Winters are dreary in the Seattle area, and I think my little hamlet of Seabeck gets the worst of it. When the first snow falls in Seattle, you can bet I’ve already accumulated six inches in the front yard. I don’t mind the snow much. At least it is something different. What really drags me down Depression Alley is waking up day after day to the drizzle of battleship-gray skies.
But the sun came out today. I took care of a few morning chores, stalling until after noon to head out to my office. Taxes are on my to-do list, but I really didn’t want to do taxes, especially not when the sun shines. I pulled out the tide book, just to make sure I wasn’t mistaken about the lack of minus tides until the middle of next week. I wasn’t mistaken. The next minus tide, a -0.5 is scheduled for the 18th at 6:53 PM. Today’s low tide was a 3.2 at 2:55 PM.
I tossed around the question: How low is low enough? After a month of watching tides, I am pretty sure that it all depends. Oysters must have water coverage to survive, so they aren’t going to be growing at parking lot level or near the beach access point.
Jaden was up for a drive and hoping to redeem his self-esteem after taking a beating on his squid jigging night. We drove by Seabeck Bay around 2:40 PM. The water was a little high. I didn’t see oysters or abandon shells along the shore.
If the day hadn’t been so pretty, I might have headed for home. I read about a sweet spot a half-hour from the house. Kyle, the neighbor kid, confirmed the spot’s sweetness, telling me it was his Dad’s secret picking site. Well, it’s not his secret anymore.
I wanted to see the beach during daylight. It makes nighttime harvesting easier if you have an idea what kind of terrain you’ll be bumping over. It’s also good to check out the beach. Lots of beaches in the area are muddy. I don’t have the balance I used to, so when the bay sucks in one of my boots, I usually wind up on my butt trying to get unstuck. This is where Jasper comes in. He is a great assistance dog when it comes to keeping me on my feet. He’s also great at pulling me after a fall. I sliced a hand open on barnacles trying to unstick a stuck boot, so I no longer go without dog or kid.
We arrived at the beach late, 3:30 PM. The tide was coming back in. A family stood together out on a long finger of rocks, picking oysters. We were not too late. A 3.2 tide was low enough for this particular honey-hole. They packed up as we came down the stairs. I said, “Hi,” to the Dad as we passed, and gave the sportsman head nod to his 3 kids and wife. The wife carried a huge bucket of oysters still in the shell.
I understand the benefits of keeping the oysters in the shell. Oysters on the half shell are killer on the grill. Shucking on the beach is tough. It’s cold, windy, and wet. But shucking on the beach is the right thing to do. It’s also the law. Oyster shells are full of spat, seeds that will grow new oysters. Oysters often grow in large clusters. Tiny oysters, no bigger than a penny, piggy-back on large oysters. The Pacific oyster can reach 12”. Each licensed harvester may take 18 oysters measuring at least 2.5 inches long. Kids under 15 may harvest without license, but must carry their own limits. In fact, each harvester must have a separate container to carry the oysters off the beach.
A 5-gallon bucket of oysters, carried by one harvester is recipe for a rather large fine. The fine for over picking starts at $75 plus $10 for each shellfish over limit. So, there lies the problem of not shucking. Each oyster cluster may house dozens of tiny oysters. One clump might easily put a harvester over her limit. I can’t imagine how many illegal oysters she carried in that orange Home Depot bucket. I’m sure they know the rules, and if they didn’t, a placard is posted at the head of the stairs. I’m guessing that is why the family skedaddled as Jade and I walked out onto the rocky finger.
Picking was easy. It was difficult to take a step without stepping on oysters. We pecked around for 15 minutes, selecting single or doubled oysters and avoiding the barnacle-encrusted clumps. Single oysters are way easier to shuck.
I taught Jaden to hold an oyster in his left hand with the tip pointing towards his chest, and the flattened top facing skyward. I put a shucking knife in his right hand and flinched each time the knife slipped dangerously close to his fingers. Sticking a rusty oyster blade through the palm of your hand is a bad way to begin a harvesting career.
We shucked for an hour to fill two limits. The sun dipped, looking like a warped egg yolk peeking over Douglas fir. The water took on an olive sheen, contrasting with a periwinkle sky. Warmer would have been nice, but this was about as good as a winter’s day gets. I could have stayed on the beach until dark, watching the periwinkle grow deep purple, but Jaden’s teeth chattered. Mud soaked through his Converse and wind whipped through his long hair. Why he wouldn’t wear the boots and hat I packed, I’ll never know. Experience is the primary teacher out here, so perhaps next time
We ate one limit tonight, sharing with Garret, and saving the rest for tomorrow’s breakfast. Jim grilled himself a turkey burger, while I sautéed oysters in a roasted tomatillo-peach salsa that I canned last fall. Smoky tomatillos, peaches, and jalapenos imparted a complex sweet-heat that was borderline addicting. Now that I know how low is low enough, Jaden and I plan to become regulars at our new honey-hole.