Katie McCarthy chuckled over the clam man at Kent Narrows.

McCarthy, who lives in Boston, was down for a long weekend. When the clammer told her how he made his living she stifled a laugh.

"He said he was a 'wooterman.' Did you hear that?"

But the laugh is actually on her.

The waterman was cleaning up one of the great contraptions of the Chesapeake Bay -- a mano clam rig, which looks like a sardine factory mounted on a bathtub.

With that rig he was preparing to debark for the waters of the Miles River where he would, if lucky, dig his daily limit of 10 bushels of steamer clams and sell them at the dock for $250 or so.

The clams then would be shipped to New England, where some days later McCarthy might buy a few for an outrageous price at some cutesy roadside stand in Ipswich.

"Ninety per cent," said the clammer. "Ninety per cent of the soft-shell clams they eat in New England come from right here in the Bay. And you know how many steamers and fried clams they eat up there."

There may be nothing new under the sun, but the newest twist in life under the waters of the Chesapeake is the sudden rise to prominence of the lowly mano clam.

"When I was a kid they were bringing maybe $10 a bushel," said 19-year-old Eddie Cantler. "People were grinding them up for chum and using them for bait. Anybody who did that today ought to be shot. I'd want to eat them myself."

Cantler is the son of Jimmy Cantler, a waterman who bought the Riverside Inn in Annapolis five years ago and has turned it into action central for steamed-clam lovers.

Today at the Riverside Inn people queue up to buy buckets of steamed manos, then dip them in broth and butter and munch them down.

Eddie Cantler says he can't get enough steamers for the Monday night clam special. The restaurant goes through some six bushels on a good night, which is many thousands of little clams. "We might get lucky and buy four or five bushels for tonight's special," he said last Monday. "But we won't know until the boats come in."

Mano clams earn watermen up to $30 a bushel these days, about three times the going rate for the traditional Bay delicacy, oysters.

That's a surprising price for these funny-looking softshells with the great long snouts sticking out one end. New Englanders have always been partial to them, but only in the last few years have home-staters in the Chesapeake region stopped thinking of them as bait and fallen prey to their juicy charms.

Evidently the mano has always existed in the Chesapeake, but it took a twist of fate and a little wooterman's ingenuity to turn the resource into a thriving business.

Larry Simns, head of the Maryland Waterman's Association, credits Fletcher Hanks with the discovery that turned the tide. In the 1950s Hanks, an Eastern Shoreman who travels some, learned that there was a shortage of steamers in New England because of problems with red tide.

He came home and invented the conveyor rig, which straps on a conventional Baybuilt workboat and rousts steamers from their homes in the sand. Hanks set to work in his rig and made money. Today there are almost 300 licensed clam rigs on the Bay.

It takes a special breed of fellow to run a clamming rig. "You'd never get me on one," said veteran waterman Wayne Brady of Rock Hall. "All that clattering and banging. I'd sooner work in a factory in Detroit."

Manos thrive only in a norrow stretch of the Bay where salt water and fresh mix. The hotbed is on the Eastern Shore, mostly in the back bays and rivers between the Bay Bridge and the Choptank River.

It's in that area that watermen and waterwomen finally broke down and decided to try manos as table fare.Today the legions are growing. "I didn't used to eat them myself," said Simns. "I thought of them as bait. But I got introduced to them over at the Riverside and today I'd rather eat them than oysters."

There is a certain wild and almost sexual abandon that attaches to the consumption of a steamer. They are prehistoric-looking beasts, two to three inches long with a sack of rich, yellow meat hidden inside the shell and the limp snout dangling without. It's completely finger food, the shell gently parted and a dark skin over the snout removed with the fingers before the whole is washed in gray broth and dipped in butter.

Marylanders generally have to be coached on the removal of the snout skin before consumption. A steamer should be eaten whole, with the chewy consistency of the snout offsetting the softer texture of the organ meat.

Last weekend John Potter of washington led a little band of city folks to his favorite steamer spot in Oxford -- the Pier Street Restaurant, where steamers go for $3 a half-gallon bucket. Anyone who can eat a whole bucket is a reasonable risk to become the next Haystacks Calhoun.

Which makes steamers cheap, entertaining and sexy, which is about all you could ask from a clam.