Old-school geoduck hunting: shovel, bucket, perseverance

There is such a thing as a free lunch, and summer solstice's extremely low tides on the Hood Canal had the neighborhood out for the feast. Great blue herons lined the mudflats looking for treats that only a minus-4-foot tide can offer. Several bald eagles evaluated their options from above, and a six-pack of orcas pursued their favorite snack, harbor seal.

Meanwhile, men, women and children with shovels and buckets gathered shellfish from places the cabin- and conifer-lined canal exposes but 10 times a year.

We witnessed all this while cruising the Hood Canal against a slight chop between Union and Hama Hama. The action was pure bonus as far as we were concerned, though. We were on a mission, not a sightseeing tour. We had been shut out on four previous geoduck hunts, but felt this time we would not return with empty buckets.

We understood and accepted that the geoduck is older, and wiser, than us. In fact, some of them have been living in the canal for 165 years. They know how to run and hide. Instead of winging it on our own this time, we called Great Bend Charters, a local outfit that allows guests access to private Hama Hama Seafood Co. tidal flats — prime geoduck hunting grounds.

Once a morning tempest headed east, we aimed north to the Hama Hama estuary, where a blond, bare-chested Hank Bloomfield — the fifth generation in his family to work the flats — slogged through brackish, ankle-deep water to greet us.

We quickly learned the commercial method for getting geoducks — use a water pump to send air in and water out of the hole — virtually guaranteed a duck in minutes. Not for us. We wanted old school: a bottomless bucket, a shovel and advice — no more.

Our three-man and one-kid team positioned a bucket upside down over an exposed quarter-size portion of the duck's neck and began shoveling. Two of us dug around the bucket while two others would remove sand, gravel and water from the inside, but the duck was able to retract its 2-foot neck faster than we could scoop and dig. Soon enough, we reached the water table and bailing became a regular part of the process.

We scooped, dug and bailed for a good hour, creating a pit 3 feet wide and fingertip-to-shoulder deep. We took turns laying flat on the cold, wet muck, feeling the neck, yet unable to reach the shell. I begin thinking of the headline for this story: If You Can't Beat 'Em, Buy 'Em. Despite the incoming tide, we had time for another attempt or two.

Hank led us to a portion of the flats with harder, more gravelly pack. We employed the same process as the water level rose. We dug to the duck's neck and held gently while working down through the harder pack. Four hands and 20 minutes later, we had the shell surrounded and a two-pound duck on the way up, beating the tide and snapping the streak. We had proven that summer solstice on the Hood Canal means you can have your duck and eat it, too.

John DeLeva lives in Union, Wash.

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