Caddo Lake – Karnack, Texas - Atlas Obscura

Caddo Lake

Karnack, Texas

Foragers once flocked to this big beautiful bayou to hunt for pearls. 


Caddo Lake, which is formed by a 25,400-acre patchwork of swamps and ponds, is a breathtaking bayou. Curtains of Spanish moss drape over the branches of bald cypress trees. In the winter, the dead moss turns a silver hue, making it appear as though the trees sport long manes of graying hair. Birds flutter about; frogs belch and croak; and the ridged backs of alligators slice through the water’s surface, leaving ripples in their wake.

The lake’s history is as interesting as its natural features are beautiful. Today, most visitors travel by boat through the sloughs and ponds to fish, watch the birds, admire the abundance of plant life, or scan the murky waters for signs of its reptilian residents. But just over a century ago, hordes of people rushed to the lake in search of pearls.

In 1910, freshwater pearls were discovered encased within the lake’s mussels. The “pearl rush” has two different origin stories: In one version, an oil rig cook came across a pearl tucked inside a mussel he had planned to use as catfish bait. In the second version, local fishermen were the ones to come across the tiny white treasures.

In either case, it sent people scrambling to turn the bayou’s hidden money-making mollusks into a lucrative industry. People came and stayed for weeks at a time. They waded into the shallow waters on all fours to sift through the beds of mussels, hoping one would yield a pearly surprise.

The rush lasted for roughly three years until a dam built downriver caused the water levels to rise, making it difficult for foragers to reach the mussel beds. Though the harvesters have long since left, the pearl-bearing mollusks are still there, lying largely undisturbed beneath the boats and canoes that glide above them.

Know Before You Go

Book a guided tour, totally worth it. You will discover so much beauty. Beware of the alligators.

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