An East Texas Treasure

Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center Is One of a Kind in North America

Please note the publication date of this article. Statistics and seasonal information were accurate at the time of publication. Check links provided for the most current information.

By Larry D. Hodge

Published in Texas Wildlife, November 2004

Where can you go to see the world record blue catfish, learn about the history of freshwater fishing, catch channel catfish and rainbow trout, tour a working fish hatchery, explore a wetland and bog, watch a diver hand-feed a 13-pound bass and take your hunter education course—all in the same place?

If you guessed Outdoor Heaven, guess again. You can experience all this and more at the Edwin L. Cox, Jr., Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center (TFFC) in Athens, 75 miles southeast of Dallas. The $16-million facility, opened in 1996, was built with federal Sport Fish and Restoration Act funds and donations from numerous sources. No state money was spent for construction. Former TPWD commission member Ed Cox of Athens led the fund-raising effort and continues to be a major contributor.

This family-oriented Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) facility, opened in 1996, is unique among TPWD properties in that it combines education and entertainment with a production fish hatchery. And, with its 0.8-mile wetlands and hunter skills trail, it’s the only TPWD facility that carries out every aspect of the department’s mission: “To manage and conserve the natural and cultural resources of Texas and to provide hunting, fishing and outdoor recreation opportunities for the use and enjoyment of present and future generations.”

One of the big attractions at TFFC really is big—she outweighs many of the people who come to see her. Splash, the world record blue catfish, came to live in TFFC’s dive tank after being caught from Lake Texoma in January 2004. Weighing 121.5 pounds when caught, Splash nevertheless seems quite at home in the comparatively small 26,000-gallon aquarium she shares with bass, sunfish, gar, crappie and hybrid stripers. She stars in the daily dive shows, gulping frozen smelt from the diver’s hand as other fish keep a respectful distance. Visitors can see Splash any time the Center is open: Tuesday through Saturday from 9 to 4 and Sunday from 1 to 4. The Center is closed Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Eve and Day, New Year’s Day and Easter. Admission is charged.

A series of outdoor aquaria depict typical bodies of freshwater in Texas—Hill Country streams, farm ponds and reservoirs. The farm pond exhibit holds a surprise for many visitors. Intrigued by the dozens of catfish that belly up to the glass every time people approach, visitors fail to realize what will happen when they throw a handful of fish food from a nearby dispenser into the water. In the feeding frenzy that ensues, anyone standing near the tank gets a free shower, much to the amusement of others.

Other exhibits in the center depict the history of freshwater fishing in Texas, using everything from old lures to an early Skeeter boat to replicas of state record fish. The Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame honors those who have contributed most to the development of fishing in Texas. There’s an overview of how hatcheries produce fish for stocking into public waters, and a touch-screen computer lets visitors try their hand at managing an imaginary fishery. A guided tram tour of the production hatchery ponds educates visitors on the actual process.

TFFC is headquarters for the Budweiser ShareLunker program in which anglers who have caught 13-pound-plus largemouth bass lend or donate the fish to TPWD for spawning purposes. One or more of the large lunkers is usually on display. In the production hatchery, the big females are paired with pure Florida strain males. The resulting offspring are stocked into public waters. Ultimately TPWD hopes to produce the next world record largemouth bass.

Records are the last thing on the minds of young and old alike around the Center’s 1.5-acre casting pond—fun is what they came for. Stocked with rainbow trout in winter and with channel catfish year-around, the pond offers fast-paced fishing fun. Bait and tackle are provided, and no license is required. Catch-and-release fishing is included in the price of admission to the Center, but you can pay a small fee and harvest fish if you like.

A frequent fisher at TFFC is Haleigh, a seven-year-old who comes with her grandfather. If you want to know how to catch catfish, watch Haleigh. She tests baits for me, because I know if they will work, Haleigh will catch fish with them. Recently she left the following note in my office. “I coutht 6 catfish I dropt by and fished. I couth the biggest catfish 5 pounds. Senseries, Haleigh.” Haleigh’s spelling skills need work, but she has fishing down pat.

Education plays a major role at TFFC, which hosts thousands of school children each year. After spending about four hours at the Center, students go away with new knowledge about aquatic habitats, ecology and the importance of fresh water to the environment we share with wildlife. Many also catch their first fish and receive a certificate recognizing their achievement. Catching a fish brings home to kids the connection between them and a healthy aquatic ecosystem that not only supports life but also furnishes the opportunity to have fun.

Currently TFFC, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation, and support groups Friends of TFFC and Schooling for Bass are working to raise funds for construction of a new Education Building that will allow the Center to greatly expand its educational efforts. All money raised between now and April 2005 will be matched dollar for dollar (up to $650,000) by Bass Pro Shops. Persons wishing to donate money to the fund may contact Schooling for Bass at (214) 360-3911 or at Bank One, 8111 Preston Road, 2nd Floor, Dallas 75225.

Conceived as a place to produce and learn about fish, TFFC took on an added dimension with the construction of its wetlands trail. This project exemplifies the creative thinking that has made the Center unique. “We had about 17 acres of land that were not being used for anything,” explains TFFC director Allen Forshage. “The Texas Department of Transportation (TxDot) needed a site for a mitigation project to replace wetlands destroyed when they built the loop around Athens. They provided the dirt work, and everything else was provided by sponsors and by TPWD. One of our employees, Glen Raborn, designed the trail and supervised most of its construction. The result won TxDot’s Environmental Award for 2002.” An excellent example of public/private partnership, the trail attracted such sponsors as TU Electric, Exxon Mobil, the Dallas Safari Club, the Hillcrest Foundation, the National Rifle Association and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.

The wetlands trail begins near the casting pond and passes through a constructed wetland and between two pitcher plant bogs to a timber-framed pavilion overlooking a large pond. Then it meanders through woods and wildflower areas before ending at a duck blind overlooking a pond. Along the way visitors can stop at the Nature Communication Center and listen to recorded sounds of a variety of wildlife. A branch of the trail continues to a timber-framed pavilion that serves as a center for fly fishing instruction during the annual Fly Fish Texas event held at TFFC each March. The timber-framed pavilions were built by students attending week-long workshops held by the Timber Framers Guild of America.

Each summer and fall, deer, antelope, coyotes, feral hogs and a variety of other critters begin to appear along the wetlands trail. They aren’t real—the full-body decoys play an important role as the wetlands trail assumes its other role, that of hunter skills trail. Students in hunter education classes held at the center and at other locations in the area come to TFFC to walk the trail under instructor supervision and test their knowledge of wildlife, safety, hunting regulations and ethics.

“The hunter skills trail was designed by instructor Jim Parker, and it is probably the best in North America,” says Terry Erwin, Hunter Education Coordinator for TPWD. “It is fully accessible for wheelchairs, has almost every scenario related to hunting big game, small game, waterfowl, doves, wild hogs, use of blinds, elevated stands and obstacle crossings.” Plans are under way to add a bow stand, hunters camp and air gun shooting range.

In keeping with its status as the best hunter skills trail on the continent, activities there are directed by a man who is arguably the best hunter education instructor in the nation. In fact, Jim Parker was recognized in 2001 by the International Hunter Education Association and Winchester as the hunter education instructor of the year for North America. He and his late wife, Velma, were honored as Lone Star Legends by TPWD in 2000, and Parker was inducted into the TPWD Hunter Education Hall of Fame in 2002.

Parker’s involvement with hunting spans most of his 75 years. When he first met Velma, he learned her family had no hunting or fishing equipment, and she had never been exposed to either. He showed her his gear and said, “This is my life. If you want me to, I’ll teach you about it. If not, we can end this right now.” They hunted and fished together for 53 years.

Parker has certified thousands of students and conducted dozens of instructor courses in his role as an area chief for TPWD. He estimates he spends 40 to 70 hours a week—all unpaid, volunteer time—working on hunter education. “I look at it this way,” he says. “You get self-satisfaction knowing you are helping to preserve this tradition for future generations. I enjoy working with people who want to learn and get out there and benefit from it. It’s a full-time job for me. Fishing and hunting and being outdoors with kids has been my life.”

Terry Erwin points out that Parker is more than just a teacher to his students. “He has the patience of a grandfather teaching a novice outdoorsman, the sincerity of a father with each individual and the knowledge to go with it. He tells me, ‘I always do what I can to impress upon students that they are the ones to keep the tradition of hunting from disappearing.’”

Anyone teaching a hunter education course who wants to bring students to experience the hunter skills trail is welcome to do so. Arrangements can be made by calling Jim Parker at (903) 489-2937.

Athens actually has many treasures—the Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center and Jim Parker and the other volunteers who give their time to help make TFFC one of the most valuable assets the Texas outdoor community has.

Additional information:

Visit the Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center online.

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