A decade in waiting, Alaska families gather for a revival of the East Cook Inlet razor clam fishery

After being shuttered for years, clam diggers hit Ninilchik area beaches for a four-day window to dig.

NINILCHIK — Wasilla’s Aimee Havemeister can still recall all the fun her kids had playing in the mud at the East Cook Inlet razor clam fishery.

She used to bring her sons Brendyn and Leyland to Ninilchik Beach to dig for clams. But those memories are now a decade old.

The last time Ninilchik Beach was open was in 2013, and the region’s fishery has been closed altogether since 2014, when Clam Gulch was last open for clamming. This past weekend, hundreds returned to the area to harvest clams as the fishery was reopened for a short window. Stretching from three miles north of the Ninilchik River to the tip of the Homer Spit, clammers have a four-day window, July 1-4, to pull clams.

“It’s a cool tradition,” Havemeister said.

With buckets and shovels amid a seemingly endless sprawl of mud, clamming can be a dream opportunity for kids who like to get their hands dirty.

“It’s just fun when we’re out in the mud,” she said. “I have pictures of them in their underwear when they’re 2 or 3, covered in mud, running up and down these beaches like feral animals.”

The last time Tony and Noah Luecker were on the beaches around Ninilchik, they were tasked with an important job — grandma’s helpers.

On Monday, the Luecker brothers joined the revival of what was at one time, a fairly popular sportfishing venture in Alaska.


“We were pretty much digging for our grandma,” Noah Luecker said. “I think we got 13 yesterday. We actually reached the limit when we were kids.”

“I was too young to actually dig,” Tony Luecker joked, saying he was more infatuated with the area’s sea life.

The scene on Ninilchik Beach can seem a bit strange to the uninitiated. Pods of people wander around through the muddy beaches, staring at the ground like they’re searching for a set of lost keys. The shells are fairly standard but the clams are longer and more cylindrical than most popular varieties of hardshell clams.

Determining where to dig appears to be as much experience and tradecraft as anything. The clam leaves a mark or “show” when it withdraws its neck. The shows can vary, but clammers described looking for dimples, divots, black holes, figure eights, mounds and moon craters.

The generational connection was a common theme at the beach, with families resurrecting old traditions and in some cases passing them down to younger family members in their first attempt at harvesting the clams.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game estimated around 1,000 daily participants. And while few were reaching the limit of 16, it was a chance to quite literally get their hands back in it.

“People wanted to have an opportunity to go dig some clams,” said Michael Booz, a Fish and Game management biologist based out of Homer. “It’s almost a nostalgia, a walk down memory lane to say ‘I remember digging here. And it isn’t as good but I got a few clams.’ Grandparents taking their grandkids and so many families out there. It’s such a great family activity.”

The Schubert family was out in full force with multiple generations participating Monday. Evan L. Schubert had kids and grandkids in tow as the group prowled the beach on an overcast but mostly dry day.

“It feels good to be out here,” he said. “We like it out here.”

His son, Evan C. Schubert, now 28, was a teenager the last time he clammed in the area.

“I try to pass it down and show them how it’s done,” he said.

Amongst the throng of waders, knee-high boots and shovels, Samantha Askin of Nikiski was taking a decidedly minimalist approach. She eschewed footwear altogether, opting for a barefoot approach and went with a hands-on and hands-in-the-mud method as opposed to using shovels or scoops that could break the shells.


“That’s not the goal,” she said. “We want whole clams. With the fingers, you can follow them down. They leave a gap when they go down.”

She was excited to return to what was a family tradition for her family growing up.

“We moved up here when I was five, and mom started bringing us out clam digging,” she said. “We’d been doing it until the fishery closed.”

Ninilchik’s William Cowart said he’d been clamming for around 50 years. He recalls the limit being as high as 60 and at its peak, much larger crowds than the around 1,000 per day that clammed in the area over the weekend. The clams can appear at any point on the beach but the best time is at low tide.

“That’s why we’re just piddling around now,” he joked Monday morning as the tide slowly receded exposing hundreds of feet of beach.

Booz said conditions were fairly difficult over the weekend with a lot of standing water and kelp on the beach, obscuring the clams from diggers. While Fish and Game estimated 330,000 clams along the mile-long stretch of beach, and while they had hoped the harvest would be 10% or less of that figure, by Monday it was less than 2%.


“There’s a tremendous amount of clams for each digger that’s out there, but they just weren’t showing themselves,” Booz said. “They just weren’t able to find them.”

Many favor cooking them in garlic and butter, a traditional preparation for shellfish and escargot. But like the differences in spotting the “shows,” each clammer has their own favorite recipe.

“My wife makes a clam sauce with spaghetti,” Evan L. Schubert said. “Oh my is that good.”

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Chris Bieri

Chris Bieri is the sports and entertainment editor at the Anchorage Daily News.