On a Shellfish Quest: Hood Canal, Washington

IN A PLACE THAT’S RICH WITH NATURAL BEAUTY, THE VERDANT Olympic Mountains tumble into the
waters of the Hood Canal. Their juncture forms a narrow corridor where old U.S. Highway 101
winds through some of the most beautiful scenery in the world. It’s a land of sensory
abundance, of colors beyond description, of moist and musty smells, of changing skies and
reflections. It’s a land of plenty — where all creatures come when they are hungry,
including man. My husband Bud and I came to harvest seafood from nature’s bounty. The
occasion for our visit was the annual spring shrimping season. We also planned to fish,
hike, photograph and just admire the rugged beauty of the area while camping. Joining the
other travelers on the winding highway, we headed our motorhome north out of Shelton on
U.S. 101 and adjusted our speed to the laid-back tempo of the little beach towns along the
way. Just as we neared Brinnon from the south, we spotted Dosewallips State Park. Ideally
located across the highway from the Hood Canal, it offers grassy, wooded campsites, some
with hookups. Driving just a little bit farther, we spotted Cove RV Park, tackle shop and
grocery. It is within a mile of the Hood Canal, just north of Brinnon. We set up camp, then
launched our boat in nearby Pleasant Harbor cove. Pleasant Harbor is formed by a spit of
land that curves around the cove like a mother’s arm, protecting the vessels inside from
the wind, waves and wrath of the canal. This ordinarily sleepy little harbor was busier
than a mall at Christmastime. Early Saturday morning, excited shrimpers shivered on the
docks as they loaded bait, lunches and drinks and cast off their vessels for the open
canal. There are as many types of crews as there are boats. Most common is the fiberglass
cabin cruiser, captained by Dad at the helm, assisted by Mom and crewed by kids
straitjacketed in their colorful flotation devices. Once out in the canal, the sailors
scoot back and forth across the water, reading their depth finders to locate just the right
place to drop their pots. At 9 a.m. sharp, one confident soul toots his horn to signify
that it’s time to drop pots. We saw shrimpers spooling out yards of yellow nylon ropes and
marking the location of their pots with yellow buoys. Finding one’s own buoy when the time
comes to pull it up can be quite a challenge among so many, so shrimpers decorate their
floats in some very creative ways. While shrimpers waited for the little crustaceans to
take their bait, they boated over to their friends to inquire what kind of bait was working
best today. The busiest fellow was a local who stood in the back of his aluminum boat,
clutching the tiller of his outboard motor. He flew a small pirate flag on a short mast.
His wife huddled in the bow quietly while he visited all boats within his navigating
ability. After about an hour, the shrimpers pulled up their pots to see how many they had
caught. We did our share of pot-pulling while observing the local color. When we returned
to Pleasant Harbor that afternoon, our cooler was filled with a day’s limit of spotted
shrimp. The next day we ventured out to explore our surroundings. Water is everywhere! It
ebbs and flows in the bay. It gushes from underground springs and bubbles down the verdant
hillsides. It falls, sometimes gently, sometimes in a torrent, from the sky. In the canal,
it sometimes tosses violently in the wind. Other times, it peacefully reflects the green,
blue and purple mountains that surround it. The weather here is as changeable as your
socks. Although the sun was shining when we arrived, gray skies opened up on our first day
on the water and it rained with fury. Dark clouds with sheets of rain falling beneath them
rested most of the time on the mountaintops around us. But, we reminded ourselves, it is
this weather that creates the beautiful forests, rivers and lakes that we had come to
enjoy. One cold and blustery morning, after learning there was a “minus” tide, Bud and I
donned our yellow slickers and rubber boots and began a trek to the estuary across the road
from our campsite in search of oysters, clams and adventure. We gathered two buckets, two
rakes, two plastic bags and two oyster shuckers and started to walk toward the exposed
oyster and clam beds just across the highway from our campground. At last we found what we
were searching for. A bed of oysters was exposed at the outermost edge of the waterline at
low tide. A quick scratch with a rake revealed clams, cockles, geoduck and other shelled
creatures that feed just below the surface of the mud and sand. Being new at harvesting
shellfish, we approached a few of the folks already working on their harvest, inquired
about their methods and the regulations we should observe. We were told that it is
important not to step on the oysters and break them, as they will die. Also, because baby
oysters attach themselves to their parents’ shells, one should not remove discarded shells
from below the waterline after shucking. Clams, we learned, are only 4 to 6 inches beneath
the surface and can be easily exposed by using a rake or a small shovel. At first, Bud
gathered and shucked oysters while I raked and gathered clams. Then we traded equipment and
jobs. As we worked, we got better at it. I learned to turn my back to the wind as I sat on
my bucket and let the slicker do the work of keeping my hands and face out of the rain and
wind. Sea gulls watched us walk away from our scratchings, then flew down and picked up a
few clams we had left exposed. The gulls have learned to carry the clam aloft, drop it on
the rocks below, cracking it, then swoop down for dinner. After two hours of trial, error
and discovery, we were ready to trek back to shore with two plastic bags full of 18 shucked
oysters apiece and two buckets carrying 40 clams each. When we arrived home, we were eager
to describe our adventures to friends and to share an incomparable seafood dinner harvested
from Mother Nature’s bounty. We’re already planning our next visit to the Hood Canal; we
can hardly wait to smell the salt air, the rain and the musty woods again. Before
You Go:
Regulations for harvesting shellfish may be found online at
www.wa.gov/wdfw. You must purchase a Seaweed License in order to gather shrimp, oysters,
crabs or clams. A separate bucket or container to put the catch into is required for each
licensee. Be sure to check with the Department of Health Marine Toxins Hotline, (800)
562-5632, before harvesting shellfish to determine if there is any local contamination.

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