University City

University City has Charlotte area’s best aquarium

James Needham is a watched man.

On a recent day, whenever he got within a couple of feet of the aquarium glass, a crowd formed just on the other side.

Lunker bass and catfish followed his every move with intense, lidless stares, rhythmically opening and closing their gaping mouths.

Needham, a compact, friendly man, smiled his ready smile and just shook his head.

“They are so cotton-pickin’ spoiled,” he said.

Needham has had plenty of time to build a loyal following at the Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World aquarium in Concord, a delightful hidden treasure for University City families and piscophiles (fans of fish).

He helped open the gigantic 23,000-gallon tank in 1999. Under his attentive care, about 40 percent of the original fish are still swimming past captivated visitors.

Even on a weekday morning, the aquarium attracts a small crowd. It’s a natural for moms and dads looking for a place to bring the kids. But there’s also no shortage of anglers muttering under their breath, “Wow, look at the size of that largemouth!”

Best of all, the display is free to the public. Finding it takes a little persistence, however.

The tank is at the far back of the vast Bass Pro Shops store in Concord Mills mall, about 10 minutes from UNC Charlotte, just off I-85 at Exit 49.

This fresh-water aquarium specializes in game fish species native to the Carolinas, particularly such warm-water fish as bass, crappie, sunfish and catfish. Some are huge, a fisher’s dream catch. In fact, Needham explained, that’s where many of these fish came from.

“Fisherman can donate their catch to the aquarium, and that’s how we got some of them,” he said.

In 2009, a South Carolina angler made national news when he donated a catfish weighing more than 100 pounds to the aquarium. It was only ounces smaller than the state record – big enough, one blogger wrote, “to eat my toddler.”

Moving the fish required a major logistical operation, and Needham provided transportation in a special tank in the back of his pickup truck.

The aquarium’s main viewing area is the vast expanse of glass in the front, where the fish gather to ogle Needham and cruise majestically back and forth. The best viewing spots, though, are hidden at each end.

The round viewport at the tank’s far left is my favorite. When I visited, two little boys had their noses pressed to the glass there, fascinated by the long-nosed gars, prehistoric-looking fish with toothy snouts. Jethro, one of the gars, is the oldest fish in the aquarium, Needham said.

Recently retired from his work as an emergency medical technician, Needham is like a doting parent in his role as Bass Pro Shops’ aquarist. He dons a wet suit to clean the tank, being very careful about the diet of his fish, and knowing every fish by name.

“We feed them a diverse and healthy diet,” Needham said, “With gel food, dry food, shrimp. I really need to watch their fat levels. The only time they get gold trout, which are really fatty, is for Thanksgiving and Christmas.”

With their good diet and conscientious care, the fish usually behave pretty well, but not always.

“These are wild fish,” Needham said, “and we will have a few skirmishes from time to time. Feeding frenzy can take place, too.

“There was one time when a crappie gobbled down a minnow, and a big old bass gobbled down the crappie, just like that.”

Needham also pays attention to the health of the fish, especially his older charges. Sadly shaking his head, Needham tells me one old walleye “has got cataracts real bad.” Then the aquarist got a far-away glint in his eye.

“Hmm, maybe I need to go up to Lake James and catch a couple more,” he said.

As an EMT Needham even took fish to the operating room.

The aquarium project draws on technical support from N.C. State University and the University of Florida, as well as North Carolina’s Wildlife Resources Commission, a state agency.

In one memorable case, Needham drove a gigantic donated bass to N.C. State for surgery, after its jaw was torn when it was held up for photos. Using a piscatorial operating table, veterinary surgeons were able to repair the damage as he watched.

Needham is especially proud of some unusual residents in the tank this year. By carefully helping them adapt to fresh water, he has introduced two red drums and a black drum, popular North Carolina saltwater game fish.

He’s named the adapting fish in honor of famous brands of percussion instruments beloved by rock ’n’ roll bands: One of the red drums is called “Ludwig,” after a classic brand of drum sets.

Many saltwater fish can adapt to fresh water, he said, even the nasty tempered bull shark. (Let’s hope none of those finds its way to Lake Norman.)

Needham is not concerned about a potential competitor, a 30,000-square-foot saltwater Sea Life aquarium planned for Concord Mills. Construction is expected to begin next month in the former site of the NASCAR Speedpark. That aquarium is scheduled to open in spring 2014.

The new aquarium will be created and managed by Merlin Entertainments, a United Kingdom-based firm best known for its global network of such classic tourist temptations as Madame Tussaud’s, Legoland and other attractions, including spa-type resorts and spooky restored dungeons, as well as aquariums.

“They will be salt water,” Needham said. “We’ve got native fresh water fish.”

Although Needham didn’t point it out, Sea Life will charge admission, while Bass Pro’s tank is free. Of course, you can pay all you’d like to purchase just about any conceivable lure, line, hook or sinker at Bass Pro’s fishing section, located conveniently right next to the tank.