Five-year-old Price Phillips of Columbia runs up to the tank, pointing out all the fish he knows. He’s so excited he can barely get out all he wants to say. He starts at one end of the tank and follows his favorite — the gar fish — all the way to the other.
Behind the Plexiglas, small panfish gather against the rocks to escape from their bass predators. A hybrid bass swims from one end to another as if it were standing guard. Large flathead catfish move slowly around the tank, waiting for their night feeding.
Price’s mother, Mary Phillips, said that in five minutes at the Show-me Missouri Fish Mobile Aquarium, her son learned about three types of gar fish.
The aquarium is a new attraction at this year’s Boone County Fair. Bullfrogs and four species of aquatic turtle occupy the tank along with 20 species of fish, including a state endangered lake sturgeon.
Jeff Finley, who manages the 3,200-gallon tank for the Missouri Department of Conservation, said people love to watch the big bass and other aquatic creatures swim.
“I’m sure it will become one of the most popular attractions at the fair,” he said.
The aquarium was built for Missouri resident Buck Potter in the late 1980s by a company in Oregon. He called it his “Bass Bin” and used the huge tank for public fishing demonstrations. The aquarium is composed of the same 141/2-inch Plexiglas panels that are used to make bullet-proof armored cars, and it weighs 37,000 pounds when filled. It’s built into a gooseneck trailer measuring 40 feet long and 7 feet high.
Potter died in 1998, and Finley was specifically hired by the conservation department in October 2000 to run the aquarium. He travels throughout the state, showing off the huge tank with his two assistants, Courtney Fleenor and Gregory Rubliatus.
Fleenor said education and outreach are important to conservation of natural resources.
“My favorite fish to watch is the endangered lake sturgeon, just because it’s such a treat to see something so rare,” she said.
Finley said the purpose of the aquarium is to recruit anglers to the sport.
“People who are involved in fishing and the outdoors are typically better stewards of the environment because they are involved in it and have a passion for conserving our natural resources,” he said. “I hope to teach the audience that fishing is an exciting, family oriented activity that anyone can do, and once hooked, they’ll have a greater appreciation for the bountiful and diverse fisheries populations we have in Missouri.”
Designed for presentations, the aquarium has a platform on top where a biologist or guest performer can fish. Finley said they do basic fishing demonstrations to show local fair-goers how to catch fish using certain lures, or how to specifically target a certain species.
“We also do educational programs like ‘Who wants to be a Missouri Angler,’ a game we play similar to the popular Millionaire game show,” Finley said. “We like to test people’s knowledge, encourage them to seek out the answer and award them with donated prizes.”
While following every cast, the audience can watch the fish position themselves for an attack, then explode on the lure or bait and run away with it. Fish can easily spit out the lure or bait since no hooks are used.
People love to watch feeding time, so at the end of the program the fish are fed minnows, crayfish, worms and crickets.
The aquarium is located in the southwest corner of the air conditioned Coliseum adjacent to the indoor arena. Demonstrations run from 4 p.m. to close through Sunday and are free to anyone with regular admission to the fair.