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20 Years & Counting: Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center shows the creatures that live in lakes and streams

Story by STEVE KNIGHT // March/April 2017

It was like going from a one-room schoolhouse to a state-of-the-art campus when 20 years ago the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department moved its fish hatchery operations from the old Tyler State Fish Hatchery to the Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center in Athens, Texas.

The original ponds at the old hatchery were sculpted in 1926 with mule-drawn plows. The department saw the need to add a visitors’ and education center when thousands people crowded into the tiny hatchery building to see a state-record bass weighing 17.67 pounds.

Knowing it could not build a larger hatchery and visitors’ complex on its budget and its existing site, TPWD reached out to cities who might be interested in entering a public/private partnership. The city of Athens was selected after it committed the most funds to the project.

The Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center opened in 1996 on 107 acres as a venture between TPWD and Athens.

THE HATCHERY

The expanded hatchery, which now includes 45 ponds and a series of tanks, plays an important role in maintaining the quality of fishing in the state. It produced almost half of the 8.9 million bass fingerlings stocked in Texas lakes in 2015.

“Our main fish (raised here) is Florida largemouth bass,” says Tony Owens, hatchery manager “We usually raise 4.3 to almost 6 million a year.”

The hatchery is home of Toyota ShareLunker, a program that has taken in nearly 300 bass weighing 13 pounds or more from lakes around the state.

“We do everything we can to keep those fish alive,” Owens says. “Nothing we do is intentional to harm those fish. We want to get those fish back and spawn them.”

VISITORS CENTER

The other component to the TFFC is the Edwin L. Cox Jr. Visitors’ Center, which features 300,000 gallons of indoor and outdoor aquariums displaying dozens of species of native fish, waterfowl, alligators and amphibians. A self-guided tour introduces visitors to recreated stream and lake habitats in Texas. Through glass, visitors can see the animals that live below the water surface.

“We have everything (on view) from the smallest little pup fish from West Texas to the largest fish in Texas, the alligator gar,” Mandy Scott, TFFC director, says.

TFFC has drawn more than 1 million visitors since opening.

“Over half of those that come (to the center) are school kids who come in the spring time. We like to have them here, get a fishing pole in their hand and get them excited about fishing,” adds Scott.

The main attraction is the center’s indoor dive tank where during shows a diver submerges to feed fish, talk about the different species in the tank and answer questions from the audience.

“One of our specialties is educating the public not just in fisheries but in natural resources education,” Scott says. “We have a hunter education course about every month. We also specialize in education programs for the kids. Regular school groups they come here and are educated at the dive show, get a tour, go fishing and talk to naturalists on site.”

Scott says improvements are coming to TFFC.

“We have had a great 20 years and we are looking to the future now. We are planning on upgrading many of our exhibits and have a whole new fresh look to our visitors’ center for the 25th anniversary.”

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TFFC ATTRACTIONS 

Game Warden Memorial: Reflect on lives given in the line of duty.

Stream Exhibit: Explore the habitat of Guadalupe bass.

Farm Pond Exhibit: See fish feeding every Wednesday and Friday at 3 p.m.

Pond Management: Learn about farm pond production and vegetation control.

Bluegill Spawning Area: Observe spawning behavior and hatching fry.

Reservoir Exhibit: Discover prehistoric paddlefish and other species.

Alligator Exhibit: Get eye to eye with some of North America’s largest reptiles.

Texas Giants Exhibit: See large sport fish.

Museum: See antique lures and fascinating things from the past.

Texas Record Fish Exhibit: Examine replicas and stories of state record fish.

Fisheries Management Gallery: Learn about the tools TPWD fisheries use.

Hall of Fame: Learn about legends of freshwater fishing in Texas.

Anheuser-Busch Theater and Dive Show: See a movie and interactive dive show.

Hatchery Gallery & ShareLunker Overlook: See how hatcheries produce fish.

Gift Shop: Pick out a gift.

Tram Ride: Catch a guided tram tour of the hatchery ponds.

Fishing Pond: Free fishing for rainbow trout or channel catfish.

Wetlands Trail: Explore 1.3-mile trail.

About Haley Holcomb

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