When the Cabela's store in Wheeling opened in 2004, it was billed as a "destination." Give it a few months, I thought, and it will be just another outdoors store. I could not have been more wrong.According to Cabela's retail marketing manager Bud Forte, 4 million shoppers visited the Wheeling store last year.Cabela's is certainly an impressive outdoors store, but it's the museum-quality displays that appeal to me. Virtually all the game birds and mammals of North America are found throughout the store, and live fish occupy huge tanks and a chilly trout stream. Walking into a Cabela's store is like taking a wildlife field trip across the country. In fact, Forte told me that Cabela's stores are considered wildlife museums by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. If I taught a class in wildlife conservation, I'd surely schedule a field trip to Cabela's.I admire the mounts that populate the various habitats on the mountain in the center of the store. I can see polar bears, wolves, and musk oxen from the arctic, grizzly bears from the Rockies, and prairie dogs and pronghorn from the Great Plains. And deer have their own separate wing.Spring is the perfect time to visit Cabela's to study fish behavior. Observing live fish is time well spent, especially for hopeful anglers.Last week Forte gave me a behind-the-scenes tour of the fish habitats. "We try to display most of the indigenous fish found in the Ohio River drainage -- catfish, bass, gar, crappie, sunfish," he explained. "The water is maintained at a constant 64 degrees Fahrenheit. We employ two full time curators who clean the tanks and feed the fish. They enter the tanks at least twice a week to clean the four-inch thick acrylic windows and collect other debris that gathers in the tanks. They feed the fish a balanced diet of protein pellets and minnows."When live minnows are placed in the tanks, big fish eat the smaller fish, as expected. But Forte says, "If minnows survive for four or five days, they become part of the system. For some reason, the bigger fish ignore minnows that survive more than a few days."
"Of course there are exceptions to every rule," Forte explained. "We have had two catfish that ate everything they could swallow, so we returned them to their natural habitat."The pipes, pumps, filters, and holding tanks required to maintain the 55,000-gallon fish habitat take up more space than the tanks themselves. And the view from above the tanks gives a more realistic picture of the fish below. Forte says, "When visitors look through the thick tank windows in the store, the fish appear about 30 percent smaller than they really are."At the rear of the store, a 56-degree stream cascades down the habitat mountain into a trout pond filled with rainbow, brown, brook, and golden rainbow trout. At times it almost seems one of the mounted raccoons will slip into the stream and swipe a trout.When I ask Forte where the infrastructure to support the trout exhibit is located, he smiles and replies, "It's all inside the mountain."Spend an hour watching fish at Cabela's, and anglers can learn a lot about fish behavior. Observe how they swim, eat, and respond to other fish. It's invaluable information for anglers trying to hook wild fish.Cabela's website (www.cabelas.com
) lists 43 stores in 25 states and three Canadian provinces, and most are conveniently located along interstate highways. They range in size from 35,000 square feet in Kearney, Neb. to 250,000 square feet in Hamburg, Pa. The Wheeling store comes in at 175,000 square feet. A new store opened last year in Charleston and another last month in Columbus, Ohio.Perhaps the best way to judge Cabela's as a destination is to survey the license plates in the parking lot. Customers drive hundreds of miles for the Cabela's experience. And while long-distance customers surely come to shop, I prefer to enjoy the live fish displays and the superb mounted specimens that inhabit the store. And unlike most "destinations," entry to Cabela's is free.Send questions and comments to Dr. Scott Shalaway, 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, WV 26033 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.