by TFH Staff on November 18, 2009 at 5:16 pm
photographs by Mike Hellweg except as noted
Anyone who reads this magazine somewhat regularly will no doubt recognize the name Mike Hellweg. Mike’s writings appear in Tropical Fish Hobbyist and many other publications. He is a lifelong aquarium hobbyist, an expert breeder, and an aquatic horticulturist who shares his knowledge at clubs and conventions. He has one book out now, and a second will be released later this year. It all began with a single goldfish.
Beginning and Growing in the Hobby
In 1966, at the age of three, a young Mike Hellweg was with his mother at the local drug store. She let him look at the wall of metal-framed fish tanks while she waited for a prescription to be filled. Mike was mesmerized by the beautiful colors and gliding shapes of the goldfish and a few tropicals. He convinced his mother to let him have a small fantail goldfish and a 2-gallon bowl with a ceramic pagoda (the latter of which he said he still has). The clerk told him that goldfish needed live plants to thrive, so Mike also went home with a few sprigs of Anacharis. That last bit of advice remains with him to this day.
For several years he kept goldfish. At age six he got his first tropical fish, fancy male guppies, and Mike would sit by their bowl and reverently watch them.
When he was nine years old, Mike got his first glass box: A coverless, 10-gallon, stainless-steel tank with a small box filter, a noisy air pump, and some—in his words—hideous pink and blue gravel. The first residents of his new prized possession were black mollies and green swordtails. One of the swordtails was female and gravid, and Mike saw her drop her fry. This event sparked his curiosity. A nearby pet store told Mike that if he raised the fry, he could trade them in for supplies and other fish. Gladly accepting the challenge, he raised the swordtail fry and traded them in for food, cory cats, and zebra danios. “It took off from there,” Mike said.
In high school he worked to buy his own tanks. When he got married he had about 30 tanks in his parents’ basement. By now he was regularly breeding fish. Mike would go around to several pet shops a few days every month trading his fish for supplies, food, other fish, and books.
Mike and his wife had several tanks scattered around their first apartment. They then moved to a townhouse, where the second bedroom became the unofficial fishroom. When they were looking for a house, one of the prerequisites was a big basement that could be converted into a fishroom. They found just what they were looking for, and Mike’s fishroom has been growing and thriving ever since.
After Mike met Angela, his future wife, one of her friends invited them to come see a Missouri Aquarium Society, Inc. (MASI) show. “I saw fish I’d only read about in books at the show, so of course I had to join,” he said. Mike has been a member of MASI for nearly 25 years.
While working in MASI’s breeder program, Mike recorded over 100 first-time spawns. According to Mike, these are species that to the best of everyone’s knowledge had not been spawned in aquaria. In total he has convinced 250 species to spawn.
Mike believes the three keys to being a successful breeder are water changes, keeping live plants, and feeding live foods. “These simulate the fish’s natural environment as much as is possible in the home aquarium, especially if you’re keeping any smaller predatory animals,” he said.
He’d read about the benefits of live foods growing up, and a pet store clerk once told him that if he wanted fish to be happy and healthy, he had to offer them baby brine shrimp. He still practices this too. “As I’m telling you this, I’m going around feeding brine shrimp to the fish,” he said to me over the phone.
Mike volunteered to start and run his club’s plant propagation program. Until this point he only kept plants commonly found in stores—anacharis, Cabomba, and Vallisneria. “Once you start something like this, everyone automatically assumes you know everything about plants,” he said. “So I had to learn.”
He got any and all available plant books and read them cover-to-cover three to four times. He hunted down new plant species to keep and learned how to propagate them. “I was forced to become an expert,” he said. In total he’s propagated over 200 plant species, becoming one of MASI’s first Grand Master Horticulturists. He added, “This was all before the Internet, so finding information wasn’t as easy as it is now. It involved real research, not clicking buttons on the Web.”
In the mid-1990s, Mike gave a few plant talks to his club. News of these talks traveled, and a few clubs around the Midwest invited him to speak. Since then, Mike has spoken at local clubs in 33 states and Canada. He’s also given talks on multiple topics at regional and national conventions, including the Northeast Council of Aquarium Societies and the American Livebearer Association.
Working with Words
About a year after joining MASI, Mike wrote his first article for the club’s newsletter, The Darter. That piece grew into a column titled “Mini Fins,” which ran for about four years. Mike has been writing for The Darter on and off ever since.
While attending various shows and conventions and intermittently publishing work in other magazines, Mike met former TFH columnist Lee Finley. Lee encouraged Mike to write down his experiences. This led to Mike’s first article for this magazine in November 2000, “Sphaerichthys osphromenoides: Care and Breeding Notes on the Chocolate Gourami.” Mike began writing more and more, leading to online columns and features. He also appears regularly in these pages and others, publishing articles on assorted fish and plant species, filtration, historical perspectives on the hobby, and more.
Mike’s prolificacy bore new fruit when he channeled his years of experience for his first book, the well-received Culturing Live Foods (T.F.H. Publications, 2008). In it he provides simple, step-by-step instructions on how to cultivate these foods, everything from brine shrimp to worms to snails to protozoans, and much more.
Not stopping with just fish, a second live foods book, Raising Live Foods, is due out this year in T.F.H. Publications’ Complete Herp Care series. Yes, Mike has also kept and raised herps—primarily amphibians. And yes, other book projects are being brainstormed.
A group of Mike’s rare rainbowfish Bedotia madagrascariensis.
Mike’s writings are mostly based on his own experiences, but he does reference other sources. His personal library contains over 650 books, with publication dates ranging from the mid-1800s to this year. Seven are saltwater titles, and the rest are freshwater—yet of all the freshwater books he owns, only about 50 are on cichlids. I found this fact to be quite impressive, given the prevalence of books on and the popularity of the family Cichlidae. It truly shows his dedication to this hobby to collect such a variety of titles from different time periods and publishing houses on so many different aquatic charges. Mike credits Lee Finley (Finley Aquatic Books) and Mike Schadle (The Fish Factory) for helping him build his library. “My wife calls them my suppliers,” he said with a laugh.
Of the non-cichlid freshwater titles, about 100 books are on aquatic plants; 50 to 55 are Fishes of… titles from various states and countries from around the world; 30 to 35 are on diseases and anatomy; and 40 are on breeding. The remaining books are divided between groups of fishes (killies, characins, rasboras, etc.), encyclopedia-type references, and general aquarium topics.
He’s been seriously building his library ever since he was a teenager, but it all started when he got his first fish book—Enjoy Your Cichlids by Rosario La Corte (Pet Library Ltd, 1967)—at around seven or eight years old. “It talked about breeding, raising fry, water changes, and all that,” Mike said. “It’s my base source of a lot of my practices. Since then I’ve acquired more La Corte books, but the biggest thrill was when he signed that book for me a few years ago at a convention.”
Mike’s basement fishroom now consists of 74 tanks, all freshwater save for two: One brackish tank houses the little rainbowfish Pseudomugil cyanodorsalis, and the other is a small saltwater tank with dwarf seahorses Hippocampus zosterae. The majority of the tanks are 20 and 30 gallons. A few are 10 gallons and are solely for breeding purposes. He also has two 75-gallon and several 40-gallon display tanks.
The fishroom has a double-U setup—a U inverted inside another U. The tanks sit on racks made from two-by-fours, most three tiers high. Each tank is drilled and has an overflow that runs to a floor drain. Four 50-gallon drums, all plumbed together with a water pump, hold water for water changes (every tank gets 50 percent once a week, fry tanks every day or every other day).
All tanks receive light from ordinary shop fixtures and a few homemade power compact lights mounted in rain-gutter hoods. He doesn’t use heaters. “The fishroom is insulated, and for most of the year the heat and AC systems keep it at a good temperature,” he said. Mike also added an exhaust fan hooked to a humidistat. When humidity gets to 50 percent, the fan turns on and takes the humidity outside. Mike has sponge filters in his tanks almost exclusively, except for the display tanks, which have power filters. Electricity comes into the fishroom on four separate circuits, color coded to make it easy to see what is on each line.
To further simplify things, the fishroom’s equipment is standardized. All bulkhead overflows are the same size, and all filters are from the same manufacturer. That way if something were to break or leak, there are always interchangeable spare parts available.
“Just about everything I’ve kept or bred has been 4 inches or less,” Mike said. He’s always been fascinated with small things. When he used to build model trains, he worked with N-scale models, some of the smallest available. “Plus,” he added with a chuckle, “with smaller species you can get more tanks into the fishroom.”
He primarily has a lot of livebearers, tetras, barbs, anabantoids, and cory cats, as well as many of the Apistogramma and Pelvicachromis cichlids. And, of course, a complement of live foods. “I usually have about eight different types of live foods going at any one time.” Currently he’s culturing daphnia, whiteworms, Grindal worms, blackworms, Moina, vinegar eels, paramecia, and two different types of flour beetles, “and baby brine shrimp every day,” he said.
As mentioned earlier, Mike keeps his fish with live plants. Each tank has some type of plant in it: Java moss, Java fern, water sprite, and potted crypts, vals, and swords.
Mike does have favorites. One that stands out in particular is his tank of the Lake Tanganyikan shell-dwelling cichlid Neolamprologus multifasciatus. Ever since he first laid eyes on this species, he’s loved it. Overall he’s been keeping this fish for 20 years, and he currently has a colony that’s been going strong for more than a decade. “It’s one of those tanks that you can sit down in front of and watch for hours,” he said. “Something is always going on to keep you fascinated.”
Other favorites include a couple of his wild bettas—Betta channoides and B. albimarginata—and a recent addition to the fishroom, Barbus candens, an African barb.
There are also two notorious residents that, and I quote, “drive [him] crazy.” The first is a goodeid, Chapalichthys pardalis. Mike said that friends tease him about how easy the species is to breed. It took five attempts until he finally got fry. “They just constantly give me trouble,” he said.
The second is another African barb, Barbus fasciolatus. He has kept them several times and has gotten them to spawn, but the fry never last more than four or five weeks. “Right now they look fat and happy,” he said. “But just wait. I’ve probably jinxed myself.”
Valliant chocolate gouramis Sphaerichthys vaillanti occupy one of Mike’s tanks.
Mike hopes to one day open his own fish store, but that idea has been put on hold because of the current economy. For now he runs Exotic Aquatics, a mail-order business out of his fishroom. He’s started a website (www.minifins.com) for his business, but right now only contact information is listed. He took a web design course, and now he just needs to find the time to create the truly interactive site he envisions it being.
In the meantime, Mike will continue doing what he does best: breeding fish, speaking at clubs, talking with anyone who comes to him for help or just to chat, and writing. We can all benefit from his knowledge.