Sheltered Islander: Clam Guarding 101 on the Island

Feet out car window
Go incognito with a pair of large Hollywood sunglasses, Photo: s-dmit/iStock/Thinkstock

When you drive around Shelter Island, you see cars parked here and there facing the water. Naturally, you assume the parked occupant is just relaxing and counting the waves as they roll in. Usually that assumption is correct. But on the Island, there is another reason to watch the water.

Guarding secret clam beds is not as easy as you might think.

I know the precise locations of two such beds. Only my family members have taken clams from these sites, as far as I know. On mornings when I have guard duty, I grab a book—yes, a real book with pages that turn and everything—a large coffee and breakfast-to-go and then I park at my station. I often stay for a few hours so I set up whatever I need on the dashboard—cell phone, pen and pad (strangely, I always have to write something down at some point) and a puzzle book with crosswords and cryptograms.

I’m not just sitting there. I’m paying attention to those driving by. Off-Island people just drive by—but not clammers. Clammers slow down a little to see who you are and why you’re parked there. Are you just having a coffee or are you guarding a secret bed? They might make a mental note of where you’re parked and come back later in the day, when the water is warmer. That’s where the book comes in. When I see a car, I hold the book up high enough that they will think I’m just reading by the water.

Sometimes, someone who knows you might pull up to chat. No matter how good a friend they are, never reveal that you are guarding clams. In the face of a full clam bed, all friendships are suspended. Keep your eyes forward, answer questions, skillfully redirect if needed, just don’t reveal the truth—if you do, your Fourth of July clambake will be at risk.

I also keep an eye on what small boats are moored or tied off in the area. I try to see inside—any baskets? Any clam rakes hidden under the crab nets? There’s no slicker steal then to slide in from the seaside, jump overboard and start working that clam bed before the ones who came by land have a chance to unload the truck and get the baskets out there.

Clam guarding can get a little lonely, so you can use a cell phone to phone a friend to help pass the time. “Yeah, I’m just sitting down by the water having a coffee, thought of you, thought I’d call—so you’ve got all the invitations out for your sister’s wedding? That’s really good…no I’m not at Crescent Beach. So how’s your sister holding up? She must be so nervous with his family coming from France…No, I’m on the other side of the Island. Has she picked the theme colors for her wedding…No, I don’t know her menu…Oh, a clam bar with clams on the half? Of course, a clam bar at an Island wedding is traditional…oh, no, of course not. I’ve long forgotten any bed locations. You know how unreliable my memory is these days…No, really, not a clue. No, I was just about to leave and go have lunch. Do you want to have lunch together? No, I’d rather not go to the police station and take a lie detector test.”

See, it can happen just that fast. An innocent call can threaten a clam bed. Either hold the dam or lose the clam.

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