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Bringing ‘Em Back Alive

by TFH Magazine on February 22, 2013 at 8:02 am

By R. Shane Linder

Photographs by the author

From the March 2013 Issue

Of all the fishes that I have maintained over the years, it is not hard to decide which were my favorites. My favorite fishes have always been anything that I have collected from the wild myself! From madtoms in Virginia, to mollies in Florida, to Ancistrus in Venezuela, I have always had a special appreciation for those fishes that I actually went out, caught, and brought back alive to my fishroom. Collecting your own aquarium fish creates a bond between the aquarist and the fish because the aquarist knows the fish in a way that one can never know a fish brought from a store. You know where the fish came from, what its habitat looks like, what other species share the same habitat, and how to replicate all of this in a true to life biotope. So if you are ready to bring ‘em back alive, here are all of the instructions that you will need. This article covers planning, equipment, collecting techniques, transportation, and adjusting fish to captive conditions based on my experiences from Maryland to Ecuador, and a few places between.


The first step is always deciding where to collect, and planning begins with a good map of the area. What specific creek, pond, or river do you want to reach? Are there any roads that allow access to the area? Is the area private property? How far will you have to walk to get to the location? All of these are important questions that must be answered before you pack a single net.

Sadly, you also need to determine if the water is too polluted for collecting. Follow the creek or river upstream on the map. Are there any major towns along its course? If there are, there is a good chance that the water will be polluted. Always look for collecting locations upstream of population centers. If the area is bordered by private property, always get permission before collecting. I have found that the majority of landowners are usually happy to let you collect on their own property as long as you ask first.

Alternatively, you may decide to travel to some exotic locale with a professional tour company. In this case you are lucky, as they will take care of most of the logistics. However, do not stop reading here even if you plan to utilize a professional company, because these companies specialize in tours, not catching fish, and catching fish is decidedly your goal. Once you have decided where to collect, it is time to get the equipment together.

Personal Equipment

For safety’s sake, the most important thing you can do is take along a friend. When collecting, the more people the merrier, especially if you should get your vehicle stuck or someone should become injured. If you are collecting in an area where there is cellular coverage, I also highly recommend bringing along a cell phone.

Dress appropriately for the climate and always pack an extra set of clothes. More often than not, you will fall in the water or need to swim in order to collect in a certain area. A nice set of dry clothes for the ride home, especially if it is a long drive, is very important. A clean, dry towel also always comes in handy, as does a good hat to protect your head and neck from the sun. The final and most important clothing item is shoes. Sandals are fine for some environments, but I prefer something that protects the entire foot and ankle and cannot be pulled from your feet in thick mud. The two best options are a pair of thick-soled neoprene reef booties or an old pair of high-top canvas tennis shoes. Whatever you choose, it should stay firmly attached and protect the foot and ankle from sharp sticks, rocks, and broken glass, and hold up through repeated soakings.

Also, do not forget to bring along an extra pair of dry shoes or sandals for the ride home. Lastly, pack plenty of sunscreen, bug repellant, food, and drinking water. Bug spray is key because while mosquitoes may not kill you, they can make you very miserable.

Collecting Equipment

Large seine nets will require two or more people to operate them.

A good seine net is the single most important piece of collecting equipment. A 4-foot by 4-foot seine is ideal for individual use, but larger seines require two or more people to operate. The seine should be firmly attached to two wooden poles (known as brails) for ease of use. Also bring a large and small dip net. Dip netting with a large net is a good technique in heavy aquatic vegetation while the small, aquarium-size dip net is used to sort the catch in the field. Wire minnow traps, available from most sporting goods stores, are another great tool, especially if they can be left out for a few hours, or even better, overnight. Cast or throw nets work very well over stone or sand substrates, especially in deep water. However, they can be rather expensive and require hours of practice to be thrown correctly. One final piece of collecting equipment not to be overlooked is a small, ultra-light fishing pole. Special barbless hooks are widely available, or the hobbyist can file the barbs from hooks and small lures. A small fishing pole is the best method for collecting medium and large size sunfish, bass, cichlids, piranhas, and many catfishes. The small wound caused by the hook heals quickly and I have never seen a fish collected this way come down with an infection from the wound.

Small, barbless hooks can be used to collect fish such as piranhas.


Upon arrival at the collecting site, take some time to observe the general environment. Walk along the water and make some observations of the fish. Where are the fish and what species can you see? These observations will affect what equipment you decide to use as well as where in the habitat you will catch the most fishes. Fish watching itself, as aquarists well know, is entertaining, and I have spent hours watching schools of Corydoras dart about a crystal clear stream. In Miami, Florida I once observed a pair of Oscars in the pond behind my hotel defend their school of fry against a large red terror and several sunfish. This was not exactly a natural scene, since only the sunfish (maybe) were native, but it was still very fascinating.

Take some pictures of the habitat before wetting your nets, because once collecting starts, the water will turn brown with disturbed sediment. Also, record the water conditions before disturbing the environment. You can take measurements of the temperature, pH, hardness, and other properties on site, or you can take a sample of the water home in a clean glass jar for later chemical analysis. Be sure to take several temperature readings in still and fast-flowing water as well as in areas exposed to the sun and covered with shade. Carefully record the water’s color, substrate composition, aquatic vegetation, and ambient light. All of these will be important in reconstructing a suitable biotope in an aquarium and fleshing out your journal entries.

Record the environmental conditions before collecting anything.

Collecting Techniques

The key areas to be focused on for collecting are the banks, open areas, riffles and currents, structure, and leaf litter.

Banks are best collected with seine nets. Stretch the net parallel to the bank and use your hands and feet to splash around in the cordoned off area. Fleeing fish will then swim right into the pocket created by the seine. This method is very useful for many cichlids and sunfish.

Collect by the banks by stretching out the net over them.

Open areas are best collected by running the largest sized seine possible through the water and towards a bank. As the fish reach the bank, they will turn around and flee back into the net. This is the best method for collecting tetras and minnows.

Riffles and currents are the homes of many interesting fish and are collected by kick seining. Place the seine across the riffle and set it firmly in place. The kickers then enter the water 8 to 10 feet above the net and work their way towards the net, kicking and turning over rocks and gravel. In the United States, this method works great for darters and sculpins, while in South America it is great for collecting loricariids.

“Structure” refers to large rocks and driftwood snags. These areas are difficult to collect from, but produce very interesting fishes. Ideally, the piece of structure should be surrounded by the seine and then lifted out of the water. If the object is too large, surround it with the net and then send someone inside the net to poke and prod around the structure in order to scare away the fish into the waiting net.

Finally, do not forget to collect in the leaf litter. With a large dipnet or small seine, simply scoop up a pile of leaves and then rummage through them to see what you have captured. In South America this method is the best for Apistogramma, banjo catfish, Otocinclus, and many other wonderful small aquarium fishes.

One last point: Never forget to ask the locals how they catch fish. The best guide in the world is a 12-year-old boy, because he knows how to catch anything that flies, crawls, or swims within a mile of his home. I have had this fact proven to me over and over again. Once, while collecting in the Rio Guarico, Venezuela, I was having rotten luck and not catching much of anything. Two boys were watching me and asked what I was trying to capture. I explained that I was after corronchos (plecos) and they replied they would catch me all that I wanted. Both boys took turns diving down to the bottom of the river and grabbing handfuls of leaf litter. With every sortie they brought up large Rineloricaria and Loricariichthys. In 20 minutes I had more fish than I could carry!


The chief danger when collecting is not poisonous snakes or piranhas but the water itself. Far more people drown every year than are shocked by electric eels or stung by freshwater stingrays. Stay keenly aware of both the water’s depth and current. While collecting with my wife once, in the Venezuelan Ilanos, she was swept away by the current. Luckily she did not let go of the seine’s brail and I was able to swim to shore and then use the seine as a life preserver to pull her back in. I teased her about being my “catch of the day,” but the river’s lesson was not lost on us.

I have never seined up a snake, but I once looked up from a net of mollies in Florida to see a large water moccasin a few feet away from me daring me to come a little closer. I have also had some minor panic attacks when caimans hidden on the bank have jumped into the water near me. My friend Julian “Jools” Dignall actually caught a caiman in his hoop net once while collecting Corydoras. (Rumor has it that Jools released a startled yell, dropped the net, and was back on shore all in less than one second flat.)

Besides the water, especially in the tropics, dehydration and sunburn are the other main enemies. Luckily these are easily kept under control provided the collector has packed lots of water and sunscreen. Minor cuts and bruises are the norm from slipping on rocks and running into submerged structure. Wear these bruises, scratches, and scars with pride. They are the marks of a true collector and make great visuals when relating your fish collecting stories.

Care and Transport

Perhaps more difficult than collecting the fish is getting them home in good shape. While collecting I prefer to carry along a 5-gallon bucket to place the fish in. The bucket should have a tight-fitting lid perforated with holes. Do not forget to change the water in the bucket every 15 to 20 minutes, especially in the tropics. At the end of the day, the fish should be sorted and photographed or videotaped. A small one- or 2-gallon tank is ideal for sorting and photography. Fish always look their best immediately after capture, and this is the ideal time to photograph them.

Sorting can be the most difficult time, because everyone’s natural inclination is to want to keep more fish than they can properly house. Think about this very carefully and then return excess fishes to their point of capture.

For transportation home, one-gallon clear plastic water bottles with a wide mouth are the ideal containers. Plastic bags are fine for a trip home from the fish store, but plastic bottles cannot be crushed or punctured, and the water in them can be changed with ease. The water bottles must be kept in a sturdy ice chest. The ice chest should hold four to six one-gallon bottles, one of which should hold frozen water. Fill a one-gallon jug with drinking water the night before collecting and freeze it solid. This frozen bottle will serve to keep the ice chest cool throughout the day and will provide cold drinking water as it melts. In the summer months, or in the tropics, the most important aspect of getting the fish home safely is keeping their temperature stable. Just be sure to lift the lid of the chest every hour so the fish do not get too cold. Keep the ice chest in the vehicle, not in the trunk, and out of direct sunlight. If it is a long way home from the collecting site, I would highly recommend the use of a commercial product designed to detoxify ammonia.

Home Again, Home Again

Once the fish are home, place them in a small glass tank and check them over for obvious wounds, diseases, or parasites that will need to be treated. Many commercial collectors dose their entire catch with strong medications “just in case.” I am not necessarily in favor of these treatments, as, especially with delicate fish, it can do more harm than good. The only prophylactic treatment I am in favor of is a short dip in full strength sea water (or fresh water for marine fishes), which will remove most parasites. All of the catch should then be placed in quarantine and carefully monitored for three to four weeks. The quarantine tank must have a very secure cover, as the fish, not yet understanding the boundaries of their new environment, will be very prone to jumping out. Do not feed your new acquisitions for the first three days, because with a healthy appetite they will more readily accept normal aquarium foods.

Once the quarantine period is over, it is time to move your new charges to their permanent homes. I promise that at this point, even if your new charges are nothing more than Gambusia mosquito fish from a nearby ditch, you will see them in a whole new light. You did not buy these fish, you went to their habitat, caught them with your bare hands, and brought ‘em back alive.

Oh yes, also by now your sunburn will have faded and scratches healed, and you’ll probably already be studying the map, and planning your next expedition. It’s an addictive hobby.

Posted in TFH Extras by TFH Magazine on February 22nd, 2013 at 8:02 am.

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