Fish For The Road

By Jeff Finley | June 2, 2002
From Missouri Conservationist: Jun 2002

As you travel through Missouri, you may encounter a truck pulling a sleek black trailer that looks like it might house a racecar. This trailer, however, has panels of bulletproof plexiglass and a Conservation Department logo on its sides. Instead of a racecar, the trailer is used to hold fish.

The Missouri Department of Conservation's "Show-me Missouri Fish" mobile aquarium intrigues onlookers wherever it goes-or stops! As it visits schools, fairs and events throughout the state, the mobile aquarium has sparked tremendous interest in our aquatic resources.

Although it looks new, the mobile aquarium is more than 10 years old. It was once known coast-to-coast as Buck Potter's "Bass Bin" and was a regular exhibit at the Missouri State Fair and various other events. The Conservation Department even contracted with Buck Potter and his wife, Joannie, to use the aquarium for several events in the late 1990s, and the Department was looking at designing its own.

Buck Potter passed away in December 1998. Joannie Potter, unable to continue operating the Bass Bin without him, sold the unit to the Conservation Department in June 1999.

Thanks to my qualifications as a fisheries biologist and my outspoken love of fish and fishing, I was named to operate the aquarium. What a great job!

Our mobile aquarium is the only one of its kind. A boat company in Oregon built it in the late 1980s under Buck Potter's supervision. They never produced another.

The trailer measures 40 feet long and 7 feet high. It's built into a gooseneck trailer on dual axles. The aquarium itself is composed of 14 inch-and-a-half thick plexiglass panels-the same plexiglass that is used to bullet-proof armored cars and diplomatic vehicles. It holds 3,200 gallons of water and weighs a staggering 37,000 pounds when filled!

Setting up the mobile aquarium isn't easy. Maneuvering a trailer of this length requires a heavy duty, dual-wheeled pickup truck. When filled with water, the unit would be too heavy to pull, so we tow the unit empty.

When my assistant and I set up the aquarium, we use eight hydraulic jacks to evenly support the weight. We also have to park it on a hard, level surface so it won't sink into the ground when filled.

During summer, we keep the aquarium cool by keeping it in the shade. Most warm-water fishes prefer a temperature below 85 degrees. If the water starts getting too warm, we can lower the temperature by adding cool water.

Water for the aquarium usually comes from municipal sources, often with the help of the local fire department. We remove the chlorine chemically. The aquarium's unique filtration, aeration and circulation systems turn the water crystal clear as we scrub road grime from the outside. Life-giving oxygen bubbles up from the unit's gravel floor.

My assistant and I can make the mobile aquarium ready for public display in about five hours.

The same trucks used to transport fish for stocking our state ponds, lakes and streams are used to bring fish to the mobile aquarium. Wild fish are collected in advance and stored at the Lost Valley Fish Hatchery in Warsaw. Some species, such as paddlefish and muskie, are not easily caught from the wild. Instead we use stocks raised at Lost Valley, Blind Pony or other Department hatcheries.

Some of the state's hatcheries maintain show fish in special ponds. They drain the ponds to collect the fish and then transport them in stocking trucks. Some of the same fish have been traveling to fairs for six consecutive years. Now they can also appear in the aquarium.

So far, we've had 35 of the 230 fish species found in Missouri on display in the mobile aquarium. In addition, we've showcased five species of aquatic turtles, three species of crayfish and five species of mussels.

As many as 25 different species of native aquatic organisms are displayed each time we set up. The fish and other creatures move effortlessly within the water or hide in and among the rocks, logs and plants within the tank. Sometimes they seem to play a game of peek-a-boo with curious onlookers.

Fish behavior is fascinating to watch. Large flathead catfish seem to yawn away the day as they await night-feeding time. A 10-pound hybrid striped bass swims from end to end as if it were a sentry. A shimmering school of subordinate white bass follow the hybrid like a platoon of soldiers in formation. Panfish gather against a rock wall to escape from predators, such as largemouth and smallmouth bass.

An aquatic turtle basks on a floating log, a gar occasionally breaks the surface with its toothy bill, a sturgeon dangles its whiskers along the bottom and occasionally moves up the side of the glass, giving all the opportunity to see its unusual underside. Paddlefish and buffalo swim continuously with their mouths open, straining the water for plankton.

The fish go on with their daily behavior oblivious to the thousands of people watching them.

It's amazing how often I hear the word "Wow!" as folks intently follow the fish in the aquarium. Children are especially enthralled. They line up and tug on the barricade chain. Mothers often take pictures of their children near the aquarium, and sometimes through the aquarium's clear water.

The aquarium is designed for presentations. One of our most popular programs is teaching people how to fish. There's a platform on top of the aquarium from which a biologist or guest anglers can fish. The audience can follow every cast and watch fish position themselves for an attack, explode on the lure or bait and run away with it. No hooks are used, so fish can easily spit out the lure or bait.

Mobile fish aquarium programs also deal with rare or endangered species, exotic species, pollution, habitat degradation and other hazards that threaten Missouri's aquatic ecosystems. Visitors to the mobile aquarium can learn how all these factors affect fishing and their enjoyment of Missouri's lakes and waterways.

When the program is over, the fish are usually fed various natural foods, such as minnows, crayfish, worms or crickets. Folks love to watch the fish at feeding time!

Anyone in Missouri can submit a reservation request for the "Show-me Missouri Fish" mobile aquarium. Reservation request forms are available from your local Conservation Department office. The deadline for reservation requests is October 1 for the following year. A steering committee composed of seven Department employees reviews the requests and determines which events the mobile aquarium will attend during the year. Those selected are contacted by mid November.

The mobile aquarium visits roughly 20 events every year and is on display for about 100 days. Due to the time, effort and costs associated with setting up the aquarium, we prefer places or events during which the aquarium can be on display for at least three days and that have enough traffic to justify the setup.

The Conservation Department does not charge anyone to visit the aquarium, and it is free to reserve. However, the costs of water, shade or electricity are the responsibility of the requesting party.

When the aquarium is set up, fisheries biologists and other Conservation Department professionals are usually on hand to answer questions about fish or any of our natural resources. Related publications are made available for people to take home and read.

All who visit the Show-me Missouri Fish Mobile Aquarium leave with the knowledge they need to responsibly enjoy our aquatic resources.

This Issue's Staff

Editor - Tom Cwynar
Managing Editor - Bryan Hendricks
Art Editor - Dickson Stauffer
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Photographer - Jim Rathert
Photographer - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Staff Writer - Joan McKee
Circulation - Bertha Bainer