Road Trip: The Tennessee Aquarium, Chattanooga, TN

04/03/2017 6:52 PM | Ron Presley (Administrator)

There are aquariums and then there are aquariums. A transplant from Florida helped make the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga, TN a world class facility. The poor guy actually had to catch fish on rod and reel to help stock the growing attraction.

Rob Mottice is a senior aquarist at the Tennessee Aquarium. “I was working at Sea World of Florida in Orlando when I received a phone call from my former boss,” offered Mottice. “He was the director of the National Aquarium in Baltimore where I helped with the biological design on the startup team. He says, ‘I just got the presidency of the Tennessee Aquarium and you were one of the first people I thought of to come up here and help put this thing together.’”

Mottice’s response was a resounding yes. “I said, Bill, my bag is packed,” reported Mottice. “The timing was perfect and I joined the team in 91, one year before the aquarium opened to the general public.”

Rob was mostly in charge of catching and stocking a lot of the native freshwater fish that would be placed on display. “We used all kinds of methods,” said Mottice. “We used rods and reels, nets and even electro fishing. I was getting paid to go fishing.”

An aquarist is a fancy terminology for a fish biologist,” explained Mottice. “Officially we are aquatic biologists, which covers both fish and vertebra. Because we work for an aquarium we are labeled as aquarist instead of biologist. It’s just industry terminology.”

Of interest to anglers is the things they can learn about fish from a visit to the aquarium and viewing them in the tanks. “Anglers can learn about fish by observing their general behavior in the tanks,” instructed Mottice. “Especially during feeding time, you can get a good feel for how the native freshwater fish that we have on display here behave under certain conditions.”

He gave an example related to blue catfish. “For instance, you read in the scientific literature that blues will mostly stay hold up during the day and come out at night to hunt and forage. However, what I see here on display, is that our blue catfish are always swimming, always on the move. They don’t hold up anywhere like flatheads do.”

“A flathead will just stay on the bottom,” continued the aquarist. “Flatheads will find a brush pile, dig themselves in and stay there until they come out to feed. I suspect it’s no different in their native environment.”

Mottice was actually quite surprised when he observed flatheads in the aquarium. He was recalling the myths from the literature that he had read which said you have to fish for flatheads at night and you have to use live bait.

“On the flatheads, I was shocked to see their behavior,” stated Mottice. “It contradicted a lot of what I had read and it does not hold up in the aquarium. When it is feeding time, they smell the chunks of food and they come out. No matter how much light is above them or around them, the flatheads respond to the food.”

“In natural habitat, the big cats know that most of the smaller species of fish seek cover at night near the shoreline,” explained Mottice. “That is where they were born and they are imprinted on that area of their environment. They know there is some good cover where they can go at night to feel safe and rest. The big flatheads will come out at night because the food is there. They head for the shores and adjacent flats, leaving the brush piles and log jams where they hold up during the day. They know those small fish are in there sleeping. They know where their food source is.”

Mottice cannot say if his observations are a learned behavior or instinct, but it may be the scientific explanation for why the myth of fishing for catfish at night began.

Savvy flathead anglers validate Mottice’s observations. Joey Pounders and Jay Gallop follow the tournament trails in search of the whiskered critters. They are considered by their peers as expert flathead anglers. They do not believe the old adage that flatheads must be fished at night.

 “It's just that at night they tend to shallow up and bite in areas where there is a high concentration of shad,” offered Pounders. “Many people that run trot lines and set poles do very well at night because of this. These methods are usually used in shallow water; therefore, people believe the ‘night bite’ is better, but in truth it's just better for them due to their strategy.”

“I have heard flatheads feed at night all my life,” added Gallop. “I have caught a few at night, but I don't think the bite is any better than during the day. They will eat when they get ready.”

When you observe, flatheads tucked down under a log, on the bottom, in the aquarium, you know that is where you need to present your bait when you’re fishing. Seeing the blues roaming all over the tank, at different depths in the water column, is an indication that you should use variable presentations to pattern them on any given day.

Mottice also served up a pretty good tip for catfish anglers targeting one species or the other near tailwaters. “Maybe the best opportunity is at night, but you can catch them in the daylight hours too. It is more of a locational thing than day or night.”

“The blues like the tailwaters of dams because there is a lot of bait being churned up in the turbines and distributed below the dam. Flatheads don’t like fast moving water so they will seek out areas close to the spillway, the tailwaters, because they know the food source is greatest there. However, unlike the blues, they seek out the quieter pools close to the spillway. They do not want to be affected by the current.”

Learning by observing applies to panfish too. “Anglers can learn a lot just by seeing what goes on during the course of a day,” said Mottice. “If you are going for crappie or anything else in the panfish family, you can observe them in the aquarium. You can watch the crappie in the aquarium and see them go up to a piling or brush pile and just set there. It looks like they are staring at the structure. So, when you’re crappie fishing and find a dock or a brush pile you want to cast up close to the cover. That’s where they are likely to be.”

“When we feed these guys, their behavior will change dramatically,” concluded Mottice. “You can see them starting to circle the wagons about 30 minutes before the diver enters the tank to feed. They know the food bag is coming, they are going to get fed. Circling the wagons is a learned behavior, but catfish have chemo receptors where they pick up the scent through their whiskers. When there is food around, they know it. They are going to get their groceries!”

Learn more about the Tennessee Aquarium by visiting their website at

Learn more about the Chattanooga area by visiting

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