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.