The Habits of Successful Tropical Fish Hobbyists (Part 1) | Details | Articles

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Issue: April 2007

Author: Mike Hellweg

HELL 0407
Photographer: Jay Luto

The authors explore the theories and practicalities of brine shrimp hatching, using their own research to test previously published reports.

I have enjoyed the hobby of keeping and breeding tropical fish since the early 1970s and have learned many things about fishkeeping over the years. One of the most important lessons I have learned is that there is always more to learn! Another is that it’s almost as much fun to share experiences and knowledge as it is to learn in the first place. I haven’t given a talk yet where I haven’t learned at least one new thing from someone in the audience.

My first real tank way back then was a 10-gallon stainless steel framed tank, with no cover (those were too expensive!) and a very noisy vibrator air pump hooked up to a small box filter. The whole thing—including a little booklet, some multicolored gravel, two horrible looking plastic plants, fish food, and a dechlorinator tablet—cost my parents all of five dollars.

Like many hobbyists back then, I got most of my fish from department stores. That’s right, all of the department stores sold fish! Our local dime store even had a huge pet department covering four aisles with more than four dozen tanks. I had only limited success until a real pet shop opened up within a short bike ride from home. I was only 9 or 10 at the time. The owners were a young married couple who liked fish, and lots of other animals. It was like a zoo close to home! And they liked, or at least tolerated, the neighborhood kids (even me) hanging around and asking questions, especially on allowance day when we had money to buy fish!

Why am I going down memory lane? Well, that couple, especially Dave, got me started with many of the habits I’ve been successfully using for the past three decades, some of which I wish to pass on to you. Over the years I’ve picked up more habits from personal experience and from other successful hobbyists.

No two hobbyists do things exactly the same way, often resulting in a lot of confusion for the newcomer. But in talking to other advanced and successful hobbyists I’ve been able to distill their disparate practices down to the habits listed below. In spite of their different approaches to solving the same problems, I’ve found that no matter what type of fish they keep, almost all of them practice most, if not all, of these same habits.

I have taught numerous non-hobbyists to keep fish. I have set up tanks for them, given them this list of habits to develop, shown them what to do, and then let them go on their own. I’m always there to answer questions, but they do everything else themselves. And every one of them who has followed this list has become a successful hobbyist.


The most important habit is what you are already doing right now: Read. When I was young, my parents got me interested in reading about fish even before I got my first aquarium. Before I could read, my Mom would read to me about fish and other animals. When I was a bit older, my Dad used to take me to the library a couple of times a month. I’m sure he had things he would rather have been doing, but it got me started, and I’m very grateful to him for spending that time with me. Do the same. Read everything you can get your hands on about the types of fish you are interested in. And do it before you buy the fish.

Nowadays we are blessed with all types of written materials, excellent and informative magazines like the one you are reading, books, videos, DVDs, and even the Internet. Learn from other’s experiences, and let them make the mistakes for you. Take advantage of the fact that someone else took the time to put their experiences in writing. There is no sense in you killing fish just because you were too stubborn to spend a little time reading about them first. For example, you will learn from reading that the cute little oscar you just bought won’t stay cute and little, but will instead quickly outgrow your 2-gallon desktop tank into a 12- to 14-inch pet with a great “personality” that eats and eats and eats.

A lack of information is my number one pet peeve, and it is a killer of thousands of fish every year. I cringe when uninformed people say something like “I know it’s a small tank, but the fish will only grow to the size of their container.” This popular myth, by the way, isn’t true. Their growth will be stunted and slow, and they’ll live a miserable life, but they will continue to grow. Learn about the types of fishes that you like and become the “expert.” There are even entire books devoted to certain groups of fish, such as cichlids. And, if you aren’t willing to spend a little money on a book, or can’t afford it right now, do what I did when I started in the hobby. Go to the library and read one of their books. That’s why they are there. That, by the way is another pet peeve. People think nothing of spending 25 dollars or more on a fish they know nothing about, but those same people are repulsed by the idea of spending that same 25 dollars on a book that would tell them about that fish and help them care for it. Amazing, isn’t it?

One of the best pieces of advice I can give you is this: If you only buy one fish book, find a copy of the classic Exotic Aquarium Fishes by William T. Innes, who is often referred to as the “Father of the Modern Aquarium Hobby.” This masterpiece was written in 1935 and was first self-published by Innes. Since then it has been reprinted in more than a dozen different editions by several different publishing houses. You can find copies at used book sales for just a few dollars, and a brand new copy should set you back only 15 or 20 dollars. But most of the information is both timeless and priceless. I own and have read more than 600 fish-related books, and I still think this is one of the all-time greats. The reason this book has been reprinted so many times and is still around (the most recent edition by T.F.H. Publications was published in 1994) is that most of the information is still valid; it is still one of the best.

You can even look up fishy information on the Internet. But if I may, let me give you one word of caution. Be wary of what you read online, especially in chat rooms and on forums. I suggest you could better spend your time reading from a book. I consider chat rooms the “trashy tabloid” of the Internet. Most of the time, you have no real idea who is on the other end. And not every webpage has the best or most accurate information. Just because there is a pretty website with lots of pretty pictures and charts does not mean that the content is correct. Try to stay with sites and forums moderated and run by the major national magazines and clubs [such as TFH’s official web forum,—Eds.] and you should be okay. Check the information with several different sources. Just remember that anyone can open a webpage.

Call me old-fashioned, but I still recommend checking with books and magazines. There are rigid standards applied to real publishing, as opposed to web publishing, which has no real universal standards. Editors check articles and books, and a good author will have someone more knowledgeable read through the writing before it’s published. After all, they are willing to put their name on what they are writing, and it will still be there to refer to tomorrow.

Stock Lightly

After you have learned all there is to know from reading about them, the next and most difficult habit to learn is to stock your tank lightly. Just about every book I have ever seen has a formula or guide as to how many fish you can cram into a tank or pond. Just because you can cram them in there doesn’t mean that you should. Learn from nature. Sit by the bank of a lake or stream for a little while. If you can, do some snorkeling, you’ll see a lot of water and you won’t see many fish in relation to the amount of water. Even though they may occur in huge schools in the wild, the total fish mass in a natural setting is much smaller than even the most sparsely stocked tank. So take the cue—stock lightly.

Use a Drip Line

A very useful habit is using a drip line to acclimate new fish. Don’t float them in their little bag. Pour the fish and the water they came in into a “fish only” small bucket or similar container. Get a length of micro size air tubing and make a small drip line from the quarantine tank to the bucket. Let it slowly drip down into the bucket. Run the tubing through an air valve or kink it with a rubber band wrapped around the kink to control the flow. This allows the fish to slowly acclimate to your water. If there isn’t enough water in the fish bag to cover them in the bottom of the bucket, put them into a smaller container in the bucket, and let it slowly overflow into the bucket. Once the fish are in water that is mostly yours, gently net them out of the bucket and place them into the quarantine tank. Never add the wastewater to your quarantine tank. Which brings us to the next good habit you should pick up, if you haven’t already…

Use a Quarantine Tank

The next habit is so obvious that it should be considered a basic that everyone should know. Even though many preach it, very few hobbyists actually do it. I’ve even occasionally rushed myself and not followed this rule. Sometimes you get lucky, sometimes you don’t. Don’t depend on luck. Learn from zoos and public aquaria, they always quarantine, even for feeders. Use a quarantine tank for all of your new acquisitions. Never add new fish, even from a friend, to an established tank, always quarantine them for at least a couple of weeks in a separate tank. Observe them closely, feed them well, and then, only when you are certain they are not carrying any diseases, add them to the existing tank.

I don’t know how many times I have heard stories of how the new fish killed all of the others with some disease it brought along with it. I’ve even experienced it myself when I thought I knew the source of the fish was safe and wound up introducing something nasty into an established tank. For some reason it always seems to happen with the most valuable fish. Why take the chance? A quarantine tank can be as simple as a plastic sweater box with a sponge or box filter and a couple of pieces of PVC pipe in it—or it can be as elaborate as you want it to be. I really like the plastic tanks with the snap-on ventilated tops. The new fish will be scared and stressed, and scared fish jump, mostly when you don’t expect them to. The snap-on lid helps prevent a disaster. The quarantine tank can double as a fry tank or even as a breeding tank. When empty, they nest inside one another, so they don’t take up much storage space and can be stored away and set up only when needed. Whichever you choose, use something, and quarantine all new fish.

Do Regular Water Changes

A very important habit that so many of us have trouble keeping up on is performing regular water changes. They don’t have to be huge, they don’t have to take all day on your only day off, but they should be on a regular schedule. Any water change is better than no water change at all. Weekly changes are better than only once a month, both for you and for the fish. And if you’re going to do one bucket, why not two? It won’t take much longer, and the fish will really appreciate it. While you are changing the water, clean the filter. It won’t add much more time, and that will ensure it is always performing at peak efficiency.

The key is to get in the habit of doing it regularly, every 5 to 7 days. If you can do more, then do more, but don’t do less. Too many fishkeepers try to get by with the minimum. They look to chemicals, filters, etc. to cover for their lack of desire to do anything more. If you feel that way, why even keep fish? The fish need and deserve this minimum of care. In my opinion, failure to do water changes is no different from chaining up a dog in a small area where it has to wallow in its own waste. Doing this to a dog is considered by most people to be cruelty or even animal abuse, and failure to do water changes is no less cruel to the fish.

Make it as easy as possible on yourself, and you’ll be more likely to follow through and do what needs to be done. I would recommend using a gravel vacuum, which removes fish waste and other debris from the gravel. They come in all types and sizes. Ask your pet dealer what size you need for your tank. Water changes can be made very easy by using a gravel vacuum that attaches to a faucet and eliminates the need for buckets. Purchasing one of these is probably one of the best investments you could make (next to a good book).

Water changes are important because an aquarium is essentially a “closed” system. That means that nothing (more correctly, very little) gets into or out of it without our intervention. That includes waste products, hormones, decaying excess food and missed dead fish, etc. Adding water to make up for evaporation only increases the amount of dissolved substances in the water. It does nothing to remove the buildup—for that you have to do a water change.

I am not a biochemist, so what follows is purposely oversimplified and directed toward other non-biochemists.

We often hear and read about the nitrogen cycle, but what is usually described is not really a complete cycle. It is a natural process, a part of a cycle, but not a complete cycle. Let me explain. You start the cycle by first adding the fish and then the food. Fish eat and digest the food. Decay bacteria directly consume what they miss. Fish excrete ammonia in the form of urea and also solid fecal matter. These waste products are the basis for the nitrogen breakdown process. Next, other bacteria convert the waste products to ammonium, a toxic (to fish) chemical which is either used by aquatic plants or processed by more bacteria. If plants utilize it, it becomes plant tissue. Excess nitrogen can then be removed from the tank by trimming the plants. If the bacteria process it, it becomes nitrite. Nitrite is still very toxic to fish and aquatic plants generally don’t prefer to use it. So yet another type of bacteria breaks it down further. The “end” product here is nitrate, which, while usually much less so, is still toxic to fish.

For this to be a complete cycle, the nitrate would have to be changed to nitrogen gas, which would become a component of food for the fish and then be fed to the fish. The cycle would then start over. But most writers leave off at nitrates, stating that the plants will use them, or you can remove them with water changes. Both are correct. Plants do need nitrogen, but most true aquatic plants prefer to get their nitrogen from ammonium and will only take up nitrate as a last resort. It takes energy for aquatic plants to break nitrate down into useful nitrogen. Like us, they prefer to take the easiest route to food. In a heavily planted tank this is a moot point as there is most likely very little, if any bacterial breakdown of ammonium. The large quantity of aquatic plants are using it before the bacteria can get it, and sometimes the aquarist will have to add a nitrogen source to the tank for the plants to have enough to meet their needs.

To complete the cycle in a planted tank, the fish would then need to eat the plants. In most aquaria, though, we try to avoid this. So we need to step in to complete the cycle and remove the nitrogen by removing some of the plant mass, trimming back stem plants, scooping off floating plants, and removing dead leaves. But even heavily planted tanks will still need regular water changes to add back nutrients and remove other waste materials the plants don’t utilize and chemicals the plants release.

In a standard fish-only or mostly fish tank, you will need to get rid of the nitrates and finish the cycle by doing water changes. Remember that you started it by adding the fish and food. Complete it. Do regular water changes.

Spend a little time practicing these habits and they’ll become second nature. You’ll be well on your way to becoming a successful tropical fish hobbyist. In part two of this series, we’ll look at some more habits that hobbyists can develop as they advance in the hobby.

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