AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Time now for another trip to a place you wouldn't normally consider for a spring break. Today, it's Long Beach in Washington State. Picture yourself on a sand bar facing out onto the North Pacific, the forecast for today is partly cloudy, temperatures in the mid-50s, not your typical beach vacation. But as NPR's Martin Kaste reports, still plenty of opportunity for some clammy fun.
MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: As soon as you drive into town, it's pretty clear that Long beach is all about the razor clams. The first clue is the giant frying pan. At 14 feet tall, it's a relic of the clam festivals of the 1940s. And then there's the clam statue. Insert a quarter and it spits. But if you really want to see how much people here love their clams, you got to get up before dawn and hike out onto the blustery beach.
KAREN HARRELL: Oh, this is not blustery. I've been out here when it's freezing and eight months pregnant.
KASTE: Karen Harrell is one of hundreds of people already out here, just ahead of the low tide, tramping around in rubber boots. Her husband, Ron, points out the tell-tale dimples in the wet sand.
RON HARRELL, BYLINE: See that one? See how he went down? When I get there, you could see the - see him squirt and go down?
KASTE: Ron goes after it with a clam gun. Now if you've ever been clam-digging, you know that a clam gun is not a gun. It's a tube with a handle.
HARRELL: You push it on down over the clam, and then you put your finger on the hole on the top and it creates a suction. And as you pull, it just sucks all the sand up.
KASTE: And chances are, that tube of sand will contain a clam that's as big as your hand. Plastic guns cost 15 bucks. Or you could pay over a hundred for the fancy ones. On this beach, you'll sometimes see heirlooms.
ANDI DAY: And this has been in my family for over 40 years. We've been using this clam gun.
KASTE: Andi Day works for the local visitors' bureau. Her grandfather made this gun for her grandmother. It's welded stainless steel but the handles are wooden. That's a special touch.
DAY: The hands don't get cold. It keeps your hands warm. Yeah. Grandpa made that in his shop probably, oh, I'd say '74-ish.
KASTE: Once you've got a good clam gun, even the kids can catch dinner.
GRACE: Oh, wow. It has its tongue out a lot.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: I just got three more. Oh.
GRACE: Oh, it spit.
KASTE: Heck, they can catch several dinners.
GRACE: Four, 5, 6, 7, 8. OK. So I have seven more.
KASTE: Fifteen is the daily limit. And around here, that's a magic number. When friends bump into each other on the sand, the first thing they ask each other is did you get your limit? Jim Neva admits it's kind of a race.
JIM NEVA: It's a guy thing, you know. You want to be the first to get your limit. You want to get the biggest ones, you know. You want to have your - be down there washing your limit off while somebody else has only got one or two in their sack, you know.
KASTE: Clam-digging also satisfies that primeval urge to go out into nature and find some free food.
NEVA: To me, when I open the freezer door and I see all those stacks of clams, it's like going to the safe deposit box and opening it up and looking at your collection of gold bullion, you know.
KASTE: But this all went away for a while. Too much digging caused the clam population to collapse a few decades back. That's one reason they stopped needing that giant frying pan. But tighter regulation allowed the clams to rebound, a lot. The town even brought back the annual Razor Clam Festival and another giant frying pan. The festival is this weekend and organizers have drafted Jim Neva to teach digging basics to an army of visiting newbies. And lesson number one, do not turn your back on the ocean.
GRACE: Oh, there it is.
NEVA: Watch out. Here comes the water.
KASTE: Because there's nothing more embarrassing than having a clam in your hand and letting it get away.
NEVA: Oh, there it is. Right there. I got it.
GRACE: Thank you.
KASTE: Martin Kaste, NPR News.