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Mussel thought extinct surfaces in Mississippi

My good sister-in-law Dorothy Allen, who lives in Jackson, Miss., recently sent me a clipping from the Clarion Ledger that is the story of some rare freshwater mussel findings in the bed of the Big Sunflower River.

Ordinarily a story about mussels might not be considered a fine subject for an outdoor column, but when fisherman Bill Lancaster brought in some unusual mussels, local fisheries biologists proclaimed one of them to be a sheepnose mussel, thought to be extinct and only known to have existed because of the easy-to-identify shells found in mounds of shells piled up by native Americans all along the lower Mississippi Valley drainage system. Mussels were a staple for these people. They ate the flesh and used the shells for numerous things, like cups and dishes.

Big Sunflower River begins in the northern part of Coahoma County, Miss., and turns into quite a nice stream further down. It always has been a pretty good fishing river. Lancaster, who brought in this rare mussel, says he has caught as much as 400 pounds of buffalo and catfish worth $400 in one night. Sport fishermen have known for years that the river is productive.

(I remember once a few years back when extremely heavy rains in the region of Moorhead and Isola, Miss., flooded lots of commercial catfish ponds. The overflow sent many fine channel cats down drains that led into the Sunflower and Quiver rivers. For quite a while local fishermen harvested many pounds of free commercial catfish!)

But back to mussels. In my younger days I must have opened hundreds of mussels, most of them harvested at Moon Lake in Coahoma County. Back then there was a fine swimming area off the point of an island. The sandy bottom ran out quite a ways before it got too deep to wade. We used to take buckets along and fish the mussels off the bottom by finding them with our bare feet.

Mussels make fine catfish bait. We baited set hooks and trot lines with the tough meat that held the hook well and usually was not consumed by turtles before a catfish came along.

I never tried eating one of those mussels, but I have enjoyed saltwater mussels that a few restaurants serve. They are fine eating and make me want to try a freshwater mussel sometimes again.

One reason I was interested in mussels was that they sometimes contain pearls. I have found quite a few but none of them were really worth keeping except one I found lying in the sun-opened shell of a big mussel in a dry bayou. This pearl was slightly blue in tint and was about the size of a No. 1 buckshot.

Many years ago a tenant on my uncle Blount Irby's Red Bud Plantation in Desoto County, Miss., found a huge pink one larger than an 00 buckshot and totally without flaw. My uncle gave the tenant a sizable gift of money for the pearl and had it made into a lovely ring for his wife, my Aunt Fanny. Freshwater pearls of this quality are extremely rare and would bring quite a sum on the gem market.

One reason for great interest in this rare mussel find is that there is a plan under way by the U.S. Corps of Engineers to dredge the Big Sunflower and clear about 130 miles of waterway south of Indianola, Miss. This flood-prevention plan has been bandied about for years. It is popular with farmers in the region but has been severely criticized by some conservation groups of environmentalists from here, there, and yonder.

The river system under this plan contains the state's most diverse aquatic population. It has 35 species of mussels, including the rare rabbitfoot mussel. I'm sure everyone hopes the drainage plan can be made workable and that the streambeds will be damaged as little as possible.

Let us hope for the best for both sides.

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