Photo by Kathy Andrews Wright.
Fish Fun at the Fair
Positioned in the center of the Division of Fisheries tent in Conservation World at the Illinois State Fair is a fish tank of titanic proportions.
“The Bass Tub is 28 feet in length, with the internal length of 20 feet,” according to Chad Ingles, a Natural Resource Tech II with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) Division of Fisheries who coordinates preparation of the Division’s tent at Conservation World. “The tank is 3 feet 4 inches in width and 5 feet in depth, which equates to a volume of 2,800 gallons of water. Thankfully, a fire hydrant is close to the tank and we can have it filled in less than an hour.”
The Bass Tub has been a key attraction in Conservation World since it was purchased in 2018.
“The long sides of the tank are encased with 1-inch-thick glass, allowing plenty of space for fairgoers to view a variety of native fish species,” Ingles explained.
Thanks to the work of IDNR fisheries biologists, those fish are impressive.
“About 10 days before the fair opens, staff head out to a number of waterbodies—Powerton Lake, Lake Springfield, Clinton Lake and the Mississippi and Illinois rivers to name a few—to look for big fish specimens for the display,” Ingles said. “The fish are transferred to Jake Wolf Fish Hatchery here they are held for a few days for a health assessment.”
Typically, the display includes two each of flathead, blue and channel catfish, striped bass, largemouth and smallmouth bass, bowfin, buffalo and all four species of gar (alligator, spotted, longnose and shortnose).
“The actual species contribution changes annually based on what the biologists can catch and which unique or large fish are found,” he continued. “In 2022, we were also able to include a shovelnose sturgeon in the tank.”
Ingles noted that the educational value of the display is tremendous.
“For instance,” Ingles said, “many anglers aren’t able to differentiate between adult blue and channel catfish, especially when the male channel catfish is displaying a dark blue color. The tank makes is easy to see the two species in clear water and almost side-by-side.”
Despite the heat of the August fair, two chillers on top of the Bass Tub keep the water temperature at a constant 72 degrees. After the close of the fair the fish are returned to the water body where they were collected.
In addition to the giant fish tank, the Division of Fisheries tent includes five smaller tanks. Four of the tanks will contain a variety of smaller fish native to Illinois.
“We always have bass, bluegill and crappie on display, with the addition of whatever other species the biologists are able to catch,” explained Ingles. “Last year an American eel was captured in the Mississippi River. Time will tell what species we have this year.”
The fifth tank showcases a variety of native turtles, typically including small painted, red-eared and softshell turtles.
While visitors often gravitate to the fish tanks, there’s a lot more to see in the Division of Fisheries tent. Mounted specimens on display include infamous invasive fish such as bighead and silver carps as well as an alligator gar, northern pike and reproductions of the Illinois record bluegill and hybrid crappie. Fairgoers also can take a moment to learn about commercial fishing operations and examine an Illinois Department of Public Health display on healthy fish consumption.
Communicating with the public is paramount and three or four biologists are on hand every day to field questions.
Ingles also coordinates a popular activity with youngsters visiting the fair—fishing off the dock immediately adjacent to the tent.
“Three times a day during the fair we offer the opportunity for youngsters between the ages of 3 and 12 the opportunity to fish,” he noted. “For many young anglers this is the first time they may catch a fish. Usually, successful anglers find a small bluegill at the end of the line, although we did have a 12-pound flathead catfish reeled in during one fair.”
A second fishing opportunity is positioned at the southeast entrance to Conservation World, where IDNR angling education coordinators offer short fishing clinics for youngsters.
And for the more mature angler, fly fishing workshops LINK will take place at scheduled times on both weekends.
Regardless of the size of the fish, or the age of the angler, the smiles on the faces of successful anglers convey the joy of learning a new skills, and perhaps catching a fish.
“The reactions we witness make the long hours involved in working the fair well worth our time,” Ingles explained.
Ingles and other Division of Fisheries staff are committed to making fishing fun for fairgoers.
“It takes about three weeks to set up the tent, then many of us are there from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. for the duration of the fair,” Ingles said. “After the fair closes it will take another two weeks to take down the tent and clean everything up before it is put in storage until the time comes to set up for the next Illinois State Fair.”
Kathy Andrews Wright is retired from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources where she was editor of Outdoor Illinois magazine. She is currently the editor of OutdoorIllinois Journal.