James LynnGoldsmith

Pearls from Lake LBJ?

Lake LBJ Pearl Ring

Even in the Texas Hill Country, where President Lyndon Baines Johnson came from, and where the man-made lake that bears his name is a popular skiing and boating location, very few people know that the mussels growing in the muddy bottom sometimes have beautiful pearls in them. The pearls in the Concho River, near San Angelo, are somewhat better known.

Lake LBJ's pearls are more often lavender than Conchos, though some are white, perhaps from a different species of mussel. They are mostly "baroque," or irregularly shaped pearls; some look lathe-turned, some from the hinge of the shell are wing-shaped, and a few are round.

I was introduced to them by my friend  Wayne Casey, who is now thriving as a well-regarded painter in Lampasas, Texas. He showed me how to dive for them. It's basically a matter of wading around until your foot encounters the distinctive shape of a shell, then plunging into the murky water to remove it by feel. When you've filled a couple of gunny sacks this way, it's time to sit on the bank and shuck mussels. My gunny sack only yielded four or five tiny, lusterless beads, but Ol' Wayne's persistence brought forth many fine specimens, and I bought many of them.

Lake LBJ Pearl Necklace

Wayne reported the mussels to be unpalatable, and I never tried eating them. Now, Texas freshwater mussels are in decline due to water pollution. They may be overhunted as well, although I doubt that the LBJ mussels are well known enough to be threatened that way. A permit is now required to gather mussels in Texas. Some years, the lake levels drop due to drought conditions, or are purposefully allowed to drop, to kill aquatic weeds, and mussels die by the thousands, so perhaps these rare pearls should be harvested then.

There's an interesting article on them here: Texas Hill Country Pearls

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