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Celebrate ‘Shark Week’ with trip to Freshwater Fisheries in Athens
Allie Coker, 7, feed catfish at Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center in Athens, Texas, at Thursday, July 20, 2017. Around 50,000 people visit the center annually to learn more about freshwater species from around the state. (Chelsea Purgahn/Tyler Morning Telegraph)

Celebrate ‘Shark Week’ with trip to Freshwater Fisheries in Athens

Jonah Tyson, 5, looks inside a tank at an alligator snapping turtle at Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center in Athens, Texas, at Thursday, July 20, 2017. Around 50,000 people visit the center annually to learn more about freshwater species from around the state. (Chelsea Purgahn/Tyler Morning Telegraph)Writer

 

Writer: JACQUE HILBURN-SIMMONS | Photographer: CHELSEA PURGAHN | Tyler Morning Telegraph 7.24.17

Texas Parks and Wildlife biologist Wayne Heaton remembers the day a young black tip shark nibbled on his ear.

He was in the early stages of his career, performing in an underwater show at a Galveston entertainment park when the 4-foot shark moved in for a taste test.

Ever the professional, he kept his wits about him and survived the experience without extreme consequences, except for a little blood loss and a stern warning later from his mom to not mess up his upcoming wedding pictures.

  • Jacque Hilburn-Simmons’ “Behind the Wheel” column appears each Monday in the Tyler Morning Telegraph.
  • TWITTER: @TMT_Jacque

Aaron Rodriguez, 6, Korbyn Williams, 6 and Moises Cortez, 7, feed fish at Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center in Athens, Texas, at Thursday, July 20, 2017. Around 50,000 people visit the center annually to learn more about freshwater species from around the state. (Chelsea Purgahn/Tyler Morning Telegraph)

THINGS THAT GO CHOMP

This wildly popular series featuring shark-themed programming enjoys an almost cult-like following, complete with toothy merchandise and watch parties.

Certainly, fresh water lakes in East Texas don’t make the list of places to find a shark, but there are plenty of large, toothy creatures lurking in the deep.

And thanks to the fisheries center and hatchery, you’re not going to need a bigger boat to see them.

A trip to this attraction, 5550 Farm-to-Market Road 2405, can provide endless learning opportunities about native creatures of the deep that possibly live in water near you.

“In a year, we probably see between 50-55,000 visitors,” said media representative Mandy Scott, a fish and wildlife expert who grew up with a fishing pole in her hand. “It’s a great facility and we have a lot to offer.”

The sprawling indoor-outdoor fisheries center raises millions of specimens that help repopulate the state’s waterways, but it’s also a go-to place to observe and learn about the various species.

It combines education with some of its principal functions: production, conservation and stewardship, offering exhibits and dive shows that highlight the diversity of the state’s eco-systems.

There’s an exhibit for alligators, the East Texas version of a land shark, and one devoted to “Texas Giants,” because, well, everything is bigger in the Lone Star State.

Some common species on the “giants” list include the alligator gar, plus yellow and blue catfish.

“By far the biggest is the alligator gar,” Ms. Scott said. “They can be found in lakes, but mostly flowing rivers. I personally have seen an alligator gar over 7 feet long … the (Texas) record is 270 pounds, caught in 1951.”

Alligator gars, with needle sharp teeth, look plenty scary, but they prefer to chomp on small fish rather than people, exhibits technician and diver Blake Treadaway told audience members during a recent show featuring gar and other native species.

“There’s never been a recorded attack on a person,” he said through a microphone while underwater. “But if you get one in a boat, they will be unhappy about it.”

An alligator sits in the sun at Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center in Athens, Texas, at Thursday, July 20, 2017. Around 50,000 people visit the center annually to learn more about freshwater species from around the state. (Chelsea Purgahn/Tyler Morning Telegraph)

AN UNUSUAL EDUCATION

The Athens center relies on indoor and outdoor habitats so people can observe the animals up close and personal, from behind safety glass.

To describe some of these freshwater beauties as just “large” is like saying Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws” is just another summer thriller.

So how large can some of our native freshwater creatures grow?

“Splash” the blue catfish held the state record when she was fished out of Lake Texoma in January 2004. And while it’s never good manners to discuss a female’s weight, Splash the catfish is an exception – topping out at a whopping 121.5 pounds at the time of her capture.

Around these parts, however, plain old alligators are the poster children for supersized.

Specimens rivaling the size of a small sedan surface on occasion, including a 10-footer spotted in Hawkins last month and captured as it eyed a pen filled with calves.

The fisheries center has a few young gators, but its primary focus seems to be on species with gills.

Visitor Sherri Mixon said the center is an invaluable tool for educating youngsters about the wonders of nature.

She serves as executive director of the T.R. Hoover Center, a multi-purpose community center in Dallas that offers camps and enrichment activities for children.

“For the most part, they (children) are very interested,” Ms. Mixon said. “Places like this make it possible to educate our kids. We bring our camps to the fish hatcheries. Dallas, unfortunately, doesn’t have this kind of opportunity. … I love coming.”

Heaton, the biologist who narrowly missed wearing an ear bandage to his wedding, is another avid learner who can’t seem to get enough knowledge, both on and off the job.

“I haven’t missed Shark Week in 27 years,” he said with a grin. “I told my wife on my bucket list, I wanted to dive with the 10 most dangerous sharks. … I’ve gotten to four so far.”

For more information about the center, including visiting hours and admission fees, call 903-676-BASS (2277).

  • Jacque Hilburn-Simmons’ “Behind the Wheel” column appears each Monday in the Tyler Morning Telegraph.
  • TWITTER: @TMT_Jacque

Exhibit tech Blake Treadaway feeds fish during a diver presentation at Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center in Athens, Texas, at Thursday, July 20, 2017. Around 50,000 people visit the center annually to learn more about freshwater species from around the state. (Chelsea Purgahn/Tyler Morning Telegraph)

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