During the hay-days of mussel diving, in the 80's and 90's, high prices and demand created a market for mussels from several states where it was illegal to dive for them. My previous blog post covered more of this general subject. The following is a true adventure that occurred in the early 90's on a cool November night. It is crazy, so don't even think about attempting something like this; not only is it illegal, it's extremely dangerous.
My brother Bruce and I were often partners in the outlaw diving business. We had several rigs for diving under different conditions; some for small rivers and some for large rivers and lakes. One particular night, we decided to try some spots just North of the KY line on KY Lake. It is illegal to dive for mussels in the state of KY and the lake is shared with TN. The shells are much more plentiful on the KY side of the line because it is legal in TN. On this night we took the 'Shell Bandit', a rig that we made up using an ancient Cherokee aluminum v-bottom boat that had been stripped down to a bare shell. We had an oxygen bottle rigged up for breathing air and a 50 foot hose and regulator attached to it. The rig was powered by an 85 hp Johnson motor, and since the boat was a light-weight 16 footer, it was pretty fast. We put in at an undisclosed location in TN just before dark and headed north as the sun began to sink along the west bank. It was chilly but calm and there was almost no traffic on the lake. Just across the line, we pulled into a small bay and began to rig up as we waited for full darkness. We marked some promising spots to try on our lake map and headed to the first one as the night fell around us.
'Spot-checking' is what we call searching for new beds of shells. When you spot-check, you might not harvest a lot of shells at that time, but you find areas where you can work next time. After an hour or so, we had found three promising spots and moved on to a fourth in the mouth of a bay. I was doing the diving and my brother Bruce was watching for game wardens and boat tending for the night. It was a dark night and of course we had no lights of any kind on the boat. When I jumped into the water it was instantly pitch black. This site proved to be the best yet and within five minutes I had a good bag of maple-leaf shells. I was packing the bag full when I felt two sharp tugs on my airline, a pause and then two more. This was the signal to come up ready to ditch and run. I climbed up the hose and grabbed the side of the boat. Bruce grabbed the bag of shells from me, leaned down and whispered, "spotlight, headed this way".
"Start her up!" I said and he moved behind the steering wheel as I threw my weight belt over into the boat and pulled myself over the side. The thing about our old boat was, when the motor ran right she would fly, but sometimes she would flood out and we would be long minutes of cranking and choking before she would start. This time it hit as soon as Bruce turned the key, thank God. I began pushing the bags of shells towards the front of the boat to distribute the weight more evenly. The light weight boat had a bad tendency to bunny hop if the load wasn't placed just right, making it impossible to plane off and run fast. By another small miracle when he mashed down the throttle the boat picked up and planed off perfectly. We headed out of the bay and made our way towards the river channel, picking up speed and leaving a bright silver wake in the moonlight.
I glanced behind us and saw the spotlight Bruce was talking about. It was a few hundred yards north of us and was now sweeping back and forth to find us. While fishermen do get out at night with spotlights on the river, only one boater would actively look for and pursue other boats; game wardens. If caught we faced not only the loss of our shells, but also our entire rig and a night in jail, not to mention fines and court. As we approached our top speed of around 60 mph, the spotlight finally found us and I watched as it began pursuit. No doubt of the identity now as the other boat began swiftly gaining on us. We were still a couple of miles from the sanctuary of the state line and the game wardens were closing in fast. They had their spotlight trained directly on us now; one positive thing about that was we could easily see and avoid channel markers. We probably had about a mile before the wardens caught us and put an end to our adventure. Up ahead two huge river barges were about to meet, one going north and one going south. The north bound barge was sweeping his light back and forth, checking for obstructions in the river, and by it's light I could see the anxious expression on my brother's face. We were hauling ass but it didn't look good. Bruce grabbed me by the shoulder and then pointed at the narrow gap between the passing barges. Swallowing a big lump in my throat I shouted, "Go for it!"
River barges on the Tennessee river can be over a hundred feet wide and many hundreds of feet long. They can not maneuver quickly and it takes them miles to slow down and stop. Anyone who spends any time on the river know to respect these vessels and stay out of their path. Well here we were heading directly across the path of the North bound barge, so close I could see the white froth of the water it pushed. If the motor broke down now, there would be no time to get out of the way, we would be done for. The south bound barge loomed up ahead of us and we shot for the gap between them. My heart was pounded and I was mouthing a silent prayer as I looked back for the game warden boat. I could see my brother's teeth flash in all the spotlights but don't know if he was smiling or grimacing. Just as we made it to the gap between the barges, the northbound tug shined it's million candle spotlight on the game warden boat. I could clearly see the insignia on the boat and the patches on khaki shirts of the occupants as they held their hands up to block the lights. The tug let out a deafening blast on it's horn as a warning and we were between them. These two passing barges were so close that it seemed I could reach out and touch each one, but the turbulence of the water had me hanging on for dear life. It felt as if we were in that narrow corridor for hours but it was really only a minute or so before we shot out on the south end. Now we had the deadly wake of the northbound barge to deal with. Bruce showed some remarkable boatmanship as we slammed up and down the four foot swells. We came almost completely out of the water a few times, but some how we managed to come back down without nosing into the next swell. Then we were out of the turbulence and headed straight for the state line once again. I looked back at the dwindling barges and gave a shaky laugh. There was no sign of the game warden boat now and we soon crossed the invisible line into our home state. As we loaded the boat on the trailer, we made our plans for the next night.
I was diving just a couple of miles south of the state line the other day in LBL (Land Between the Lakes) and started thinking about the old days. Back in the 80's and 90's, when the market for shells was at it's peak, many divers went across the state line to dig illegal shells. I won't mention the name of the state, but it borders Tennessee to the north and starts with a K and ends with a Y. I'll just call it KY. For whatever reason, it has always been illegal to dive for mussels in KY. The only way to legally harvest mussels in that state was by brailing which consists of dragging special hooks along the bottom of the lake and catching the feeding mussels by chance (more about brailing can be found on my History page). This has never made sense to me because dragging the big wooden bars with chains and hooks along the lake bottom destroyed fish habitat, muddied the water and killed most of the undersized shells that were caught and thrown back. Divers do none of these things and are actually good for the shell beds as we take out the larger shells so the smaller ones can grow and multiply. Many arguments to this effect were made at wildlife meetings, but the powers that be at KY Game and Fish stuck firm with their decision: NO DIVING!
I first heard about people diving and toe-digging in KY in the early 80's when my father began buying shells for Tennessee Shell. In those days, the only thing game wardens would do is give out a ticket for $57.50, they often told divers to 'come on back as long as you keep your fines paid'. But as prices increased on the shells and more people began outlaw diving, the fines and consequences became much stiffer. By the 90's game wardens would confiscate boats and take the divers to jail and it would end up costing thousands of dollars. But this was not enough to stop some divers. While the average diver in Tennessee was earning between $200 & $400 per day, in KY they could make ten times that amount.
Besides the risk of hefty fines and jail time, outlaw diving was exponentially more dangerous than diving legally. It was almost always done at night with no running lights or lights of any kind. Divers usually used junky old 'throw-away' boats so it wouldn't hurt as much to lose them, but they were less dependable. Often the outlaw divers would put the fastest motors they could find on these battered old boats so they could possibly outrun the game wardens if need be. You can imagine how dangerous a high-speed boat chase would be at night with no lights. I know one diver who was killed during one of these chases; his boat collided with a channel marker at about 60 mph, breaking his neck. Even the danger was not enough to deter some divers and I will admit that I was one of those outlaws for several years.
It's been about 12 years since I've done any illegal musseling, but for awhile I dove all over KY Lake and in several rivers in more than one state. Sometimes I dove alone, sometimes my brother Bruce was my dive partner. We made a LOT of money and I'm not even going to estimate that on here. But since we eventually got caught, lost equipment, paid fines and did a little jail-time, I don't see any reason not to talk about some of those adventures. We did some crazy things, many that defy belief. I am going to write down some of my experiences as an outlaw diver on my blog. It may interest some people and I can promise the stories are 100% real and won't be boring.
The first story will be coming up and tells how my brother and I led the game wardens on a high-speed boat chase to the state line on a pitch-black November night, and how we ended up making it.
When I am not diving for mussels in the Tennessee River, a good part of my time is devoted to artwork. I have been drawing and painting since childhood and have always had a love for art. Back in 1999, my mother suggested I try painting on mussel shells. At that time the shell business was booming and there were over three thousand mussel divers in TN alone. Since washboards were a top dollar shell and the bigger ones were worth upwards of 7$ a pound, I picked the smallest, thinnest shells to paint. My first painted shells were kind of crude river scenes, often featuring a dive boat. They were an instant hit and they sold as fast as I could paint them. Over the years, as the prices of shells dropped, I realized that the larger washboard mussels made the best paintings, they often had more 'mother-of-pearl' color and a larger area to paint on. A few years ago I started mounting them on driftwood from the river to make them easier to display.
The following is a pictorial demonstration of how a shell painting is created:
The shells are harvested, in this case hand-picked by wading while the river was down in the winter.
I pick the largest 'washboard' type shells to paint on then clean the meat out of them. Sometimes I find a pearl if I'm lucky!
When I get back to my studio, the painting begins. One of the trickiest parts of the process is laying in the background. Since the shells are concave and rippled it is extremely hard to get the horizon straight.
When I get the background like I want it, it's time to decide what the focal point of the piece will be. In this case a wild turkey.
Turkeys are harder than they look because of all the subtle colors and feathers. This one has shaped up pretty well!
When the painting is finished, it is signed, mounted on driftwood and sprayed with a acrylic clear-coat for protection. If you would like to see more of my work, you can visit http://www.lostcreekart.weebly.com
. Or you can google frizz-art and go to images. I am also on deviantArt username frizz-art. You can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Well, this has turned out to be another unpredictable year for the mussel shell business. It started out decent enough; two shell companies open and buying, prices fairly steady, shells plentiful if you work hard. But word gets around fast, especially in the economy that we have currently. Even though the prices are lower than they have been in twenty-five years, a reduction in the number of divers has resulted in a comeback of many of the old shell beds. When word spread that a descent living could once again be made diving, several former divers have gotten back into it. This has caused the market to be quickly flooded.
Now one of the buyers has shut down because they have filled their orders, the other can't take the strain of all the new divers and has been running out of money every few days. Hopefully the market will level back out soon. I hate to say it, but I wish a lot of these 'warm water' divers would go back to their regular jobs. There are only a handful (maybe five) of us that dive year round. It is a brutal and painful job in the dead of winter. Summertime should be the time to enjoy this occupation, but that is hard to do when the influx of new divers make the market so unpredictable.
Today was another beautiful day on Kentucky Lake. It started out on the cool side, but quickly warmed up with the clear skies and bright sunshine. The water level on the lake is still at the low 'winter pool' level. I took advantage of this to walk around and pick up shells. I was surprised when the first place I checked turned out to be loaded with 'washboards', the largest type of freshwater mussel shells.
During the boom years of the 90s and early 00s, washboards were selling for between 4$ and 9$ a pound depending on size. Most of the ones I found today would have easily sold for the high dollar mark in those days. I ended up with 203 washboards, that is 5 -1/2 buckets or over 250 lbs. I also harvested over 200 lbs of lake mix: three-ridges, maple leafs and pig-toes. This haul ten years ago would have brought over $2,000.
I also did my part for the future of the mussel community by throwing the smaller shells into deeper water. These small shells would be killed by the ice in the winter when the lake freezes over. They migrate into shallow water in the summer and then are left stranded when the lake levels drop in the fall.
There was another calm day Wednesday with hardly a ripple on the water.
This is one of the islands I stopped at to 'toe-dig'. The fall colors combined with the beautiful weather made it a wonderful day to be outdoors. The water level remained low so I spent the day toe-digging and drinking in the glorious sights.
Today was a perfect day for toe-digging. Toe-digging is the time honored tradition of harvesting mussel shells by wading in shallow water and feeling for the shells with your feet. In the winter, the lake depth drops dramatically and mussels can be found in ankle deep water. There are only a handful of days a year that the wind is almost still on Ky Lake, and today was one of those days. It was a nice break from diving, wading around and picking up shells.
The water was so calm and clear, that most of the shells I harvested today were by sight. I could look and see shells for several yards before I got to them. One of the good things about the prices being so low right now (actually about the only good thing) is that there is almost no competition out there. When the prices are good, there are divers and toe-diggers on every shallow bar on the lake. Today I didn't see one other diver on the lake.
Who knows what tomorrow will bring?
It's important to stay focused when you are doing something dangerous. If it's driving a two ton car at 60 down the highway, or crawling along the bottom of the river with surfaced supplied air, you've got to keep your mind on the task.
When you've been doing something for many years, it's easy to start thinking you are bullet proof. That is a dangerous state of mind, you become careless and that can get you killed. Yesterday the wind was up and the lake was white capping. I knew the only way for me to dive was to drive my boat a couple of miles against the wind and let it drag me through the shell beds. I started out from Danville and went just passed the creek channel in front of Bass Bay. There is a strip of ebony shells along the river bank there that I have been working. Before I jumped in, I looked back down the path I would be working. The wind was going to drag me across the creek channel which was about 25 feet deep, no big deal, it was only about 20 yards wide. But there were channel marking buoys on each side of the creek, I thought to myself, "I'll probably get my hose wrapped around one of those buoy cables". No big deal, just a little inconvenience.
When I got my suit on and compressor started I hooked my weight belt around my waist, tested my regulator, adjusted my mask and jumped in. The wind quickly caught the boat and it was all I could do to slow it down enough to grab shells as they went by. The waves were pulling me up and down but I've dove in a lot worse. Before long, I reached the edge of the creek channel and started down, there were a few shells on the bank and along the bottom. As I started up the far side I was wrenched to a halt. I thought "yep, hit a buoy". Since I was 25 feet deep the waves were really jerking me up and down now as I felt around behind me for the cable. That was the weird part, the cable had snapped itself unto my weight-belt hook. We have our air hoses attached to our weight-belts by safety snaphooks. That way we can easily unhook them if we have trouble. But by a freak accident, this buoy cable had gotten lodged in the hook along with the ring on my belt. Since the waves were slamming me up and down, I had to wait for the lull between waves to work on it or risk losing fingers. I was at the point of ditching my belt and surfacing (which I really didn't want to do) when I finally got the hook off my belt. I had just a couple of heartbeats to unsnap it from the cable and back on my belt before the wind and waves jerked it out of my hands. It was a little hairy, but over in a couple of minutes and I was back up the bank and grabbing shells.
This little experience reminded me that what I do for a living can be dangerous. We are in a hostile environment dependent on surface supplied air. I have lost good friends who were excellent divers, but it only takes one bad accident to end a life. I have been diving for 37 years, all my adult life and half my childhood, and never had a cable snap onto my weight-belt like that. Just like driving a car, you need to stay alert and focused at all times. Don't be lulled into thinking you're too good for something bad to happen. As Ra's al Ghul told Batman, "Mind your surroundings!"
In the early days of the mussel industry, the market was primarily for mother-of-pearl buttons. Until the advent of plastics in the 1930s, mother-of-pearl was the sturdiest, most beautiful and cost efficient material available for the clothing industry. As plastic gained a firm hold in the 1940s, the mussel harvest industry almost ground to a halt. It was shortly after World War II that one of America's enemies saved the freshwater shell business from extinction.
Early 1950s: a man named John Latendresse became interested in freshwater pearls and made his way south. When he found musselers (at the time basically amatuer treasure hunters and free divers) in Tennessee he offered to buy any pearls that they might find. Latendresse's passion soon led him to Japan and a new international industry was born. Japan had the first cultured pearl farms in the world, but had trouble finding high quality mother-of-pearl to implant into their oysters. To meet this need, Johnny Latendresse founded Tennessee Shell Company in Camden, Tennessee in 1954. Mussel shells from the Tennessee River soon proved to contain the highest quality mother-of-pearl in the world. This started a fresh boom in the mussel harvest game and introduced a new generation to the proffession. The Mussel Diver was born as a direct result of Latendresse's dreams and hardwork. Over the next four decades, this had an enormous impact on the economy of West Tennessee, particularly Benton Co.
Latendresse went on to found the American Pearl Company in 1961 to import Japanese cultured pearls into the U.S. This ignited another idea and passion and Johnny began a quest to gather the closely gaurded secrets of the cultured pearl. On one of his fact finding missions to Japan, Johnny was told by the CEO of a major pearl company, "We don't feel you belong in the Japanese pearl business. Mikimoto is a natural hero, we began it and we don't feel you belong in it." Latendresse snapped back with, "Henry Ford is our national hero, but look what Toyota and Honda have done with his ideas." Latendresse gathered what information he could and with over a decade of trail and era, the American cultured pearl industry was born.
John Latendresse and his wife Chessy admiring pearls.
My father met Latendresse (dad always called him Johnny) in 1979. After four years of mussel diving in four states, my father Rayburn 'Big Frizz' Frizzell, had gained a reputation as one of, if not the best diver on the water. When he came to Benton County, Johnny contacted him and asked to buy his shells. (There is a funny story about their first meeting, but I will go into that on another blog.) A friendship and business relationship was formed that spanned two decades and was mutually beneficial. My dad soon became a buyer for Tennessee Shell and in 1984 started the first dive shop geared towards the mussel diver, Big Sandy Dive Shop. Latendresse recognized the business potential of my dad, and Rayburn soon became the head shell buyer for the company. He not only had his shell camp in Big Sandy, TN, he also had buying stations in KY, OK, AL, IL, LA, and TX. My entire family was employed at the various shell camps. My brother, Bruce Frizzell, began buying at the Big Sandy camp when he was 15. Within a couple of years he took over buying at a shell camp catering to the brailers in Kentucky. When Johnny sold Tennessee Shell in the early 90s (for a reported 10 million) my dad was head of exporting and was getting a commission of .025% on every shell shipped, which at the time amounted to 3 million pounds a year. Rayburn Frizzell sold Big Sandy Dive Shop to Tennessee Shell and retired soon after Johnny Latendresse sold the company. John Latendresse passed away in 2000. His family still owns American Pearl Company in Nashville, TN.
John Latendresse is now known as the 'Father of American Cultured Pearls', and for good reason.
My dad, Rayburn Frizzell was a jack-of-all trades during my early childhood. When I was very young he worked at a panelply factory but soon decided to try to make his fortune on his own. He started a successful car-hop restaraunt The Hut in Lexington, Tn where we lived but he was never satisfied. He became quite the entrepreneur, running everthing from package beer stores, to dairy bars to bbq pits. At one time in the early 70s he owned a convenience store, a package store and worked as a commercial fisherman, selling his fish out of his own fishmarket. About this time there was a boom in the fur trade, with european furs becoming scarce. Dad tried his hand at trapping and while looking for the best place to sell furs he heard about a man in Camden, Tn named James Peach. James changed my dad's life forever.
James Peach was another entrepreneur on a larger scale than my dad. Not only did he buy furs, he also dealt in ginseng and introduced my dad to another market; mussel shells. James told my dad that there was a lake in Oklahoma that had just been discovered to hold shells. He also told my dad that he would pay for his trip out there if he was interested in diving for him. When my dad heard that guys were making $150 and more a day he had to give it a try. That was a lot of money in 1975! Well the story turned out to be true and my dad Rayburn soon became one of the best mussel divers on the lake. He was averaging between $150 and $200 dollars a day and only getting $7 dollars for a five gallon bucket of shells. That averages out to about 14 cents a pound so he was getting between a half ton and a ton a of shells a day.
The next summer dad took me out to Wagner, OK to boat tend for him. I was 13 years old and it was the summer between seventh and eighth grade. Dad was diving out of a wooden barge at the time which was an old flat homemade boat with no sides. It was like a large raft with a motor on it. There was a winch with a boom and it would lower a steel barrel into the water. The barrel was cut in half side-ways and had holes drilled in it so it would sink. The divers would fill the barrel with a couple hundred pounds of shells and then winch it into the boat. Towards the end of the summer, my dad asked if I wanted to try diving and I said sure. He rigged me up a weight belt and tightened the mask to fit my head and gave me some quick instructions. I still remember jumping over the side of the boat for the first time, it is a little weird and scary learning to breathe through your mouth exclusively. But I was having trouble staying on the bottom so I came back up. Dad told me later that he was worried that I didn't like it, but he laughed when I spit my regulator out and said, "I need more weight, I can't stay on the bottom." I've been diving ever since.
This is my dad, Rayburn 'Big Frizz' Frizzell about the time he started mussel diving.