Skip to main content
Original Issue

A high time on a low tide

A minus tide on the coast of Puget Sound is a plus for geoduc hunters who march to the beaches to battle the giant bivalves man to clam

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.

"Then you get down on your belly and you reach into that hole with both hands. The more you grope around, the faster the hole fills in. Mud and sand fall down the sides. Water seeps up from below. Did you ever try to dig anything out of a pile of sawdust? Finally you grab the clam. You get both hands around this enormous neck that will never fit back in its shell, and you pull.

"Imagine yourself trying to exert every ounce of energy you have to get this clam out of the hole. It feels like it's under a rock. All of a sudden, everything you dug out falls back on you and you're lying there half-buried in sand, trying to hang onto that great big slippery neck with one hand and slinging mud over your shoulder with the other.

"Some people put these big pipes down the hole to keep the sides from caving in," Ivar explains, "but real sport hunters want no part of them. They're not illegal like killing the clam by shoving a stick down its neck, but they still take some of the challenge out of the sport.

"After a while that hole seems about a mile wide, and the bottom keeps getting farther away. Your fingers are all raw and full of sand, and you think you can't go on. Then that neck starts slipping out of your hand, and you know you won't give up. No clam is going to get the best of you. You get a fresh grip and start pulling again. By now you are so far down in the hole that your head is inside it and you have to shovel like mad to keep from drowning. Every time you give that clam a piece of your mind, you wind up with a mouthful of sand. The harder you pull, the madder you get. This is no game anymore. This is man against clam to the end!

"All of a sudden something wet splashes over your feet and you realize the end is closer than you think. You do a quick time check, but this is for laughs. There is only one thing it can mean, and you know it. The tide is on its way in, and you are going to have one helluva hike to stay ahead of it. You put everything you've got into one last back-wrenching effort to yank that blasted bivalve out of the hole, and suddenly the clam quits and comes free. You straighten up, heaving like you're about to have a heart attack and clutching two feet of neck attached to a bucket-sized body, you take a fast look over your shoulder, postpone the heart attack and run like you have never run before to beat that water back to shore.

"Now, that's no ordinary clam that can do that to a man," Ivar adds, and if anyone is qualified to say so, he is. After 58 years of catching and cooking clams and even singing about them, only another clam could know more. He has written a book of ballads to the clam, including a touching ode to the geoduc, and he has sung about clams to his own guitar accompaniment. To the radio and television audience Ivar is known as the Troubador of the Tidelands.

Besides singing about the clam, he also sponsors Ivar Haglund's World's Championship Clam Eating Contest every April and is currently secretary of the International Free Style Amateur Clam Eating Contest Association, which has headquarters at Pier 54 in Seattle.

By remarkable coincidence, this is the very spot on which Ivar's Acres of Clams restaurant is also located. Here, within whistle call of one of the world's largest ferry fleets, hundreds of commercial fishermen deposit their catches each day, while Seattle's fireboats and Ivar's customers look on. Inside the restaurant Ivar presides over an incredible clutter of sea horses, ship models, clocks, compasses, life preservers, ships' wheels, copper buckets, driftwood, fishbone mobiles, yachting flags, iron skillets, carved mermaids, plaster-of-paris lobsters, cracked crockery, Japanese fishing balls, calcified blowfish, sharks' jaws, seine nets, seashells and about 30 varieties of clam guns.

Somewhat resembling a winsome walrus surfacing after a storm, Ivar waddles among the tables spouting salty and corny slogans ("Keep clam and let the chips fall on the tray"), sniffs suspiciously through the kitchens ("You can always tell by the sniff and smell if the seafood is really fresh") and energetically churns a canoe paddle through a 50-gallon stainless-steel tank of chowder.

"It takes lots of energy, strength and pluck to catch the elusive geoduc," Ivar sings, lumbering up on a stool to peer over the edge of the pot into its simmering brew. "Because we can't sell geoduc in any form we must try to match its true glory with other clams," says Ivar, now on straight patter. "This is impossible, of course. It takes genius to even come close. We do have a clam bisque that is ambrosia and clam nectar so potent I must refuse to sell more than three cups to any married man without his wife's consent, but I would not dare sell even one cup of geoduc chowder. It's just as well it is against the law. If I ever put it on the menu, I'd start a geoduc riot. Before you know it, nobody would be eating any other seafoods, everybody would be out hunting geoducs and Puget Sound would be swamped with strangers. Why, even the whole economy might collapse. No, the risk is too great."

If anybody happens to catch a geoduc and wants to cook it, here is Ivar's advice: "One geoduc will serve six hungry people. Wash and rinse in cold water, then pour boiling water over the entire clam. This opens the shell. Insert the blade of a short, sharp knife between the shell and the body meat to sever the muscle. Lift out the meat and wash in cold water. Discard the innards. Trim off the black end of the upper neck, then pour boiling water over all and let it cool. Peel back the outer skin and grind the meat for fritters or chowder." Here is one of Ivar's recipes:


2 cups chopped geoduc
1¾ cups sifted flour
1 tbs. baking powder
1½ tsp. nutmeg
1½ tsp. salt
2 eggs, beaten
1 cup milk
2 tsp. grated onion
1 tbs. butter, melted

Drain clams. Sift all dry ingredients together. Combine eggs, milk, onion, butter and clams. Pour into dry ingredients and stir until smooth. Drop batter by teaspoonfuls into hot fat (350°) and fry about three minutes or until golden brown. Drain on absorbent paper and serve. Chew well.