Using Clams as Bait

Ken Jones

Staff member
Using Clams as Bait

Clams. California has a long and varied coastline populated by all manner of creatures including bivalve mollusks, a group that numbers more than 400 species of which roughly 60 are commonly encountered. Included in the mix are oysters, scallops, cockles, mussels and clams. A great many of these bivalves are good to eat and many also make good bait.


Nearly two dozen of these are various clam species: (1) Venus clams—including the Quahog, Pismo clam, Washington clam, and littleneck (four varieties); (2) Sunset clams—including the purple clam and California jackknife clam; (3) Wedge clams—that includes the bean clam; (4) Razor clams—several varieties.

An interesting study once done by marine biologists in southern California, a study initially focusing on corbina but one that also eventually included data from many other SoCal surf species, found that every single fish included pieces of clam or mussel in its stomach. Every fish! Obviously if one of the main foods for surf fish is clams and mussels, then both should be excellent baits, which they are.

Live clams, whatever the type, are a superior bait and will stay alive several days when kept cool and moist. The question today is where and how you can get live clams. At one time the question was easily answered since most coastal bait shops carried live clams. Depending upon the area of the coast it might be a single or several species. At Newport Beach, where I began fishing, one could go to Baldy’s Tackle and find live clams sold by the pound and you could choose several different varieties (usually razor clams and littlenecks). Some had been dug up in Newport Bay and some in the surf areas. If you were in the central coast you could usually find Pismo clams that were “the” species in that area. Bay Area shops usually carried a variety reflecting the diverse bay and shoreline areas in the region. Today, it is rare to find a coastal bait shop that still carries live clams.

Unfortunately, the number of clams in some locales has seen a decrease over the years. The best example of this is the Pismo clam, which once yielded hundreds of thousands of pounds of clams to locals and invading tourists in the Pismo Beach area. Today, it is rare to find an adult clam. Many people blame it on the over harvesting by homo sapiens, locals often blame it on the ever-increasing number of sea otters that are protected in those waters. In either case there is no doubt the numbers are down and regulations have dramatically limited the take of clams in these areas. It can be argued that as the number of clams decrease in an area, their intake by fish as food will also decrease and perhaps their effectiveness as bait will also decrease.

A decrease in actual numbers is one reason why live clams are increasingly impossible to find in bait shops. Another reason is the Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA) that has placed some areas in coastal bays off limit to those seeking out clams (and some other creatures, i.e., ghost shrimp). Bays and tidal flats are important birthing areas for fish and important places for all manner of mollusks.

A third reason is simply economics and the number of people willing to earn a living digging bait. It’s too much work for too little pay (and that’s one reason why an increasing amount of live bait is shipped into California from other areas).

Given the paucity of live clams at bait shops, the angler is faced with two options. The first is using frozen clams. They are far inferior to live clams but still decent bait. These are usually sold in small, 8-ounce cups that may or may not be labeled as to the kind of clam.

The second option is to gather the clams yourself if you have time; special clam guns, forks, shovels and your bare hands will work once you get the knack of it. Many people like to clam, most intending the clams for eating, but it’s just as easy to collect some for food—and bait. Some people simple divide them up while some use the main pieces of clam for food while using some meat and the siphons for bait.

It’s up to you. If seeking them out, do make sure to clam where it is allowed (check the Fish and Wildlife Regulations booklet).

Anglers have debated the merits of the different species for years. Here are the main species and some information about each.

Pismo clams, Tivela stultorum, have long been considered one of the top clam baits in the states due to both their effectiveness in catching fish and their availability (which has decreased). They have a thick, heavy triangular-shaped shell and though typically pale beige to brown they come in a variety of colors. The outside shows concentric growth lines along with a yellowish, tan, or green varnish-like coating. The inside shell is white. They prefer the intertidal zone and sandy shore beaches that are open to moderate and heavy surf. They are also occasionally encountered in entrance channels to bays, sloughs and estuaries. Once found north to Half Moon Bay, and common from Monterey south, they are increasingly difficult to find north of Point Conception. Since they live in the surf environment, they are best for the inshore surf species like barred surfperch, corbina and croaker. Clammers usually use four- to six-tined gardening forks during low tide to find them (look for half-inch long tufts projecting above the sand).

California jackknife clams, Tagelus californianus, are a member of the short razor clam family, one of three species of Tagelus in California, and long has been considered one of the best baits. They have a very elongate shape with both ends bluntly rounded. The long, thin, flat pair of razor-edged shells typically have a yellowish to dark brown coating or “skin,” but it is often worn away near the ends becoming pale grayish-white in color. The hinge of the clam is near the middle. Although they have a maximum size of about five inches, most taken by sportsmen are about 4 inches in length.

They are typically found in sand or mud flats located in bays or estuaries, often near the roots of eelgrass. There they build permanent burrows 15-20 inches in depth, slightly larger than the diameter of the clam, and generally stay about four inches from the surface. If disturbed the clam heads for the bottom of the burrow. The burrows are in the intertidal zone in water rarely more than ten feet deep. They are found from California to Costa Rica.

Traditionally the best localities for digging jackknife clams were Elkhorn Slough (today—Elkhorn Slough State Marine Conservation Area; clamming permitted in north part of area), Alamitos Bay, Anaheim Slough, Mission Bay, San Diego Bay, and Tijuana Slough (today—Tijuana River National Estuarine Research Reserve; clamming only permitted from the beach area AND make sure not to eat any clam from the dangerously polluted water of the slough).

Two additional species of Tagelus are found in California, the purplish colored Pacific jackknife, Tagelus subteres is pale purple inside and out and is found in shallow waters having sandy mud bottoms. The 1- to 2-inch clam ranges from Santa Barbara to Panama. The related jackknife clam Tagelus affinis is slightly larger, 1 ½ to 2 ½ inches and is found in deeper water.

Old-timers often swore that the narrow “pencil clam” was perhaps the best clam of all as far as bait and would take spotfin croaker when nothing else seemed to work. It’s unclear what these clams were (since there isn’t an official pencil clam). They may have been the small Pacific jackknife, Tagelus subteres but it’s also possible that the “pencil clams” were simply small razor clams.

Razor clams are closely related and sometimes confused with jackknife clams, there are two varieties and both make excellent bait, especially for surf species.

The first is the Pacific razor clam, Siliqua patula, aka flat razor clam, a clam found from Pismo beach north to Alaska with the highest concentration in California being in the far northern part of the state—Humboldt and Del Norte counties (especially clam beach near Crescent City). The Pacific razor clams prefer flat or gently sloping pure sand beaches that are fully exposed to moderate and heavy surf (much like the environment of the Pismo Clam). The shells are long, up to 6 inches, thin, and fragile with red to reddish-brown coloring, and with a shiny, heavy yellowish, varnish-like coating. The hinge of the clam is off center.

It is one of the fastest burrowing clams fully able to bury itself within seven seconds so anglers using their clam guns have to be ready to grab the clam before it burrows back into the sand. They are typically located by the small holes, dimples or indentations they leave in the sand (although when feeding they put out a second siphon to breathe in). This is called breathing and creates a V-shaped break in the receding surf. Vast numbers were once collected for canning in Washington and Alaska.

The second razor clam, Siliqua lucisa, usually simply called the razor clam, ranges from Monterey Bay south. It’s found in the same type of environment as its cousin to the north. It was once very common on the sandy beaches near Morro Bay but apparently many (with their fragile shells) were smashed by clam diggers probing for Pismo clams. Many consider razor clams the tastiest of all California calms, leading to over harvesting and a reduction in numbers in some areas.

Pacific littleneck clams, Protothaca staminea, are one of six species known as littleneck clams or chiones and the only one found throughout the state. Littlenecks have oval shaped shells with well defined, radiating ribs and concentric ridges. Those found along the open coast are white in color; those found in sloughs and bays are yellowish-gray or gray in color. They have geometric patterns of wavy brown lines or blotches on their sides. They are found both on the open coast and in bays and sloughs. On the open coast they are generally found near rocky points or reefs with small cobbles and coarse sand. In bays and estuaries they are typically found in coarse, sandy mud; the inlet areas of bays that are flushed twice a day by tides are a good area to check. Three of the most common spots are at Bodega Bay and Tomales Bay in the north, and at Malibu Point near Los Angeles. Intertidal areas are targeted during daytime hours containing minus tides. Many clams are found near rocks so look near and under rocks that can be turned over. Clammers use rakes, shovels, trowels and similar gardening tools. These are among the best eating clams and are also considered good bait for a variety of fish including perch, croaker and small flatfish.

Miscellaneous species of clams. There are roughly two dozen species of clams in California and a person clamming may, depending upon the area, find several other species not included in this list. Most all clam species make good bait even if relatively unknown. Clams found in oceanfront areas are going to attract surf species like perch, corbina, and spotfin and yellowfin croaker. Clams found in bays and estuaries will attract fish common to those areas, especially croaker. Fish will bite bait that is seen as normal food, it’s fairly simple. Just keep it near the bottom where the clams are found and present it in such a way that it looks like a natural food.

Fresh bait. Live clams can be kept in a refrigerator for about three days. Keep them in an open container covered with moist cloth or paper towels. Do not put them in an airtight container or submerge them in fresh water, both conditions will kill them. Most people keep them in their shell until they get ready to go fishing, but you can also open shells the night before your fishing trip, and keep the meat in its own juice overnight. Simply open the clam by crushing their shell with pliers.

In baiting, basically just use enough meat to cover your hook; that may be part of or the whole clam depending upon variety and the size of the clam. String the soft part of the clam meat on to your hook first and then the rubbery part of the clam (often yellow or orange colored). Be sure to leave the barb exposed to hook the fish.

Some anglers who fish the surf report that clams are best in the fall (starting in October) and winter months. I’m not sure why that would be the case although there can be times during heavy weather when sand crabs basically dig deeper and almost disappear from some areas so fish would be looking for different food.

California Limit on clams: The season is normally open all year from one-half hour before sunrise to one-half hour after sunset. Each person must dig only his or her own limit of clams. It is unlawful to be on any clam beach with any instrument capable of being used to dig clams during the closed nighttime hours. The limit on littleneck clams, soft-shell clams, chiones, northern quahogs, and cockles is 50 in combination. All softshell clams dug, regardless of size or broken condition must be retained until the bag limit is reached. CHECK FOR CURRENT REGULATIONS AND MLPA CLOSURE AREAS.