Shellfish don’t grow in stores

An oyster bed on the banks of Folly River.

‘Foraging” seems to have become a buzzword in foodie circles lately. Picture hipster gastronomes heading out into Central Park to collect chanterelle mushrooms, wild onions and edible wildflowers.

Foraging, of course, is nothing new here in the Lowcountry. Our version usually involves a spinning reel, cast net or shotgun.

I’m proud to say that in my own home, we’ve prepared plenty of dinners over the past year made up entirely of fish, shrimp or venison I “foraged,” along with vegetables we’ve grown ourselves or bought from a local farm.

It’s nice to sit down to a beautiful plate of food and say, with confidence, “You can’t get any fresher than that.”

This week, a whole new category of foraging opens up for Lowcountry hunter-gatherers (hipster or otherwise) willing to get a bit dirty in their pursuit of fresh food.

The 2013-2014 season for the recreational and commercial harvest of shellfish — clams, oysters and other bivalves — opens in coastal waters a half-hour before sunrise on Tuesday. The season runs through May 15, but could change. Heavy rains, pollution spills or other factors can prompt state officials to close shellfish harvest areas (call 1-800-285-1618 for updates).

The state manages three types of shellfish harvest areas. Most are easily accessible with a flat-bottom boat or even a canoe or kayak. A few areas near boat ramps are accessible by (properly protected) foot.

The first type of area is a “public” shellfish ground. DNR manages about 20 of these relatively small areas for exclusive use by recreational gatherers. Public grounds are posted with signs identifying them as such and including the letter R followed by a number. There are seven such grounds in southern Charleston County, four in Leadenwah Creek and one each in Green Creek and the Kiawah and Folly rivers.

The second type is a “state” shellfish ground. These much larger areas, sprawling across vast stretches of marsh and tidal flats, remain open to both recreational and commercial harvest. They’re typically marked with signs with the letter S.

The third type of area is a “commercial culture” shellfish ground. These areas are leased to commercial operators who often seed the grounds with juvenile shellfish and harvest them for sale some time later. These grounds are off-limits to recreational harvest. Anyone collecting shellfish there must possess written permission to do so from the permit holder. Commercial culture areas are marked by signs with the letter C.

Nancy Hadley, head of the state’s shellfish management effort, said about 75 individual permit holders manage 140 or so commercially permitted areas along the state’s coast.

The boundaries of these three types of harvest areas change from year to year, so anyone interested in giving it try should spend some time at looking over maps and updated regulations.

These maps also show areas where shellfish shouldn’t be gathered for food due to runoff, mostly around cities, suburbs, marinas and industrial waterfronts.

You can call 843-953-9854 to request free, printed maps. When leaving a message, specify the general area where you wish to harvest.

Recreational harvesters must have a saltwater recreational fishing license.

The recreational limit is 2 bushels of oysters and 1/2 bushel of clams in any one day, limited to two calendar days per seven-day period. There is a maximum possession limit of three personal limits per boat or vehicle (no matter how many people are present).

Clams must be at least 1 inch in thickness.

Hadley said most folks use a 5-gallon bucket as a measuring device. “One 5-gallon bucket is less than a bushel, so you know you’re under the limit if you use that.”

Additional rules and restrictions may be found in the DNR Rules and Regulations booklet or at

Hadley said it may take some time for a novice to learn how to find clams.

“Clams bury down in the mud,” she said. “If they’re not up near the top, you’re probably not going to find them.”

But even clams just under the surface of a mud flat or sand bank can be tough to spot. “They’re never just lying there, sideways — if they are, they’re dead,” she said. “They’re always up on their edge, with just one edge of the shell showing. ... It has an almost heart-shaped area on the side of the shell that you can usually see.”

Hadley likes to look for clams along a sandy mud bank that’s covered at high tide but exposed at low. She keys in on areas covered with a crust of old, dead oyster shell.

“Push the shells aside, kind of scrape off an area to see what’s underneath, and often you can see the edge of a clam.”

Marsh drains are another clam hot spot. “These are areas where there’s not a real creek, but like a trickle of water where the marsh is draining out. Clams love that little trickle of water. There are usually a lot of clams in those drains.”

Other folks shuffle along in shallow streams, feeling for clams with their feet, she said. They typically look for areas with a somewhat firm creek bed topped with a soft layer of mud. Clammers using this technique should stay away from oyster bars to avoid getting cut.

Whereever they’re looking, clammers should keep moving until they spot the first clam, then stop and work that area well, Hadley said.

“When you find one clam, you’ll usually find a bunch right there in the same area.”

Hadley uses a potato rake when clamming; you can buy them at smaller hardware stores, she said.

She recommends clammers try the public grounds on Pinckney Island near Hilton Head, and on Ashe Island in the ACE Basin.

“There probably are good clams on the Folly River public shellfish ground, too,” she said.”

Harvesting oysters has significant advantages over harvesting clams: Oysters are just about everywhere in the marsh, and you can see them at low tide.

“You just scan along until you see an area where the oysters are big enough, and try to pry those off,” Hadley said.

“You don’t want to just grab everything in sight. You’ve got a fairly small limit, and if you’re doing an oyster roast, you don’t want to fill up your bucket with other stuff.

“Sometimes you need to pick up the whole cluster, pry off the bigger oysters and then set the cluster back. It’s good habitat for next year’s oysters.”

DNR specifically asks oyster harvesters to use this “cull-in-place” technique.

Hadley typically uses a large, flathead screwdiver to help wrench select oysters off a cluster. Some folks prefer old tire irons or over-sized chisels for the task.

With sharp oyster shells and various metal tools at play, heavy gloves are a necessity when oystering.

Hadley said local waters seem to be holding plenty of oysters this year, especially within the public grounds on the Kiawah River.

“I was out there a week ago and it looks really nice,” she said.

DNR asks all oyster eaters to drop off empty shells at recyling locations. The shells are used to bolster oyster habitat in the public grounds. For drop-off locations, go to or call 843-953-9397.

Reach Matt Winter, manager of niche content and design and editor of Tideline magazine, at 843-937-5568 or