Scuba diving! Heated pools! Giant catfish! This is Athens?
I went to Athens to check out Ray Price’s tour bus. Of course, Ray wasn’t in this particular bus, since it broke down long ago and now sits at the bottom of a 35-foot-deep, eight-acre reservoir at Athens Scuba Park, along with a triple-decker houseboat, a space capsule, a military transport jet, and dozens of other wrecks. Left on land, such machinery is junk. Sunk in a former clay quarry that closed more than half a century ago, such machinery is an adventure. At least that’s how avid scuba diver Calvin Wilcher saw it in 1987 when he and his wife, Shannon, bought what had become a de facto dump, hauled off the hundreds of refrigerators, couches, and chunks of concrete that littered the area, and hauled in classier castoffs that attract hordes of divers to this landlocked setting.
My diving experiences over the past twenty years have focused on tropical fish and coral reefs, so the novelty of the park’s man-made denizens was particularly alluring. But on the nippy spring day I was there, I couldn’t decide if I wanted to rent gear from the park’s top-notch dive shop and take the plunge myself. Sure, the water’s blue color spoke Caribbean, but its chilly temperature and lack of clarity after recent rains did not. As I stood on a pier arguing with my wool-sweatered, toasty self, three divers bubbled up right in front of me, out of nowhere. One slipped off her face mask and exclaimed, as though I’d asked, “The visibility is only eight feet! And it’s freezing! And I have on two wet suits!” I’d imagined many things lurking in that quarry, but not the voice of common sense. I vowed to return when the water was warmer (in the 80’s, come midsummer) and the visibility improved (35 feet on average, though it has been known to reach 70 feet).
In the meantime, I discovered that Athens, despite its prairie locale about an hour southeast of Dallas, boasts other watery attractions better suited to—let’s face it—a wuss. Take the Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center, an ichthyological playground that sprawls across more than a hundred acres on Lake Athens. Here you can borrow a rod and reel and play catch-and-release with catfish and sunfish in teeny Lake Zebco, although I had just as much fun watching—from a safe distance—scoutmasters and parents barking warnings and dodging inadvertent attacks from the hook-wielding youngsters in their charge.
Of the center’s many aquariums showcasing nearly every Texas native freshwater fish, my favorite held a school of two-foot-long channel catfish that swarmed the glass when I approached. I felt as if I were Britney and they were the paparazzi, wiggling their Snidely Whiplash whiskers and shouting endearments from the other side of my soundproof limo windows. I reveled in the attention until I noticed the fish-food dispenser behind me and realized they were saying, “Put a quarter in it, lady. Come on, put a quarter in it.”
Two dollars in fish food later, I slipped off to the auditorium to catch another feeding taking place in a stagelike 26,000-gallon aquarium. During the show, a scuba diver, wired for sound and bearing treats of live bait and stinky dead stuff, shared fun facts about his co-stars, like how catfish use those whiskers to taste their food before they eat it. The diver seemed at ease among the variety of intense yet polite diners, even the longnose gar named Fingers, who’s prone to accidentally biting the hand that feeds him, and two blue catfish as big as legends, with milky eyes, silk-velvet skin, and mail slots for mouths.
Although I was happy to get my scuba kicks vicariously that day, I still yearned to make a splash firsthand. And presto, wish granted, via the nearby Cain Center, which includes a stellar athletic facility, the likes of which few towns the size of Athens can boast (and, no matter where they are, seldom open their doors to day-tripping nonmembers). For five bucks, I had the run of the whirlpool, two saunas, and, most important, the seven-lane pool. It’s big (25 meters), deep (up to 12 feet), crystal clear, and indoors, with a wall of windows overlooking a park complete with jogging trail, fishing pond, and disc golf course. There were no wrecks to explore, but the water did speak to me the moment I dove in. It said, “I’m heated.”
Athens Scuba Park
Open Wed–Fri 10–5, Sat & Sun 8–6. Closed Mon & Tue. $15 per person, plus rental fees. 500 N. Murchison, 903-675-5762 or athensscubapark.com.
Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center
Open Tue–Sat 9–4, Sun 1–4. Closed Mon. Adults $5.50, seniors $4.50, and children $3.50. 5550 FM 2495, 903-676-2277 or tpwd.state.tx.us/tffc.
Open Mon–Fri 5 a.m.–9 p.m., Sat 9–6, Sun 1–6. $5 per person. 915 S. Palestine, 903-677-2001 or caincenter.cjb.net.
While You’re in the Neighborhood
After such close encounters with such personable fish, you might balk at eating them. But the fried catfish at the Lake Athens Marina Restaurant is so fresh and crispy you’ll have no problem swallowing your qualms along with your meal. If nothing else, at least go for a piece of the homemade chocolate meringue pie and the view of forest-fringed Lake Athens. 5401 Marina Drive (next to the Fisheries Center), 903-677-8774 or lakeathensmarina.com.