Opened in November 1996, you don't have to be a fisherman to enjoy this underwater zoo, even though it was the tax on hunting and fishing equipment and motorboat fuel that helped pay for the $18 million facility. A walk through the 36-acre center would give anyone a new appreciation for habitats rarely seen or understood.
As you walk into the Edwin L. Cox, Jr., Visitor Center, the first exhibit you see is the Stream Gallery. This man-made stream was patterned after Onion Creek at McKinney Falls State Park southeast of Austin. Glass walls give visitors a cut-away view of the world enjoyed by the fish of Texas.
The center's pond is one of the most beautiful exhibits as well as being very educational. Ponds, or stock tanks as Texans call them, are a vital part of the aquaculture. Careful management of the private ponds can provide habitat for several species of fish.
At the viewing gallery, the visitor can watch the habits of largemouth bass, channel catfish, bluegill, and other species. There is even a spawning area that provides visitors a closeup look at the fishes' unique behaviors.
The largest exhibit at the center is the 175,000-gallon reservoir habitat featuring some of the largest Texas fishes. One of the most unusual fish in the exhibit is the paddlefish, also called the spoonbill cat. The paddlefish, with its long bill and slender body, is one of the oldest surviving species of animal life on the North American continent. Native to several Texas rivers and reservoirs, the fish was listed as endangered in 1977.
A walk through the center opens a view of aqua life management and sport fishing. In the Texas Angler's Hall of Fame, the state's top catches are recorded. The biggest bass caught in Texas for 30 years was a 13-pounder caught in Medina Lake. Since the introduction of the Florida bass in the1970s, the current record holder is an 18-pound bass caught in 1992 at Lake Fork Reservoir.
In the Management Gallery and Museum, the center displays tools and techniques developed over the years by TP&WD to improve Texas fish and their habitat. The Hatchery Gallery walks visitors through the steps involved in the hatcheries. The walk ends at the observation window overlooking the hatchery's spawning tanks.
More than just a visitor's center, the facility is a laboratory and hatchery. Steve Campbell, education director for the center, said the facility can produce four to seven million bass a year to restock Texas lakes and rivers.
In addition to keeping Texas waters stocked with fish, scientists at the center are working to improve the quality of the species. With the additional ponds and tanks, researchers are studying genetics and breeding.
The center also has a state-of-the-art theater for educational films and seminars. One wall of the theater is taken up by a dive tank where a diver can hand-feed the fish and answer questions from the audience. Out back of the center is a casting pond and angler's pavilion where visitors can try their luck at catching a fish. The facility provides the bait and tackle for an afternoon of angling.
Campbell said that construction is underway to build another 70 acres of ponds at the hatchery. Once fully operational, the department expects the facility to be completely self-supporting through visitor fees, gift shop sales, sale of fish to private pond owners, and fishing license fees.
The center is on the northeast side of Athens off of TX31 on FM2495 overlooking Lake Athens. Hours are daily, 10am-5pm; closed Thanksgiving and Christmas. Admission is $4 for adults, $3 for seniors and $2 for children. The center is handicapped-accessible. Tours of the hatchery are given when they will not disturb the fish or by reservation. For more information, call 903/676-2277.
Coming up this weekend...
MayFair in Georgetown combines entertainment at San Gabriel Park with an art show around the courthouse and an air show at the airport, May 3-4. 512/930-3535.
Arts of the Heart at Fall Creek Vineyards in Tow includes Hal Ketchum performing while visitors enjoy the festivities, May 3. 512/473-3282.
Founders Day Celebration in Fredericksburg celebrates the town's 151st anniversary, May 3. 210/997-2835.
Cinco de Mayo Celebrations around the state honor Mexico's triumph over France in 1862 at the Battle of Puebla. Fiestas are being held in Goliad, childhood home of the battle's hero, Gen. Ignacio Zaragosa, May 3-4, 512/645-3563; San Marcos, includes the Official State Menudo Cookoff, May 1-3, 512/396-2495; San Antonio at Market Square, May 2-4, 210/207-8600; and Seguin with Fiesta Juan Seguin Cinco de Mayo Celebration, May 9-11, 210/372-3151.
Jazz Festival in Odessa features renowned and local musicians, May 14-17. 915/333-7871.
Bat Observation Tours welcomes the bats back to Kickapoo Cavern State Park in Bracketville May 2, 3, 16, 29 and at Devil's Sinkhole State Natural Area in Rocksprings May 17 & 31. Reservations required, 210/563-2342.
Texas Music Events Calendar Online is presented by the Texas Music Office at http://www.governor.state.tx.us/music.