Fresh clams, oysters and mussels are high on the list of favorite foods among many gastronomes. Sourcing the freshest shellfish requires a little legwork, though — namely your own, carrying you to shore with a bucket in hand. Harvesting shellfish is more recreation than work, but there are essential guidelines to bear in mind before you start foraging.

A quick Google search of the state where you intend to harvest shellfish, along with the words “shellfish regulations,” will bring you to the relevant website. Most states require a license for harvesting recreational shellfish, but all of them have strict requirements on when, where and how you can harvest. This is to protect your health and safety, as well as the sustainability of wild shellfish populations.

When and Where
Most coastal states have at least a few areas that are suitable for harvesting shellfish. Open seasons vary by species and region. You don’t have to fret over figuring out where the water is clean enough to harvest, as the aforementioned websites typically include maps of the best areas — more to the point, they show which areas are open and closed at any given time. Harvest maps may be updated frequently, so be sure to check on the day of your outing. Closures on short notice are often due to dangerous conditions, such as red tides and toxic spills. All shellfish are easiest to harvest at low tide.

Tools of the Trade
Mussels, which are typically found on rocks at the low tide line, can often be dislodged with a simple twisting motion. Oysters, which are massed in beds in muddy estuaries, must be pried loose with a tool, such as a screwdriver, painter’s spatula or small crowbar. Clams live beneath wet beach sand and, depending on the species, require various digging implements, including a trowel for those that burrow in shallow areas and a garden spade for those that go deeper. All shellfish are sharp, so be sure to pack thick rubber gloves and wear water booties, waders or rubber boots to prevent cuts. Bring a bucket, wire basket or mesh sack to hold the harvest.

Raw shellfish have their connoisseurs, but it’s always safer to cook them — naturally occurring toxins are an ever-present threat. Even cooked shellfish can be dangerous if you’re careless about sanitation. Never consume dead shellfish (those that remain open when handled) even after cooking them. To prevent grittiness, you’ll want to “purge” the sand from your catch by submerging them in water for a few hours — just be sure to use the water they came from to keep them cool in the process. Do not store shellfish in water after purging, though. If you’re not going to eat them right away, store them in an open container in an ice chest or a refrigerator and drape a moist cloth or wet paper towels over the shellfish to keep them alive. Never seal them in a plastic bag or plastic containers — they need to breathe to live. Stored properly, they can be kept for several days.

Harvest only the largest specimens and leave the smaller ones to grow (local regulations typically stipulate minimum sizes for each species). For oysters, it’s important to recycle the shells back into the water they came from, as these form the substrate for new oyster beds. If this proves impractical, drop the shells off to a local commercial oysterman who will gladly return them for you.