Harvesting “Steamer” Shellfish – Manila and Littleneck Clams

Here in Washington state, we are lucky to live where we can forage delicious, healthy seafood from publicly owned tidelands. With over 350 open areas and about 275 low tides per year, there are endless opportunities to harvest on public lands. You should know that bivalve shellfish are a nutritious local protein. So get out there and dig for your dinner!

 Washington hosts razor clams, geoduck, manilas, native littlenecks, butter clams, cockles, horse clams, eastern softshell and varnish clams. But for now, let’s focus on how to harvest, store, and prepare Manilas and native littlenecks –  local popular harvesting choices. A Gear List, Recipes, additional information and guidance can be found below in the Resource Section.


Important to Know Before You Go

  • Buy a license: wdfw.wa.gov/licenses/fishing. If you ONLY intend to harvest shellfish, the best deal going is the year-round Shellfish/Seaweed license.

  • Is it legal? Is it safe? Is the beach open for harvest by WA Department of Fish & Wildlife (WDFW)? Is the beach classified as open for harvest and free of biotoxins by WA Department of Health (DOH)? These two different state agencies manage public shellfishing in Washington. WDFW establishes harvest seasons and rules and DOH manages human consumption concerns. An area must be “open” by both agencies to harvest legally and safely…Harvesters should always check for beach-specific DOH water quality and harvest advisory status the same day they plan to harvest


Harvesting Steamer Littlenecks: Manila and Native Littleneck

Left: Native Littleneck, Right: Manila

“Steamers”, or littlenecks can be taken at mid to high intertidal beach area in gravely areas mixed with mud and sand. If you visit the beach during a big low tide (-1.5 or lower) you will want to dig higher on the beach than the tide line may suggest. Many people make the mistake of walking over the best clam beds and digging right at the low tide line. Native littlenecks and Manila clams live within 2-4 inches of the surface, so harvesting with a small rake or garden trowel is usually effective. You are required to refill holes created while harvesting clams. Both species are known to rebury themselves, with Manilas being slightly stronger diggers

Shellfish gauges to ensure legal harvest size are available at most sporting goods stores. Minimum legal size is 1 ½ inches (38mm) across the longest part of the shell. Shells are marked with radiating lines and concentric rings and can be wildly patterned or gray/white Once you have achieved your daily bag limit of up to 40 clams, not to exceed 10 pounds in the shell, you are ready to purge them. Please give any undersized or discarded steamer clams a fighting chance by poking them back into your refilled holes.

How to purge “steamer” littlenecks: Purging clams involves soaking “steamer clams” (Manilas and native littlenecks) in cold seawater to allow them to clear their tissues of sand and grit. Contrary to popular belief, you do not need to add cornmeal unless you enjoy the taste of soggy cornmeal in the stomachs of your cooked clams. We do not recommend purging any clams except littlenecks.

Purging Steamer Clam

We recommend that you take a bucket of sea water from the beach where you harvested the clams for the purging process, Store the clams in a cooler with ice until you reach the location where you will purge the clams and then add the sea water. Do not collect purging water from a different location as clams will uptake pollutants and marine biotoxins from the purging water you use. As a rule, except for during purging, do not store any clams in water for any length of time.

  • Before leaving the beach, use seawater onsite to wash sand and grit off the shells. We recommend holding each limit in a mesh bag (from potatoes or citrus) which allows you to swish and wash your 40 clams in seawater without repeatedly filling and dumping your bucket. 
  • Place the rinsed clams in a bucket of clean sea water. Allow them to stand for a minimum of 4 hours, or overnight. They will clean themselves of sand and grit. This is called “purging”. Keep them cool but do not add ice directly to the seawater as this will reduce salinity and may limit purging effectiveness. We recommend reusable ice packs.
  • To prepare littlenecks or “steamers” for cooking, scrub the clams under running water to remove any attached sand and slime from purging. Test clams at this point to make sure you have no “mudders”, or shells full of sand. These sneaky chowder-ruining imposters are often heavier than live clams and will generally break open if the two halves are squeezed in a twisting, sliding motion between thumb and fingers. After purging, the clams can be refrigerated (while keeping them damp) for up to 7 days before cooking but eating them sooner rather than later is preferred for best meat quality.
  • Before cooking steamers, look through the clams carefully. Any clams that will not close their shells when agitated are dead and should be discarded. Note, clams that have been held longer in the fridge may be slow to respond as the colder temperature has slowed their metabolic process. Any effort to close the shell means the clam is alive. If it remains gaped open and siphons do not move with agitation, it should not be eaten.

Storing “steamer” littlenecks: Once purged, steamer clams can be wrapped in a damp dishcloth and stored in a colander in the refrigerator until cooking. Manilas will store for up to 7 days; native littlenecks should be used within 2 days of purging. Both may be frozen in the shell after purging but the meat may be a little chewier. Do not thaw and refreeze shellfish.

Preparing and cooking “steamer” littlenecks: You can process and cook Manilas and native littlenecks the same way. A simple cooking method is to place the purged clams in a steamer or large kettle with 1 inch of water. Cover tightly and steam for about 10 minutes or until the shells partially open. Serve hot in bowls with clam liquor (strained fluid from the pot) and dipping cups of melted butter. Any uneaten clams can be removed from the shell and frozen in clam liquor for later use in soups or pasta dishes

Note when cooking: native littlenecks have stronger adductor muscles and may not release their shells as widely as Manila clams. If the shells are partially gaped open, these clams are still safe to eat. Some people claim the native littleneck is slightly sweeter than the Manila clam, but both are delicious!  See recipes below in Resource List and enjoy!


Resource List

Harvest Seasons and DOH harvest advisory status

Licensing information

Gear List

Always layer for unpredictable weather. A pair of knee-high rubber boots will make most areas accessible. Wind blocking layers are recommended.

  • License
  • Shellfish gauge, readily available from most sporting goods stores
  • Tide chart (download from the WDW website)
  • Mesh bag or container for each member of your party. Mesh bags can be combined in a single bucket for transport out of the field. Mesh bags make it easy to rinse clams by swishing bag through seawater before leaving the beach.
  • Garden trowel, rake or shovel
  • Bucket with tight fitting lid to transport purging water for harvesting steamer clams
  • Rubber palm gloves are not essential but offer some protection for reaching into clam holes
  • Water bottle
  • Sunscreen


Steamer Recipes


Drunken Steamers (Camille’s own recipe) (steamers)

1 limit of steamers, purged and well-scrubbed                          1 (or more) lime(s)                    

4-6 cloves of minced garlic                                                        ½ cup chopped cilantro                                    

2 tbsp. butter                                                                            loaf of good crusty bread, like baguette

1 large shot of tequila                                                                           

Melt butter in large pot over medium heat. Sautee garlic, but don’t let it get too brown or it is bitter. Add clams in the shell and toss to coat with butter and garlic. Add shot of tequila and cover pot. Allow to steam for 6-8 minutes, until clams are open.  Remove from heat, dust with cilantro and juice from half the lime. (You can use more lime juice if you want more lime flavor.)  Remove clams with a slotted spoon. Serve clams with individual bowls of the pot liquor for dipping. Garnish with slices of lime. Serves two.


Simple Clam Chowder (steamer)

2 tbsp diced bacon or salt pork                                      1 pint clams and liquid

½ cup chopped onion                                                    1 can evaporated milk

1 cup diced raw potatoes                                               3 tbsp butter

2 cups water                                                                  1 tsp. salt

                                                                                    ¼ tsp. white pepper

Sauté pork or bacon until crisp. Remove scraps from pan and reserve for use later as a garnish. Add chopped onion to hot fat, sauté until tender but do not brown. Combine cooked onion and diced potatoes in a deep saucepan. Add water, bring to a simmer and simmer gently for about 15 minutes or until potatoes are done. Stir in clams and all other ingredients. Heat until piping hot, but do not boil. Serves 6.


New England Clam Chowder (steamers)

1 pint clams or 1 pound fillets or steaks                          ½ tsp. salt

¼ cup chopped bacon or salt pork                                  Dash pepper

¼ cup chopped onion                                                    2 cups milk

1 cup clam liquor or water                                              Chopped parsley

1 cup diced potatoes

Drain clams and save liquor. Chop. Cut shellfish into ½ inch cubes. Fry bacon until lightly browned. Add onion and cook until tender. Add liquor, potatoes, seasonings, and seafood. Cook for 15 minutes or until potatoes are tender. Add milk, heat. Garnish with parsley sprinkled over the top. Serves 6.


Manhattan Clam Chowder (steamers)

1 pint clams and liquid                                       1 can (20 oz.) tomatoes

½ cup diced bacon                                            1 tsp. salt

1 medium onion, chopped                                 1/8 tsp. pepper

1 cup diced raw potatoes                                   1/8 tsp. thyme

2 cups water                                                      ½ bay leaf

Sauté bacon in large saucepan until crisp. Add onion and fry for about 5 minutes, or until tender. Add potato, bay leaf and water. Simmer for 10 to 15 minutes or until potatoes are done. Add the rest of the ingredients and heat until hot, but do not boil. Serves 6.


Old Fashioned Clambake (steamers)

 Dig a large hole; line it with wet stones (taken from the water) and build a hot fire in the pit. Let the stones heat for 2 or 3 hours. Shovel out the hot coals and place a layer of wet seaweed in the pit. Cover it with chicken wire, and then add another layer of seaweed. Put in the clams. Often potatoes and unhusked ears of corn are added to the pit. Cover again with seaweed and finally a tarpaulin. Weigh down the edges of the tarp with stones, and then shovel a little sand over the top of the tarp. Allow to steam for approximately 2 hours. Halves of chicken and lobster are sometimes added to the clam bake. Serve bowls or cups of hot clam chowder as the first course and watermelon for dessert.