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."