunton River estuary, which is contaminated with excess fecal bacteria. The shellfish are transferred to cleaner waters, where they quickly purge the bacteria and become safe to consume, von Hone said.

Last year the Lewis Bay area was seeded with about 96,000 pounds of quahogs in varying sizes, von Hone said, noting that once the shellfish were introduced, the area was closed for a full year. The long closure provided more than enough time for quahogs to clean themselves, he said. And it gave them a chance to spawn and produce new stock.

Each female quahog can produce up to 5 million eggs during a spawning, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which manages ocean fisheries.

Why do quahogs have so many names?

A quahog by any other name is still a quahog, but the species of bivalve mollusk known by scientists as Mercenaria mercenaria is certainly a creature with many aliases. Northern quahog is the popular name, quahog is a Native American name for clam, and following is a quick guide to the other terms related to the quahog’s size:

  • Little necks are the smallest legal size for quahogs, measuring just over 1 inch across the thickest part of the shell (right above the hinge). Because they’re small and tender, littlenecks are preferred for raw bars, as well as for grilling inside the shell or serving whole over pasta.
  • Middle necks are slightly larger than littlenecks (1¼ inches above the hinge). They’re especially good for raw bars, grilling in the shell, steamers and clams casino.
  • Top necks are the next size larger (1½ inches above the hinge) and are used for raw bars, steaming, and in-the-shell grilling. They’re also the perfect size for clams casino.
  • Cherrystones are larger still (2 inches wide above the hinge). They’re a little tougher than the smaller sizes, but they still can be eaten raw, steamed, grilled or used in clams casino. Cherrystones are also big enough to use for chowders or in baked-stuffed quahogs (aka “stuffies”).
  • Chowders are the largest of quahogs, sometimes half-a-pound each. The meat is tough and the flavor is strong, so they are typically steamed, then diced up for chowders or cooked, minced and mixed with bread cubes, butter, spices and sausage, then baked in the shell for stuffed quahogs.

Andy Tomolonis is a nonfiction author, travel writer and multimedia journalist.

Stay safe while kayaking Yarmouth’s waterways

Need some outdoor exercise but still want to practice social distancing? Go paddle a kayak.

Flatwater kayaking on Yarmouth’s coastal waterways offers a welcome break from the home office – complete with the aroma of salty air and a chance to spot egrets, osprey and great blue herons. Best of all, you can do it from the cockpit of your personal, human-powered watercraft, keeping a safe distance from other paddlers.

Kayaking is also a wonderful low-impact workout. Even leisurely paddling exercises the core and upper body muscles, while offering moderate aerobic benefits. Depending on wind speed, currents, your weight and other variables, kayaking will burn roughly 200 to 450 calories per hour.

The sport is inexpensive, family friendly, fun for kids and, yes … some people even take their dogs out with them. Lightweight kayaks are easy to move and can be transported longer distances on the roof of a car. But you won’t have to travel far to find great paddling places on Cape Cod – especially in Yarmouth, which maintains numerous public boat launching areas. Finally, if you want to try the sport without buying a kayak, you can do that, too.

Bass River Kayaks & Paddle Boards, located on the east bank of Bass River at 118 Main Street, West Dennis (next to Sundancer’s), will rent you a kayak, deliver it and pick it up when you’re finished, says co-owner Ashley Smith. There are limitations to the local deliveries, which you can find – along with the store’s rental rates and hours of operation – at the Bass River Kayaks & Paddle Boards website. The physical store is preparing to open on May 23, if allowed under statewide COVID-19 policies, Smith said. But even if the physical store is closed, rentals and deliveries are still available by phone (508) 362-5555.

You can also rent a kayak and use it right on Bass River, Smith says, noting that Cape Cod’s longest river is a superb location for beginners.

Bass River is roughly 6 miles long, stretching from Mill Pond in Yarmouth Port to Smuggler’s Beach on Nantucket Sound, with numerous saltwater ponds and coves for quiet exploration. The Cape’s flat terrain makes Bass River easy for paddling in most locations, with no rapids or whitewater. But the river is a tidal waterway, Smith explained, meaning water flows upstream on an incoming tide and back downstream after high tide, changing direction every six hours. Paddlers can take advantage of the currents by planning their upriver trips on an incoming tide and taking a break for lunch before paddling back downstream once the current turns. Some other practical kayaking tips from Smith:

  • Always paddle with another kayaker and wear a life vest. The Coast Guard requires a life vest for each occupant of a boat, and for kayakers, it’s best to actually wear the vest instead of keeping it stashed onboard.
  • Even though the air temperature may be 70 degrees, the water temperature is still quite cold in May and early June. Staffers at Bass River Kayaks & Paddle Boards advise boaters to wait until the water temperature reaches at least 55 degrees F. And don’t venture too far from shore when the water is cold. You can call the kayak store to ask about water temperatures, tides and wind conditions or check one of the many websites that publish local water temperatures.
  • Keep close to the riverbanks. Not only will you get a better view of nature, but you’ll stay out of the channel and away from motorized watercraft. More precisely, motorboats navigate between the red and green channel markers, so kayakers should strive to stay between the shorelines and the marked channels. Also note that motorboats have the right of way (and they can’t slam on the brakes if you cut in front of them).
  • For easier paddling and calmer water, keep to the lee or sheltered side of the river. The calm water also makes it easier to see the bottom.
  • Carry a waterproof dry bag with clothes and a few necessities – just in case. Kayaks are much more stable than canoes, but accidents can happen. If you do get wet, you can reach into your waterproof bag for dry clothing. Sunscreen and bug repellent are also recommended.
  • Pack some snacks and drinking water. If it’s hot, you’ll need the water to stay hydrated, and you might want to stop for a picnic. Plus, if you have an emergency during your trip, the cell phone will come in handy. The Coast Guard also requires boaters to carry a sound-making device (kayakers can get by with a loud whistle on a lanyard).
  • Watch for heavier currents under bridges, where waterways narrow like a funnel. North of the Highbank Road Bridge on Bass River, paddling can be a little tricky when the current is running at its peak.

Some prime paddling spots along Bass River: The mile-and-a-half stretch from Route 28 south to Smuggler’s Beach on Nantucket Sound has lots to see – including osprey nests, egrets, cormorants and great blue herons. The West Dennis Fingers, on the Dennis side of the River, is a series of boat canals with beautiful homes. Heading upstream, Grant Cove is a nice spot for exploring quiet coves and inlets. The cove is also close to Wilbur Park in Yarmouth, where you can park a car.

Beyond Bass River, paddlers might want to explore Parker’s River, Swan Pond, Long Pond, Lewis Bay or other locations. Freshwater boat launches are found on Long Pond (at the end of Davis Road) and on Dennis Pond (off Summer Street) to the north, you can try to find the Bass Hole and Gray’s Beach site in Yarmouth Port, although the water gets shallow at low tide. Find a map of Yarmouth’s saltwater boat ramps at the town’s Division of Natural Resources Website.

Be aware that there are some new pandemic-related rules for Massachusetts boating ramps, according to Yarmouth Natural Resources Director Karl van Hone. The state now requires face masks and social distancing at public boat ramps. Other rules include no loitering or gathering at boat ramps for fishing tournaments or other activities and keeping boat occupants to members of the same family (not a problem with single-person kayaks). Find complete rules at the state Department of Fish and Game.

Andy Tomolonis is a nonfiction author, travel writer and multimedia journalist.