The Tennessee River begins at the confluence of the Holston and French Broad Rivers near Knoxville. TN. It bends south out of the Appalachian Mountains, cuts across the northern part of Alabama and turns north to join the Ohio River near Paducah, KY. Pickwick Lake has been designated as the ‘Small mouth Capital of the World. And is one of the world’s most important sources of commercial mussels…At Muscle Shoals the Tennessee River crosses the Fall Line of an ancient sea that is almost 400 miles from the present Gulf of Mexico.
Early settlers, including Native Americans, were dependent on the abundant resources of the Tennessee River at the Muscle Shoals. Judging from the size and number of pre-Columbian shell middens still visible along the Tennessee River, freshwater mollusks have long been valued by man. Apparently, in those early days, naiads or freshwater mussels were used mainly for food. Some shell materials were utilized in burials, some were fashioned into drinking cups or instruments for digging or hoeing. Mussel shells were also cut, rounded, and strung as beads, along with gastropod shells. Archaeological records indicate a general absence of pearls in Tennessee Valley burial grounds.
Alabama is home to the most diverse fauna of freshwater mussels in all of North America. Foremost among the reasons for this great mussel diversity is the state’s abundant rivers and streams. Many of Alabama’s species occur nowhere else in the world
The 53-mile stretch of the Tennessee River from west Decatur to below Seven-Mile Island in Florence once had a great diversity of freshwater mussel species. Not only were the mussels a source of food, European settlers used the shells for mother-of-pearl buttons and weapon handles. The shells were harvested until the mid-1950s when button makers shifted to plastic. Mussel shells from the Tennessee River were also shipped to Asia where they were implanted to become pearls.
A statistical survey of shell harvested from TVA reservation in northern Alabama between 1945 and 1962 range from 200 tons in 1945 with a value of $8,660 to 192 with 2,864 tons with a value of $442,859. Data from 2000 through 2004 reported harvest ranging from 27 tons to 263 tons.
A total of almost 200 species of fish have been documented in the Alabama section of the Tennessee River system. The Alabama cavefish is one of the rarest fish species in North America. Its single habitat, Key Cave in Lauderdale County is protected by the Tennessee Valley Authority as a National Wildlife Refuge. In addition to its rich game fish fauna, the Tennessee River is one of the finest fishing areas in the United States for smallmouth, bass largemouth bass, and sauger. The tailwater area below Wheeler Lock and Dam is best known for its abundant population of smallmouth bass.