Aquatic Visitors Center open until Aug. 19Center then will close for renovations until 2025

At the entrance to the Aquatic Visitors Center at Put-in-Bay, a stand holds more than 20 fishing rods, equipped with bobbers and lures. 

Kids 16 and younger can stop in, grab a fishing rod, and walk out onto the center’s fishing dock to cast a line. They reel in a variety of species, from sunfish to largemouth bass. 

The center, a former fish hatchery run by Ohio Sea Grant in cooperation with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, can put their catch into one of the concrete raceways that was once used for hatchlings. 

“They can come back and see their fish,” says Brian Alford, Assistant Director of Stone Laboratory, Ohio Sea Grant’s education and outreach facility on Lake Erie. “For a lot of kids, it’s their first time they’ve went fishing or ever caught a fish. It’s a great experience.”

Use of the fishing equipment and admission to the center itself is free. 

The center’s raceways house living fish and turtle species, which help Ohio Sea Grant educate visitors about Lake Erie’s ecosystem and challenges it faces. Exhibits throughout the historic building cover everything from how the fish hatchery worked when it was in operation, the effects of microplastics pollution, invasive species and more.

“We’re here to show what Lake Erie has to offer under the surface,” Alford says. “We hope people will come to learn about all the great things Lake Erie has to offer.”

The Aquatic Visitor Center has fishing rods and equipment kids can use to fish for free. (Photo/Kristina Smith)These opportunities, from the kids’ fishing to the educational aspects to the free admission, will be preserved and enhanced when ODNR Division of Wildlife completely renovates the center next summer and reopens it in 2025. 

“That’s important to me,” says Kendra Wecker, Division of Wildlife Chief. “There are few places on the island that are free and open to the public for families.”

The center has more than 10,000 visitors each year, including field trips for students in grades 5 through 12, Alford says. 

“It’s a pretty big draw for us outreach-wise,” he says. “We get a lot of families coming here.”

The center will close after this summer and remained closed for the 2024 season while the renovations take place.

The $5 million project will completely redesign the interior of the building and add all-new displays and a new roof. Air conditioning will be installed, which will be a bonus on especially hot summer days, and heating and windows will be updated. 

The funding was allocated from the state’s capital budget through the legislature and Gov. Mike DeWine, says Kristin Stanford, ODNR Wildlife Diversity Coordinator, who will oversee the visitor center.

“Without a doubt, this renovation is going to secure the historic hatchery - both in structure and educational content - as the primary destination for Put-in-Bay visitors to learn about Lake Erie and its valuable resources,” Stanford says. “We plan to showcase many of the same Lake Erie native species, especially fish, that have historically been displayed, as well as highlight the past, present and future roles people have in interacting within this system.”

The design team working on the project is still discussing concepts and content, she says. It is the same team that worked on the new Magee Marsh Visitors Center that opened last spring at Magee Marsh near Oak Harbor. 

“I am beyond excited about their ideas for visually showcasing some of our initial concepts,” Stanford says.

Stanford’s name likely is familiar to islanders and locals. She has worked with Ohio Sea Grant in the past and headed the effort to recover populations of the Lake Erie Water Snake, which was once a federally endangered species. 

Until the renovations take place, visitors can stop by the center to see it through Aug. 19. It is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday. 

The historic brick building served as a fish hatchery from 1907 -1988. In 1992, ODNR turned the building into the visitor center, and Ohio Sea Grant has been managing it since 2009. 

For eight decades, the hatchery raised walleye, yellow perch, sauger, salmon, steelhead trout, and other species. ODNR closed it down when raising and releasing hatchlings was no longer necessary. 

“They found out the lake was doing just fine growing its own fish,” Alford says. 

The center’s exhibits include some of the fish hatchery equipment and how it was used to hatch fish eggs that became hatchlings housed in the raceways until they were released in the lake. Then exhibits move into current issues facing the lake and share the types of fish and organisms and their place in the ecosystem. 

Aquariums include a variety of native fish, from suckers to longnose gar. In the conference area, kids can color pages showing the lake’s ecosystem and sort through aquatic invertebrates.

After the renovations, ODNR will take over running the center. Since 2009, it has leased the building to Ohio Sea Grant for $1. 

“It’s bittersweet,” Alford says. “It’ll be a little sad to see our footprint decrease here. We love our partnership with ODNR. It’s been a wonderful partnership, and we want to show our appreciation.”

The Aquatic Visitors Center is located at 360 W. Shore Blvd., village of Put-in-Bay, on South Bass Island. Ferry service to South Bass Island is available through the Miller Boat Line and Jet Express.