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Wolf Lake: Much More Than Just a Fish Hatchery
July 18, 2011
It's probably obvious to most people that that the primary responsibility of the Department of Natural Resources fish hatcheries is to produce fish for stocking the lakes and streams of Michigan for the benefit of the state's anglers. But the DNR believes that those hatcheries have plenty to offer the public at large, too.
One prime example is Wolf Lake State Fish Hatchery in Mattawan. The department's southernmost fish raising facility is not just a hatchery, it's a museum, a classroom, a park and a recreation center all rolled into one.
"It really is a family destination in southwest Michigan," said Shana Ramsey, the interpreter at the Wolf Lake visitor center. "It's not too far off the beaten path, but it's quiet and interesting and fun; it's a hidden gem."
Nearly 30,000 people visit Wolf Lake State Fish Hatchery every year, some to attend regularly scheduled programs, some for special events, and still others to simply wander through the visitor center and absorb the atmosphere.
As soon as folks enter the visitor center they're surrounded by displays designed to educate and entertain. There are aquariums and terrariums that house everything from young-of-the-year Chinook salmon (produced at the hatchery, of course) to a bullfrog to a snapping turtle. There's a viewing screen for the underwater camera in the show pond just outside the building, an interactive stocking map that illustrates where fish from Wolf Lake hatchery go, and a life size display of an Asian carp so the youngsters can compare their own size to a 100 pound fish.
Two interactive kiosks allow visitors to test their knowledge on angling and Michigan fish. There's also a wide variety of mounted specimens - a trumpeter swan, frogs, snakes and preserved fish specimens in jars - show folks just a few of the inhabitants of Michigan's outdoors.
A pair of large rooms adjoining the main lobby offer further diversions, including the auditorium, which shows a film every 15 minutes about the first year of life for a steelhead at the hatchery, and a 200-gallon aquarium with a live sturgeon.
The museum offers a historical look at Michigan fisheries and how hatcheries have played a role in enhancing and restoring those fisheries. There's a replica of an old railcar, in which hatchery raised fish were transported back in the day, and a bunch of the old milk cans that held those fish. Visitors can check out the historic videos of Michigan fisheries or play the interactive fishing game.
And that's just the visitor center.
The grounds at Wolf Lake offer another dimension. The half acre pond, immediately outside the center, holds every type of fish raised at Wolf Lake (as well as native bluegills and largemouth bass). Walk out on the pier and you might catch a glimpse of one of the 6-foot lake sturgeon cruising the impoundment.
But the pond's not just for viewing; it's also for fishing. Every Friday and Saturday from June through August, the pond is open for catch-and-release fishing for youngsters. All the necessary gear and bait are provided free of charge.
Visitors don't have to fish to enjoy the grounds. There is a restored prairie to see what this part of Michigan looked like presettlement and a butterfly garden, where the staff monitors the monarch population that depends upon the milkweed there. During spring and autumn, the ponds are popular with birders, who can observe all manner of migrants, especially waterfowl. Self-guided tours are available, but plenty of folks prefer to get involved with organized activities.
"At noon on weekdays, they can feed the critters in the aquariums'' Ramsey said. "We offer some nature hikes and, on the second Saturday of the month in June, July and August, we have a program about the creatures of the night. We start inside and we basically talk about the different critters that come out at night and their habits, then we go out and try to locate them by calling owls or seeing if we can spot some bats flying around getting their night-time snacks or even just see lightning bugs."
Although summer is the most active season at Wolf Lake, the facility is extremely popular in spring and fall, especially with school groups, who enjoy seasonal wildflower and color tours, fishing and "a smattering of other fun and exciting programs," Ramsey said.
Even in winter, Wolf Lake is hopping. There are indoor events (fly tying classes and snowshoe making workshops) and outdoor events (such as snowshoe hikes), too.
"We're excited that we're going to offer ice fishing this winter," Ramsey said. "We'll teach the kids the basics of ice fishing and then they'll get a chance to fish for awhile."
Also new is a Friends of Wolf Lake (FOWL) State Fish Hatchery group, which will function much like the "friends" groups at state parks. The first event,"Get Hooked on the Hatchery", will be held Saturday, Aug. 20, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
"It's an opportunity for people to get involved more closely and learn how they can volunteer at our events and help with educational programs," Ramsey said. "And we'll have some members-only events, too, so we're real excited about it."
Learn more about the programs, history and upcoming events at Wolf Lake State Hatchery and other DNR fish hatcheries at www.michigan.gov/hatcheries.
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