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Lewisport’s Bob Gregory, a riverman; harvesting mussels

 

Special Feature

By Donn Wimmer

I had the pleasure of interviewing Bob Gregory and son, Jim Gregory, for a feature story for the Clarion in 1990. They are both gone now but to anyone that remembers these two men, they will say they were well known in Hancock County and very much liked.

Bob was a riverman. I suppose not many days would go by that he was not on the river. His son, Jim, was the Hancock County Game Warden for many years, plus he operated a diving business. So it seems they both were on the river most of the time.

I was told that Bob would harvest mussels from the Ohio River. That was new to me, as I didn’t know much about mussels and had no idea anyone would harvest them for money. I was curious to see how Bob managed to get them out of the river.

Story and photos from August 7,1990

Hancock County Game Warden James Gregory has hauled several men into court for taking under-sized mussels from the Ohio River. The harvest and sale of mussels, once common along the Ohio River, has been revived by the awakening of a long-dormant market.

The interest of commercial fishermen, and others who earn a portion of their livelihood from the river, is beginning to put pressure on the mussel beds where the mollusks live and propagate.

“Add money to the equation and you’ll have interest and game law violations,” Jim Gregory told The Clarion. He said a strong market has developed where both legal and illegal mussels can be readily sold. The market is mainly in Tennessee.

The mussel shells are used to some extent to make mother-of-pearl buttons, but the major use is utilizing the crushed shells as seed for cultured pearls. “Their quality is said to be better than pearls from oysters,” Gregory stated. The shells sell for 50 cents to $1.25 per pound.

Jim’s father, Mr. Robert Gregory, became involved in taking mussels this year, for the first time in many years. He spoke of the activity as it existed when he was a boy. Mr. Gregory lives in the ancestral home on the riverbank in Lewisport.

DRAG IT AGAIN—Bob Gregory enjoys his work, and the adventure it brings.  —Clarion Photo-Steve Wimmer

“I started musseling with Dad 65 years ago,” Bob Gregory recounted. “He ran 4 or 5 mussel boats at a time, and hired young men to work when school was out. I was low man on the totem pole then. My job was to clean the meat from the shells.

Dad had a tank a lot like one used to scald hogs. You throw the mussels in boiling water and they snap open. Then you first look for pearls and slugs and throw the meat into a lard can. The meat makes an awful stench in just a little while.”

Gregory explains a “slug”

Jim Gregory explained a “slug” is an object of a composition of a pearl except for the high luster. Its surface is rough and it is usually elongated, but is a salable item.

Although American Indians evidently ate mussel meat, Gregory declared it would probably be difficult to make it palatable. It is useful as fish bait, in a ripened state, and is a fine hog feed or can be used as a fertilizer.

Mussel beds are found mainly on sand and gravel bars 3 to 30 feet deep and 10 to 30 yards offshore. They are extremely slow-growing and may take 10 to 20 years to become large enough to take legally.

The game warden carries a metal gauge to determine the legality of musseling operation he checks. The gauge has three holes of different sizes because the legal size of mussel varieties differs greatly.

The washboard mussel must be at least 3-3/4 inches on its narrow side. The ridged mussel must be 2-3/4 inches, and all other varieties must measure at least 2-1/2 inches.

He showed examples of under-sized specimens he has seized, including the pistol-grip and butterfly sub-species. One type that appeared huge did not pass the test for legality.

NOT TREASURE . . . BUT VALUABLE—Jim Gregory, left, and his father, Bob Gregory, display a collection of mussels that will be used as evidence in court. Jim holds the special gauge used to measure the size of mussels to determine if they are a legal catch.

How mussels are caught

Bob Gregory explained mussels are caught by dragging a brail bar, from which brail hooks are suspended, over the mussel beds. When the hooks contact the partially open mussel, the shell snaps closed and the mussel is caught.

He uses a jon boat, 16 feet long by 69 inches wide, which is about the smallest craft usable in the business. A winch is fitted onto the boat to raise the brail bar with its load of mussels, which may weigh 200 to 300 pounds.

Gregory said he checks the brail about every 30 minutes to see the results of his effort. He said a typical catch is 100 to 120 mussels, with an average of 40 of legal size.

Recently, he pulled up 135 that had 45 keepers among them. The smaller ones are popped off the brail hooks and thrown back into the beds. He has about 400 pounds of 5 different types stored in a freezer to control the odor. He estimated their value at about $400.

Gregory delivers his mussels to a market on Kentucky Lake, which did pay $1.00 a pond for everything. He says the market is grading mussels more closely now, and the grade determines the price. Mr. Gregory usually goes out every other day, working the beds as a hobby.

He recalls the location of beds his father worked more than half a century ago, and finds them still productive.

Costs

In addition to his boat, Bob Gregory has a notable investment in equipment to pursue musseling. His resident license costs $100 a year, and the boat license fee is $10.00, plus property tax based on the boat’s value. His equipment cost is around $500.

The business has some hazards as well, and men taking mussels have lost their lives in the occupation. Some factors are the wind, the currents, and the necessity to stand up in a small, unstable craft.

These conditions are changed every time the brail bar is hoisted out of the water. Gregory said the period from spring to August is the best time to gather mussels.

Mr. Gregory has spent years on the river, fishing and salvaging almost anything that floated his way. Building materials brought to shore went into two large storage/garage buildings on his property.

He advised that he salvaged a great quantity of materials shortly after the tornado that leveled Brandenburg in 1973. Salvaged timbers and about 2 months of work went into a 70-foot conveyor track used to put his boats into the river. The tracks were fashioned from old highway guardrail.

Once a bed, always a bed

“In reference to the 65-year-old beds, Jim Gregory declared his theory is “once a bed, always a bed”, unless the mussels are destroyed by a chemical spill, or all are taken out in violation to game laws.

Diving for mussels is not legal in Kentucky, but divers are the greatest offenders. They will completely strip the beds when the market price is good, leaving none to propagate. Jim said the breeding of mussels is a mystery to him but believes they are spread by some kinds of fish and probably waterfowl.

The tiny, newly-hatched mussels cling to fish or fowl and are dropped in streams to start new beds. They occur in every tributary of the Ohio River and most lakes.

The mussel extends a fringe of flesh outside the shell edges and can use the flexing muscle to move along the stream-bed, very slowly. It feeds on nutrients contained in silt, which is filtered through the mussel’s body mass.

“The beds have enlarged over the years, and I think that’s positive in regard to pollution control. The lowly mussel is telling us we’ve been doing something right,” Jim remarked.

“There are possibly greater numbers than ever, but the pressure now is a threat to them. They are being taken too small. We are just now realizing the value and extent of mussels in the Ohio River. They tend to run small in size, but their quality is amazing.”

Gregory said there has been no market for mussels in many years, but the good return on time and investment is attracting commercial fishermen.

Licences

The license costs $100 for residents, $500 for non-residents. The mussel is in season the year around, 6:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., 7 days a week, with no limit on the harvest.

Boats may not operate within 200 yards of a dam, and the brail bar can be no more than 16 feet in length. Only 2 brails can be used at a time, but the musseler is allowed to carry a spare. The brail hooks must be at least 14 gauge in diameter. Diving to take mussels is illegal.

The game warden stated the best reference for mussel beds is deposited in the memories of old rivermen, but some maps are available. The maps resulted from a study in the 1970s by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the federal and state fish and wildlife service.

“If a person doesn’t mind hard work and 10-hour days, the income potential is quite good,” Jim Gregory remarked. “If he knows the beds, a person can make $100 in 8 to 10 hours. A professional operator can make up to $100,000 a year.”

 

 

 

 

1 Comment

  1. Sherrol Randall Sweeney on January 3, 2024 at 3:27 pm

    Great article, knew Jim and his dad . Lots of memories!!! But “Tar Baby” was as well known in Lewisport as Jim was , many, many memories!

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