by Kezia Bacon, Correspondent

Shellfishing is a longstanding tradition on the North and South Rivers, dating back thousands of years. When we slide on our rubber boots, scoop up our clamming baskets, and head out at low tide, we’re joining a long line of those who have fished our coastal waters for sustenance. Just like our Native American and Colonial forebears, we crouch in the mud, search for tell-tale air holes, and hope not to inadvertently spear the soft shell of an otherwise viable clam.

Contemporary shellfishers must also contend with a greater challenge: pollution. North and South River clammers know it all too well: if the water isn’t clean enough, shellfishing is not allowed. Thus, our shellfishing season typically extends from December 1st to May 31st. When the weather grows warm, bacterial counts in the rivers go up, and the clamming gear gets put away for a while.

Despite 30+ years of work on behalf of the North and South Rivers, I must sheepishly admit that until this winter I had zero experience with shellfishing. When my friend and colleague Dan Jones suggested that winter clamming would make a great topic for this Nature column — and then invited me to join him on one such adventure — I immediately said yes.

The first step — obtaining a shellfishing permit — was simple enough. Stopping by the Marshfield Harbormaster’s office with photo ID in hand, I completed some paperwork and wrote a check for $20. The shellfish beds in our watershed are located in both Marshfield and Scituate. In the last few years, the towns have offered reciprocity, so you can use a single permit for both. The laminated tag comes with a placard for your windshield, a map, and an informative brochure with rules, regulations and tips for safe harvest.

Dan was the first Executive Director of the NSRWA, and my boss when I began volunteering with the organization back in 1991. He’s a longtime North River Commissioner, and a tireless advocate for local environmental causes… and he has never steered me wrong. So I had to trust him when he explained that our clamming adventure would involve wetsuits, waders, and a brisk jaunt via kayak up the South River in the middle of winter.

Yes, I will admit – and not so sheepishly this time – that these particulars prompted some serious reconsideration. Could we hold off until May, when the water was warmer and hypothermia wasn’t an immediate threat? But Dan was already consulting tide charts and forecasts, searching for the ideal combination of a late morning low tide on a warm day. So I tried on my 1990s vintage wetsuit … and then replaced it with a new one that actually fit … and procured the neoprene gloves that would enable me to dig for a couple hours without losing feeling in my fingers. Tall rubber boots, wool socks, several layers of fleece, and a PFD (lifejacket) rounded out my ensemble.

Our clamming adventure began with the transport of Dan’s very stable 20-foot fiberglass double kayak to the South River. Our journey across the water to the clam flats would be brief, Dan explained, but there was a breeze to contend with, so it would require some muscle. Clammers prefer to keep their harvest spots close to the vest, so I will honor Dan by not disclosing our exact location.

I should note here that some of the shellfish beds in our watershed do not require the use of a boat. Sadly, those close to The Spit are closed right now, due to a change in federal regulations, but you can still access the shellfish beds near Damon’s Point on foot. You can also canoe, kayak, row, or motorboat from various points in Scituate and Marshfield, including Driftway Conservation Park, the Humarock Beach parking area, and the Marshfield Town Landing.

Once we were safely across the river, Dan explained to me how to actually find a clam. In the winter, they tend to burrow deep into the mud, but they each produce an air hole, plainly visible at the surface. Even with a clam rake, digging requires considerable effort, so it’s best to look for a series of holes alongside which you can concentrate your labor for optimal yield. Shoveling up a big hunk of wet sand, you hope it reveals at least a clue of the clam’s whereabouts. This involves both patience and skill. Over time you develop some finesse, but novices like me can end up with a large pile of damaged and inedible clams to be left behind for the seagulls.

Two hours later, we were paddling back across the river. Dan’s 8-quart basket was full. Mine contained about 20 soft-shell clams in varying sizes and colors. My next adventure would be learning how to clean, purge, store, and otherwise prepare them for consumption, but that’s a topic for another day.

Water quality in the North and South Rivers has been a top concern since the NSRWA was founded, back in 1970. While the Clean Water Act eliminated some major issues, the state’s indefinite closure of our shellfish beds in the 1980’s made it clear that there was much work to be done. Through its RiverWatch, Plug the Pipe, Harvest 95, and South River Initiative campaigns, NSRWA has worked tirelessly alongside local, state and federal agencies to identify and eliminate sources of pollution in the rivers. That hard work paid off in 1996 when 194 acres of North River were reopened for recreational harvest (plus an additional 50 acres in 2007), and again in 2011 with 313 acres on the South River. Due to various factors, shellfishing seasons and acreage have expanded and contracted through the years, right up to last month when a storm-related release of partially treated sewage in Rockland prompted a 21-day closure. (Please consult this recent article for details.)We are actively investigating the fine details of such closures, and searching for potential resolutions. We remain dedicated to the cause, with the hope of someday having waters clean enough for year-round harvest.

Interested in clamming? Check out the shellfishing page on our website. Want to learn more? We’ve created a timeline of our efforts so far. You might also enjoy “365 Nature Places to Know,” our Explore South Shore program for 2024. Every morning we feature one of the region’s best nature places on Facebook and Instagram. Not on social media? We’ve listed all the spots on our website as well!

Kezia Bacon’s articles appear courtesy of the North and South Rivers Watershed Association, a local non-profit organization devoted to protecting our waters. For membership information and a copy of their latest newsletter, contact NSRWA at (781) 659-8168 or visit You will also find 26+ years of Kezia’s Nature columns there. For more information about the Explore South Shore 2024 Challenge, visit