Alabama Folkways Articles

Brailing for Mussels on the Tennessee River

by Anne Kimzey

Nuby Woodard of Lacey's Spring (Morgan County) has spent a lifetime harvesting freshwater mussels in Southern rivers, including the Tennessee, Tombigbee, Alabama, Pearl, Mississippi, and Cumberland. He and his family have always used a traditional method known as "brailing," which is practiced today by only a handful of commercial mussel catchers in Alabama.

This method uses brails, which are poles or boards rigged with a fringe of short chains to which "hooks" are attached. Each hook, made from wire, has four relatively straight prongs. The end of each prong has been heated with an acetylene torch to create a small knob or bead. When the brails are lowered over the side of a boat and are pulled along the bottom of the river, the mussels clamp down on the beaded ends.

Brailers usually made their own boats from plywood. A typical boat would have been 32 feet long and flat-bottomed. A boat that size would accommodate several brails and could hold a ton of mussels, which was a good day's work. Now Woodard uses smaller boats that can be pulled on the highway without a special permit.

When a brail boat works the shell beds, it goes sideways down the river powered by a sort of underwater sail called a "mule." This is a tarpaulin, weighted at the bottom with a pipe, that is thrown over the downstream side of the boat. The mule catches the current and pulls the boat along the way a four-footed mule would pull a plow.

The brails are thrown over the upstream side of the boat. The experienced mussel catcher will know when a brail is full by testing its weight. According to Woodard, there are about 350 pounds of shells on one loaded brail. When a loaded brail is pulled in, often an empty one is lowered over the side to catch more mussels while the men pick off the shells that cling to the hooks.

Brailing is a very effective method of harvesting mussels when there is an abundance of beds. Because the numbers of the freshwater mussels have declined in Alabama's rivers. All but a few commercial mussel catchers now dive for their harvest and collect the mussels by hand. Woodard doesn't want to dive and has practically retired from brailing, although he still spends time on the river hunting for good mussel beds.

Woodard blames water pollution for the relative scarcity of mussels these days. He remembers a time in the early 1950s when he estimates the Tennessee River supported about 300 working mussel boats. There were mussel camps all along the river in those days. His family rented a site from the TVA and established a camp where the mussel men came to unload and sell their shells. The mussels were placed in heated vats to steam open the shells, which were then transferred to a rotating "shaker." All the meat dropped out of the shaker and was collected for hog feed. The shells were loaded and sold in Tennessee to button factories.

According to Phillip Meadows of Mussel Catchers of Alabama United, musseling has had a long history in Alabama. Thousands of years ago Indians ate freshwater mussels that were concentrated in shoaling places on the Tennessee River. The town of Muscle Shoals took its name from such a place. When European settlers came, shells were used for mother-of-pearl buttons and weapon handles, he said.

The shells were harvested for buttons until the mid-1950s when button makers shifted to plastic. The industry declined until the 1970s when the Japanese began buying the shells for the cultured pearl industry. Mother-of-pearl beads are made from the mussel shells and inserted into oysters. The oyster puts a pearl coating on the bead, which is then harvested as a cultured pearl.