I’d been itching to return to Bodega Bay even before my Achilles injury put me down in December. We live more than two hours’ drive from the Pacific, so we don’t go there nearly as much as I want to — really need to, as I am happiest when I am fishing and foraging, clamming and crabbing along some seashore somewhere.
The epicenter of this life for me always has been Block Island, a speck of land off the coast of Rhode Island. I could live off the land there forever. But I am not yet so skilled along the Pacific coast. Good foragers need lots of quiet, out-of-the way spots — or the knowledge of delicious things living unnoticed in heavy populated areas.
Bodega Bay, in Sonoma County just north of San Francisco, is shaping up to be such a place for me. It is a mob scene in summer, as it was Saturday, which was exceptionally sunny and warm for a place normally coated in fog. Holly, our friend Josh and I drove up early, hoping to catch a rising tide.
I had dreams of a bonanza the night before. A stringer of surfperch – a largely overlooked species a lot like porgies or bream, followed by a couple dozen red, rock or Dungeness crabs, followed by a bucket of clams and seasoned by the plants of the Pacific shore. It was going to be great.
We’d start with surfperch. As their name suggests, surfperch live close to shore, often coming within a few yards to scrounge for tiny sand crabs. I’ve never caught one, but Josh has, many times, on the beaches around Santa Cruz. He’d had success with the kind of plastic worms used in largemouth bass fishing. Only in this case you huck the worm out as far as you can to get it past the surf line and onto the bottom, where, hopefully, your pyramid-shaped sinker will catch hold of the sand and anchor itself.
This particular beach, named Portuguese Beach, has a nasty drop-off right on the beach, and the wave action was particularly fierce. Even with a heavy sinker my line was getting tumbled; it felt like it was in a washing machine.
We caught no perch. Nevertheless, being out there, seeing and smelling the ocean, feeling the stony beach under my boots, felt good on a cellular level. Fishing is my oldest pursuit, and the act of it — even without a fish on the line — is soothing to me. Still, with no perch we decided to switch to a marina dock in the bay itself to take advantage of the last hours of the rising tide.
On the way we stopped at another beach to check out what might live along Salmon Creek, a little inlet that, had it been on Block Island, would have been loaded with clams. In this case, however, we saw none of the little holes in the sand that are a clam’s calling card.
I did, however, spot a clump of a bright green plant nestled in among the ice plant and beach plantain, both of which are edible, incidentally. “I know this is edible,” I said, confidently.
“What is it?” Holly asked.
Something in my head said, “Sea blite,” so I said that. I knewthis was something edible, and it was spinach-like, so I took a bite. A little sour, brittle, crunchy and very salty. As it turned out, it is New Zealand spinach, and the reason I thought it was sea blite was that there is an illustration of New Zealand spinach right next to the entry on sea blite in Euell Gibbons’ Stalking The Blue-Eyed Scallop, which is still the best seashore foraging guide ever written. Sometimes my memory is photographic, which can come in handy when encountering new plants…
I grabbed a double handful of the top part of the clump — at least we’d get our greens today.
I wanted to try fishing this dock because I’d caught jacksmelt off it two years ago, when I’d been here in June with my friend Jason. They’re funny fish, a lot like a tinker mackerel or a gigantic smelt, which is what they are. Jacksmelt are full-flavored fish, whose only downside is that they can be a little wormy — so don’t eat them raw.
What, you say? How could I eat something with worms? First off, you can see them and remove them. Second, they’re tiny and die when you cook the fish, so you can’t tell they’re there. And third, if you knew how many fish are equally wormy (salmon, cod, swordfish, monkfish, etc, etc, etc.) you’d never eat seafood again.
But I digress. We did not catch any jacksmelt, either. The water was probably too cold still. We did, however, see a ton of black brants, which are a seaside cousin to the Canada goose. Holly and I both got really birdy seeing so many geese, not to mention the oldsquaw and scoters that were everywhere.
But it is still seven months until duck season opens, so we returned our attention to the ocean. “Let’s try for crabs on the jetty,” I said.
Josh had brought a new crab-catching gadget called a crab snare. It’s a little box in which you stuff bait (mackerel in our case) that has heavy monofilament nooses attached to it. The theory is that the crab attaches itself to the box to eat the yummy dead fishy, and when you feel the weight on your line, you lift the box and the snare prevents the crab from letting go and getting away.
Anyway, that’s the theory. The reality is that these snares get hung up in the rocks easily (that’s what happened to mine), and the monofilament is way too heavy to snare most crabs. Maybe it’d work with a big Dungeness, but not with the smaller red and rock crabs we were seeing. The rock crab in the picture was the only legal crab we caught. We let it go.
By the time we gave up crabbing the tide was mostly out. Clamming was our last, best hope, and the flats of Bodega Bay look about as perfect for clams as any place I have ever seen.
The bay bottom is vast and flat. Josh and I soon saw the first good sign: dead clam shells. No shells, no live clams underneath. And we saw tons of holes in the sandy mud, of all shapes and sizes. Josh and I were most excited about the prospect of digging horse clams, which are California’s smaller cousin to the famed geoduck of Puget Sound. Josh said he’d seen signs of a great many of these pound-sized clams the last time he’d been there.
I first noticed that not many of the holes were squirting water. Huh. They should be squirting as we approach — this is the clam retracting its siphon. Nonetheless, we began digging.
I was immediately concerned at the bottom: It was extremely heavy. Not sand, not mud, not sandy mud nor muddy sand. This was sandy clay. Not good. Clay is too dense for most clams to live in, although we did find the shells of bent-nose clams, and a couple of live ones. I broke the shell on the two live ones I did find, which was a bummer.
Then I found a little cockle, which is a plump relative of the clam that sports the ridges of a scallop. “Hey, I found a cockle!” Cockles are tasty, unlike bent-nosed clams, which need several days in clean water to get the grit out of them. We dug some more, but there was no cockle haul.
Josh found the one decent-sized cockle of the day, plus another midget, giving us a total of three. This was getting ugly. There was no landmark on the bay suggesting that the bottom somewhere else might be better than the bottom here. Had there been an exposed swath of eelgrass or rocks or anything, we would have gone there and continued to dig.
Clearly there was a reason there were no other clammers around us. Was this bay bottom really a wasteland? Or were the bent-nosed clams and cockles still deep in the clay, which clams do in cold weather. Either way there would be no clam feast today.
As we trudged back to the car, dispirited and in search of beer, we passed a huge stretch of what at first glance looked like grass. Holly stepped into it, and I stopped her. “Wait! That’s saltwort!” And so it was. Saltwort, also known as glasswort, samphire or sea bean, is one of may all-time favorite vegetables.
It looks (and is) prehistoric, and tastes a lot like perfectly cooked, salty beans. Crunchy, salty, with something else… soda ash, as it turns out. Glasswort is so named because it has a lot of alkaline soda in it.
In the wild, glasswort will not be quite so bright as in the picture: This has been blanched in boiling water for 30 seconds, then plunged into ice water. That is all the cooking glasswort needs. Dress it with your best olive oil and you are in for a fantastic treat.
This was a good end to a tough day. There would be no bonanza. For a day’s work we had exactly eight mussels Josh pried off the rocks of a tidepool, a big bunch of New Zealand spinach and a couple handfuls of glasswort. Still, we did not go home empty-handed.
Resourcefulness, persistence and flexibility are vital if you want to be a good forager. If you come looking for something and it just isn’t there, switch to something else. And if that isn’t there, keep on moving with your eyes open and you will be rewarded.