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A bit of housekeeping

By Mike Hellweg

Many of you have sent a lot of encouraging emails, letters and notes, and a lot of condolences and sympathy notes when Mom passed away.  Thank you for all of them!  All were very much appreciated and knowing I have a lot of friends out there really helped out.

In some of those, you have also asked questions.  In addition, some of the folks attending various talks I’ve given have also come forward with questions and comments, so I thought I’d address those here in the next couple of blog entries.

Several people have asked about how I do water changes and keep the gravel clean in all of those tanks, and how much time I spend in the fishroom each day.  First, realize that I didn’t just set up a fishroom when I first got started.  This has slowly grown over the past 35 plus years.  I started small with one tank, and grew slowly as space and finances allowed.  And even when I got the chance to set up a fishroom, it took years of planning, tinkering, and changing to get it right.  I now have it down to a science.  Each day I do water changes on part of the fishroom, then while I’m feeding I refill the water barrels and treat them to get them ready for the next day.  All of this takes about two hours each day.  So over the course of the week, I spend about 14 hours feeding and doing water changes.  Some people spend more than that in a single day watching TV or on the computer, so it doesn’t really take as much time as it sounds.  Plus, I enjoy it.  So it doesn’t even seem like any time at all.

I have drilled all of the tanks (I learned how to do this from AKA Chairman Jack Heller, a member of my local club and friend for many years. Thanks Jack!) and installed a bulkhead overflow in each that flows down to a drain line that runs around the room and out to a floor drain in the laundry room next to my fishroom.  I have a series of 55-gallon drums all drilled and plumbed together with special bulkhead fittings designed for round containers.  This allows me to fill the drums with cold water, treat it, aerate it and heat it before using it.  These are then plumbed into a pump that connects to a simple garden hose.  The plug for the pump is plugged into a normal outlet with a remote control switch so I can turn the line on and off from up to 50 feet away.  Eventually this will be run into a system of pipes and valves to allow me to run water directly to each tank without the need for a hose, but that will have to wait until the contest is over.

The next question I have received several times is why I would use the stick on liquid crystal thermometers when “I should know better” (those are a couple of people’s exact words!).  I have a reason for everything I do or use in my fishroom.  Everything is something that I have thought about, tried and tested over many years. I do know that they are not always accurate, but I’m not using them to give me an exact temperature–and for freshwater fish an exact temperature is not really needed.  If I need that, I have a lab thermometer that can give me a temperature accurate to within less than a tenth of 1 degree.  Fortunately, I don’t need that often. I just use it to calibrate the LC thermometers to know how far off they are.  Guess what?  They are only a degree or two off most of the time!  Not too bad. But the main reason I use them is for pointing out a problem. A quick scan of the rack, and I can see that there aren’t any problems with temperature in any of the tanks.  If one of them is way off of the others, I know there might be a problem that needs to be investigated further.  A simple, cheap device that works exactly how I need it to work.  What more could a hobbyist want?

Notice I am using an overflow system.  This means I don’t use a gravel cleaner.  Most of the tanks are bare bottom or have a half inch layer of fine sand.  If I need to clean the gunk from the bottom of those tanks I use a diatom filter or even just a simple power filter hanging on the tank for a few hours.

The next most common question is what I feed the babies.  I don’t use commercial fry diets.  Not that there is anything wrong with them, but I prefer to use live foods.  For tiny fry that need something small, I used to feed a lot of paramecium.  But during this contest, I’ve needed things of various sizes for different species, so I’ve taken to using a lot of infusoria cultures.  They’re quick and easy to set up, and I don’t have to maintain them between uses like I do ramped-up paramecium cultures.  Those can also crash quickly, and during the first several months of this contest I had a few things going on so that keeping a bunch of paramecium cultures going was the farthest thing from my mind.  Infusoria cultures can be set up the day before the spawn is set up and will be ready to go when the young are free swimming a week or so later.

After that, my most common food is microworms.  It doesn’t really matter which variety you use, as even “pure” microworm cultures are different species from place to place around the country.  So get whatever you can locally and culture them in whatever way is easiest for you.  Currently, the ones I’m using are those called “banana worms.”  There are also potato worms, wheat worms, Walter worms, microworms, etc.  All are pretty similar in nutritional value, based on the media that you use.  I use a commercial blended human baby cereal and yeast.  Mix it with dechlorinated water to a pasty consistency and it’s good to go for several weeks.  Once the worms start climbing the sides, your culture is ready to harvest.  Wipe the worms from the sides of the culture, and also dip into the media to get young worms.  That will give you a variety of sizes to feed your fry.  Adults of many smaller fish species also love microworms!  But don’t wipe everything away or you won’t have enough to be able to harvest from the same culture more than once or twice a week.  I keep several cultures going all at once.  Along with one daily feeding of microworms, I also feed newly hatched brine shrimp once a day.

Next blog I’ll cover brine shrimp.  That’s enough of an issue to cover an entire entry by itself.

Posted May 11th, 2010.

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Fish, Fish, Everywhere a Fish!

By Mike Hellweg

I’ll bet you can imagine that as this contest progresses Ted and I occasionally run out of room.  Ted mentioned in an earlier blog entry how he addresses this.  Well, with more than 70 tanks dedicated to this contest and with a bumpy start, I hadn’t yet really run into this problem until a few weeks ago.  Now that my breeding program is chugging away, tanks are filling up quickly.  Plus, before the contest started  I had decided to switch out most of my commercial sponge filters for home-made, wall-type sponge filters, so at any one time I’ve got a few tanks out of commission as I make the switch.

Long-term, this will be a great benefit to the fish, as each filter provides much more surface area for beneficial bacteria, and with the filter taking up an entire wall, there are no spots for the fish to hide behind as there are with conventional sponge filters, making moving fish much easier.  Short term, this switch can tie up some much needed glass box real estate while the filter gets up and running.  As I set up the “new” tanks, I keep the bioload low for a few weeks, add extra plants, and seed the new filter with “squeeze-ins” from my old filters.  So far this strategy is working pretty well.

I don’t have problems with the scatterers and other similar fish because I don’t set them up to spawn until there is a tank available.  But what I do find is that as more than 25 pairs of cichlids, some dozen or so livebearers, and a half dozen or so mouthbrooding anabantoids keep spawning on a somewhat unpredictable basis, to keep new fry from being eaten by the parents I occasionally have to find room for the fry for a week or so until another tank opens up.  The leftover filter material from cutting the wall filters gave me an idea.

I have found that disposable lasagna containers are almost ideal fry tanks for newly free swimming fry.  They give the fry plenty of surface area, and give them a bit of room to spread out.  But there isn’t too much room in there so the fry don’t have to go too far to hunt down their food.  The containers are inexpensive, so I can always have extras on hand.  They are also lightweight and easy to move, so I can do a water change on all of them every day in just a few minutes.   But there is no commercial filter designed to handle small tanks like this, and even with only a dozen or two fry, I like to have filters in these small tanks as water quality can change quickly.  Some of the killie guys are making tiny filters out of PVC tees and filter floss.  This provided inspiration for my mini-filters, made of half inch CPVC pipe and fittings and some leftover material from the wall filters.  This little device gives the fry a safe place to grow for a week or so until I can move them to a tank.  If necessary, they work well for a couple of weeks.  I add a dozen or so daphnia, a couple of ramshorn snails, and a clump of Java moss to each lasagna container, too.

Posted April 30th, 2010.


Goin’ Clubbin’

By Ted Judy

I am often asked what I like best about the aquarium hobby.  I suspect that the expected answer is “dwarf cichlids” or “all the cool tetras.”  What I enjoy most about the aquarium hobby, however, is the personal connections I have with other hobbyists.  Almost all of my aqua-friendships began at an aquarium club meeting, workshop or convention.

Let me get out my soapbox…  If you really like the aquarium hobby and want it to stick around forever, you should join your local aquarium society and participate in its events.  If you do not have a local club (I drive 90 miles to participate in one of my local clubs), start one.  If you do not want to start a local club, join a national club.  Why are clubs so important?  They are the ONLY organizations in our hobby that are owned and operated by and for hobbyists.  When you join a club, get selfish about it.  Work for it.  Support it.  Help it grow.  Make it your club.  Take pride in it.  Because, if you do, the club will pay you back with interest.  To steal a famous thought:  I stand on the shoulders of giants… and those giants are all club members generous enough to give me their knowledge for free.

Around my house we joke that my version of “going clubbing” is taking off for a weekend at a club event either locally or somewhere around the country.  I also joke that the aquarium hobby keeps me off the golf course and out of the bars (but my favorite après-club activity involves microbreweries).  I have been fortunate that for some reason people like to hear me talk, and the advancement of digital photography has enabled me to be able to support verbosity with decent imagery.  The result is that I get to go to a lot of club meetings and have had access to a lot of fish that I would not have access to outside of clubs.

So here are some of the species I have been able to work with in this contest that I owe to club connections.  Some were purchased directly from hobbyists, others in auctions, a few were gifts (thank you very much) and some are loans from friends in my local clubs (Poseidon protect them from my aquaritorial mistakes).

Nanochromis teugelsi: this west African dwarf cichlid is uncommon in the hobby.  Wild fish appeared in 2008 on the lists of importers who specialize in west Africa, but they disappeared from those lists after only a few months and we have not seen them since.  I had a few pairs when they first became available, but I was not able to spawn them.  A friend in the Milwaukee Aquarium Society loaned me his wild pair for the contest.

Nanochromis teugelsi.

Melanotaenia sexlineata: this small rainbow from New Guinea is not one that you will probably ever see in a store.  I am not sure why, because it is as easy to breed as any of the other farm-raised rainbows, beautiful, and stays small.  M. sexlineata is a perfect community tank fish.  My fish came from notable rainbow authority Gary Lange when he visited the Milwaukee Aquarium Society to do a talk and donated a bag of these beauties to the club to auction.  No club, no Gary coming to speak, no rainbows to buy…

Rarely seen in stores, Melanotaenia sexlineata can sometimes be obtained through fellow hobbyists.

Chromidotilapia melaniae:   The American Cichlid Association 2004 convention was hosted by the Rocky Mountain Cichlid Association in Denver.  Dr. Anton Lamboj was one of the speakers.  I went to the convention with a few west African cichlids to sell.  At this point in my hobby I was not writing or speaking about fish at all.  Dr. Lamboj bought some of my fish and we became friends.  We started emailing each other about cichlids (and other fish), and did not see each other again until four years later at another club event, the Ohio Cichlid Association’s Cichlid Extravaganza (held each year in November).  Anton invited me to visit him in Austria and then travel to Cameroon in 2009, which I did, and he also helped me obtain C. melaniae while in Austria.  None of this would have happened without the American Cichlid Association.

Chromidotilapia melaniae.

All the killifish I have (and have had) in my fish room: Try to find any killifish other than golden wonder killies at your local store.  There are a few that sell them, but those stores usually get them from a local breeder.  The Wisconsin Area Killifish Organization (yes… WAKO) is one of the most active killifish clubs in the country, and almost all of my killies have come from one WAKO member or another… mostly as gifts or in trade for other fish.

Club members sometimes have killifish they are willing to trade, sell or give away, which is a good thing since killies are a type of fish that are not often found in stores.

Pelvicachromis sp. aff. subocellatus:  Is an Internet forum a club?  In many ways they are.  I run a forum at, which is dedicated to the hobby of dwarf cichlids.  P. sp. aff. subocellatus is a rare cichlid from Nigeria that used to be common in the hobby.  Wild fish only arrive as contaminants in shipments of P. pulcher.  25 years ago this was a common occurrence, but P. pulcher is not exported and frequently anymore, and when they are there are fewer P. sp. aff. subocellatus mixed in.  I have had the species for a few years, but they are line bred from wild fish that arrived in the hobby many years ago.  Over the years the strain has become weaker.  A few months ago a contact on the forum found two fish in a tank of wild kribs at a store near him.  He recognized them immediately and knew that I would want them.  He purchased them and mailed them to me to work into my tank-bred line.

Pelvicachromis sp. aff. subocellatus; Internet forums often allow people to obtain fish that they would not normally be able to obtain.

My latest additions to the fish room came from a trip last weekend to the Columbus Area Fish Enthusiasts convention.  Some of the species were bought from breeders, others in auctions and some were gifts from friends.  I came home with 10 species, including a rare cichlid Aulonocara aquilonium, barbs (Puntius erythromycter, P. bimaculatus), a new danio Danio tinwini, some young catfish (Scleromystax barbatus), a blue-eye rainbow species Pseudomugil ivantsoffi,  some killifish (Aplocheilus panchax, Aphyosemion marmoratum ‘Mundemba’), a very cool yellow form of the new red emperor tetra Inpaichthys sp.  and a dwarf puffer Carinotetraodon travancoricus.  Had I not gone to the club event I may not have found these fish.

The new red emperor tetra Inpaichthys sp.

If you are not involved with a club, give one a try.  A local aquarium society will always provide a lot of value to its members.  National societies are important to the hobby also and need our support.  Many national organizations maintain lists of local chapters or clubs that have members interested in the national club’s focus.  Here are a few clubs and resources that may help you find a local aquarium club:

The Meeting Place page in Tropical Fish Hobbyist magazine…  Thank you TFH for supporting local clubs with this free service. –  Most clubs has websites now.  A search for your city’s name and “aquarium club” may find it.

Federation of American Aquarium Societies (FAAS) –

American Cichlid Association (ACA) –

American Livebearer Association (ALA) –

American Killifish Association (AKA)  –

Aquatic Gardeners Association  (AGA) –

International Betta Congress (IBC) –

Midwest Cichlid Association (MCA) –

Posted April 26th, 2010.

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By Mike Hellweg

The past several weeks have been pretty hectic with two speaking trips and several club auctions here in the Midwest, not to mention a visit to my local club (the Missouri Aquarium Society, Inc. – aka MASI) by TFH Editor David Boruchowitz.  All of this fishy stuff, along with a LOT of spawning activity and changing over sponge filters in my fishroom, kept me pretty busy.  Time slipped away, and I realized I hadn’t posted a blog in quite a while.  I apologize!

As I mentioned last entry, I spent some time trading fish and visiting local big box stores and independent fish stores, and I came home with a nice haul.  Unfortunately, as can sometimes be expected in the dead of winter, some of those fish were cold stressed and came down with ich.  Placing fish into quarantine helped and within a week or so I was back to concentrating on breeding the new fish.

I went back to my roots in the hobby—some of the miniature scatterers like zebra, leopard, and pearl danios, white clouds, and some easy tetras like emperors, rainbow emperors, black skirt, and diamond tetras just to name a few.  I had forgotten how much fun it can be to have a tank full of miniature zebras darting every which way and attacking the food every time I fed them!  White clouds are one of my all time favorite fish, and it’s been a while since I had them.  I now have a 10-gallon colony tank full of them.  It may sound strange to some of you, but some of the most pleasurable fish are also some of the easiest to care for and breed.

Ever since my beloved pet lungfish took a chunk out of my hand, I have not kept any fish larger than 4 inches, and the vast majority have been under 2 inches.  This was also practical, since for many years my fishroom was in a spare bedroom and the floor couldn’t take a lot of weight, so in order to have several tanks they had to be small.  This became my trademark— miniature odd balls.

I mention this because I deviated from this longtime philosophy for a few weeks.  A friend brought several pairs of medium sized cichlids over and they reminded me once again why I keep miniature fish.  So I have to thank him, in a way, for reminding me of my real interest.  The Texas cichlids spawned quickly and repeatedly.  They are incredibly beautiful fish, but also incredibly aggressive by my standards.  The West African Stomatepia mariae spawned and then went on a killing spree.   The larger male Lake Victorian haps (Matumbi hunters) “went cichlid” on each other and all of the other haps in their tank.   Everything was fine in this tank.  A female was holding, so I gently removed her in a clear glass bowl to give her some peace and quiet in her own tank to brood for a few days before stripping the eggs.  Overnight, the big male decided that he didn’t like something.  Not sure what.

I’ve still got one tank of seven 9-inch Oreochromis niloticus, but as soon as they spawn, they will move on to another friend in our club who loves fish like this and has much more room for them.  Right now they are happily eating everything I feed them in a 75-gallon tank, and each fish has grown at least an inch since I got the group about four weeks ago.  I hope they spawn soon!  I was amazed by these fish.  They are beautiful, very outgoing, and they eat EVERYTHING!  They even lift their entire head out of the water when I open the tank top to feed them.  Pretty cool, but definitely not my cup of tea.  They cleared the side and back glass of years’ worth of algae growth, cleaned out a well established blackworm population in the gravel, and even ate the Java fern and Java moss in the tank!

More next week…

Posted April 20th, 2010.

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Yarn is Easy

By Ted Judy

The store clerk says, “You buy a lot of green yarn.”

To which I reply, “I like the color green.”

“A whole 10 bundles worth of green?” she asks.

“Sometimes I buy dark blue.  But only when you are out of green.”

Miss Nosy presses, “You buy all the green.  I think you are the only person who buys it.  Why so much yarn?”

“Mops,” I replied with a look that suggested it is perfectly normal to buy 10 large packages of green acrylic yarn to make mops.

“You make your own mops?”


“There are better mops in housewares.  Thicker.  Made of cotton.  They hold water better.”

“But those are white.  And cotton rots.  And they’re way too big.”

“To0 big for what?”

“Mops.  And it is too hard to see eggs in a white mop.”

She stares at me for a moment, and turns away as she concludes, “Have a nice day, sir.”

Aquatic plants are the egg depositories, nurseries, and fry-food larders in most of the ecosystems from which most of our aquarium fish originate.  In some places the water is shallow and in a sunny place, permitting dense growths of plants all through the habitat.  Other places have deeper or fast flowing water that limits the vegetative cover to the shoreline.  And there are many places, such as deep under the canopies of forests, where there is not enough light to grow plants well.  And yet, even in these light-starved locations there will be enough plant growth to provide fish a place to spawn and the fry a place to start life.

Except in my fish room.  I am notoriously bad at growing aquatic plants.  I have a few forlorn clumps of java moss here, a bit of various water weed there and some ever-present duckweed on one or two tanks.  I try to grow plants.  I rarely return from an auction without a few bags of vegetation.  I will always buy guppy grass Najas sp., overpay for Java moss, and bid competitively for frog bit and water lettuce; but no matter how much I bring home I am in need of more within a couple months.  So I dutifully buy the plants and they dependably fall apart into lovely detritus (decaying plants that many fish love to eat).  Not a perfect system, but it seems to work for me.

Except that adult fish need plants to lay eggs in and their fry need a place to hide and forage for food.  Since I cannot count on having a dense growth of live plants to provide these places, I have learned that the next best thing is yarn.  Yarn mops are the staple for killifish and rainbowfish breeders, but yarn can be used by any fish that lays its eggs in plants.  The trick is in how the yarn is presented, and to get the presentation right it is important understand how the fish use plants.

Egg Placers

Some fish are very specific about where they lay their eggs.  They do not lay many at one time and will carefully choose where to put them.  Killifish and rainbowfish are good examples of these egg placers.  The eggs are adhesive, and they stick where they are laid.  Males will stake out territories in an area where the females are likely to want to lay their eggs.  This might be a particularly dense growth of plants in nature, but in my fish room it is a strategically placed mop of green yarn.  Egg placers can be picky.  Some species prefer to lay their eggs in the middle of the mop, and will work very hard to get themselves as deep into the yarn as possible.  Other species will barely enter the mop at all, and lay their eggs in plain view on the outside of the bundle of yarn.  Sometimes the place where a female lays her eggs is different between individuals.  I have a colony of pygmy rainbowfish Melanotaenia pygmaea, and some of the females choose the very top of the mop and others prefer the very bottom.

Egg placers like rainbow fish and killifish will readily use a yarn mop.

I was surprised to learn that some species of Corydoras catfish will deposit eggs in a yarn mop.  Cories are one of the most deliberate of all egg placers.  The female will carry a few eggs between her ventral fins, clean a site with her barbels and then meticulously place her very sticky eggs on that spot.  The first cory I worked with that used a mop was C. panda, which is a relatively easy cory catfish to breed and is readily available in the hobby.  Condition them with a lot of high quality food, including live foods such as black or white worms, and give them frequent water changes with cool, clean water of medium hardness and a neutral pH.  Leave a mop hanging from the surface to the bottom in the tank near the current of the filter.  The panda cories will also lay eggs on the sides of the tank, so when eggs appear on the glass there are probably also eggs in the mop.  I remove the entire mop with eggs to a hatching tank and add quite a bit of methylene blue to the water (2 to 3 drops per gallon), and I have found that there is a much greater hatch and survival rate than without the medication.

Egg Scatterers

Almost all of the characins and cyprinids (tetras, barbs, danios, etc.) like to scatter their eggs over plants.  Egg scatterers fall into one of two categories that I use to describe them.  The first are the true scatterers.  The males of these species chase the females all over the tank until the females give up trying to get away and just dump their eggs.  I do not know if egg release is a stress response or not, but I have had very gravid congo tetra Phenacogrammus interruptus females unload a lot of eggs while being chased around the tank with a net (which does not leave many eggs left for spawning later, so net carefully).  The pairs or spawning groups will dash about all over the tank dropping eggs and milt wherever they go.  The fish in the group that are not spawning will usually scurry around after the spawning fish eating the eggs just as fast as they are laid.  This is when the yarn is useful.  In nature the eggs would fall into dense thickets of plants, but in my tanks the eggs fall into yarn.  Lots of yarn.  When I use a 10-gallon tank for spawning an egg scattering species I will place a layer of tangled up yarn in the bottom that covers the entire surface area to a depth of 4 to 6 inches.  The fish will spawn over the yarn, into which the eggs fall and are therefore harder for the other fish to find.

Egg scatterers that need a large tank will spawn over a yarn egg trap is if it were grass.

The second group is the secretive egg scatterers.  These fish are a bit like the egg placers, but the eggs are not adhesive so they fall into the yarn rather than stick to it.  Most of these species are small and shy.  Some spawn every day and only lay a few eggs at a time.  A good example of this type of fish is the celestial pearl danio Danio margaritatus, which is also called the galaxy rasbora.  These shy little fish are easy to keep and breed in a very small tank.  I use a 2.5-gallon aquarium with a small sponge filter and a dense layer of yarn.  The fish are very shy and the yarn provides excellent cover for them.  I have found that a pair is best in a tank that small because the other fish will find and eat the eggs.  I leave the pair in the tank for a week and then remove the pair.  After a few days I carefully lift up the yarn and use a flashlight to look for fry.  The danios rarely disappoint.

Small scatterers, like these ember tetras, like to bury their eggs deep in dense plants... or yarn!

I also use yarn to build egg traps for larger tetras, barbs, or danios to spawn over in a larger tank.  The trap is basically a plastic box with a wide-mesh top into which 2 – 3 inch pieces of yarn are woven.  I place the box in the larger tank with the fish out in the open.  When the fish spawn they usually make scattering runs over and through the yarn sticking up from the trap.  The eggs filter through the mesh and end up safe and sound inside the plastic box.  This system is especially useful for species that take a while to settle into a spawning tank, so moving them from conditioning tank to spawning tank just upsets them.

Yarn can also be used over a false bottom that the eggs will fall through, protecting them from being eaten.

Traps are also good to use when the species is a very sporadic spawner.  I keep traps in all the tanks I have larger African tetras in.  Species like the yellowtail congo tetra Alestopetersius caudalis, the African red-eye tetra Arnoldichthys spilopterus, or the long-fin Alestes tetra Brycinus longipinnis.  It is hard for me to predict when these fish will spawn, but I dutifully check the trap every day and find eggs in there once or twice each month.


I also use yarn to provide a place for livebearing fish to release their fry.  Some livebearers are notorious for eating their fry almost as soon as they are free swimming.  Guppy traps are useful tools, but try using one for a 4-inch Ilyodon furcidens or other large and powerful Goodeid livebearers.  Even some of the larger female swordtails would challenge the average guppy trap.  I prefer to use a 2.5-gallon aquarium with a lot of yarn.  I use large mops that drape a along the bottom for this purpose.  The mops are thick and take up a lot of space in the water column, but leave enough room in the upper half of the tank for the female livebearer to swim freely.  The bottoms of the mops lie in a heap on the bottom.  When the fry are born they can drop into the yarn at the bottom to hide.

I move the females to a birthing tank when they are three to six days away from giving birth.  How do I know when that is?  I use a calendar.  The gestation periods for most livebearers are well-known, and a little research on the Internet is all that is usually needed to get that information.  Like all of my breeding fish, I like to condition females and males separately, and then put them together when they are fat and happy.  Most livebearers are very efficient when it comes to impregnation, so I mark the calendar on the day I put the males in with the females I want to breed.  I leave them together until the females are noticeably pregnant and then move them back to the conditioning tank; or I leave the females in with the male until the calendar tells me the fry could be born in a few days.  Once the female goes into the birthing tank I check for babies several times a day.  Once the fry are born I try not to leave the female in with them any longer than necessary.  I am also very careful to make sure that a female in the birthing tank is well fed.  I figure that a hungry female is more likely to eat her fry, but I have no evidence to support or refute that claim.  Seems like common sense to me.

The Ease of Yarn

Yarn does not die.  It will stay just as lush and vibrant regardless of the light, pH, temperature or hardness.  It comes in a rainbow of colors (though I prefer dark forest green).  And, best of all, a fish does not care if it has yarn or plants, so long as it has a place to lay eggs and hide its babies.  Yarn is easy.

Posted February 16th, 2010.


Breeding Common Fish

By Mike Hellweg

As promised, I spent some time in a couple of local big box stores and a couple of local fish stores. In both big box stores the pickings were mighty slim for me— mostly big fish like cichlids. But there were a few nice small fish from which I selected some potential breeding stock.

The local fish stores were even better. I was able to go into one and find several pairs of tetras and barbs that were old enough for spawning. Even better, in one I was able to get them all on sale at a huge discount! And in the other, I was able to trade a bunch of young fish from the contest for several pairs and a couple of breeding groups that were almost ready to go. This illustrates one of the great reasons to support your local shop—I was able to trade in some of my breeders to one local shop and get a couple more species in exchange.

So in a couple of hours, with a couple of stops, spending only about $25, I re-homed a large number of fish and brought home enough fish to keep me busy for at least a couple of weeks in the contest.

Obviously, all of the fish, even those I get from friends, go into quarantine first. No sense introducing disease into an established tank.

Here are some of the fish I found:


Pseudocrenilabrus philander

Livebearers and Killies:

Wild-type green swordtails Xiphophorus hellerii

Coral red platies Xiphophorus sp. domestic platy

Sunset variatus Xiphophorus sp. domestic variatus


Corydoras narcissus (marked as skunk cories – Corydoras arcuatus)

Corydoras paleatus

Egg Scatterers:

Pearl danio Danio albolineatus – these were on sale for just 11 cents each!

Zebra danio Danio rerio – 11 cents each!

Blue danio Danio sp. – 11 cents each!

Fireline danio Devario sondhi

Black skirt tetra Gymnocorymbus ternetzi

Silvertip tetra Hasemania nana

Glowlight tetra Hemigrammus erythrozonus

Head and tail light tetra Hemigrammus ocellifer

Pretty tetra Hemigrammus pulcher

Ember tetra Hyphessobrycon amandae

Columbian redfin blue tetra Hyphessobrycon columbianus

Sickle fin tetra Hyphessobrycon robertsi

Serpae tetra Hyphessobrycon serpae

Neon tetra Paracheirodon innesi

Tiger barb Puntius anchisporus

Melon barb Puntius melanampyx

Black ruby barb Puntius nigrofasciatus

Gold barb Puntius semifasciolatus or Puntius “sachsi”

White cloud mountain minnow Tanichthys albonubes

Penguin tetras Thayeria obliqua


Honey gouramis Colisa chuna

Pearl gouramis Trichogaster leeri

Gold gouramis Trichogaster trichopterus

Marine Fish:

Tank Raised Bangaii Cardinals Pterapogon kauderni

And a group of spotted loaches – no idea what species they are but they are easily sexable, so I’ll keep my fingers crossed!

Since Ted mentions it, I’ll stress again how important quarantine is to success with aquarium fish. Several of the neon tetras and fireline danios came down with ich soon after arriving home. It is likely the cold weather somewhere in transit, either at the airport here before they made it to the shop, or in the delivery truck stressed them and made them susceptible. Fortunately, I followed my normal procedure and put the new fish in quarantine tanks. The ich only affected two of those tanks. I was able to treat it immediately since I was watching for it, and only lost a couple of fish. The rest came through with flying colors. Of course this sets any breeding attempts with those two species back several weeks as they will need time to recover. But I’ve got plenty of fish to work with for the next few weeks.

Posted February 12th, 2010.

1 comment

Conditioning Breeders

By Mike Hellweg

Fish will do what comes naturally and spawn in our aquaria IF we give them what they need.  With many species that means approximating the spawning season, giving the adults what barb and tetra guru Randy Carey calls a “trigger” to initiate spawning.  Following the metaphor, all we as aquarists need to do is figure out how to turn off the safety and pull the trigger.

With many fish like cichlids and livebearers, all we have to do is buy a group of juveniles and grow them out.  Eventually, they will reach sexual maturity and pair off, even in a community tank.   Often they will even successfully raise a brood of fry in that same community tank.  But many other fish aren’t so easy.  Many of them require a little to a lot of extra work on the part of the hobbyist.

Blackworms are an excellent live food to use to help induce spawning in somewhat difficult fish.

Blackworms are an excellent live food to use to help induce spawning in somewhat difficult fish.

With these fish it is best to separate out the males from the females.  When you have limited tank space, the best way to do this is to move the female(s) to what will become the spawning tank, and leave the male(s) in the community tank.

At first the spawning tank can have water similar to the main tank.  As the conditioning period goes forward, begin changing the water out with water more appropriate for the particular species (harder, softer, more basic or acidic, more or less salty, etc.).  Do several water changes over the course of a week to 10 days.

Feed the adults heavily with meaty foods.  Flake or pellet food just isn’t enough.  There are various enzymes, amino acids, and other things in living foods that are destroyed by processing.  This is why every experienced breeder will tell you that you need to use live foods for conditioning.  Many of us use frozen and freeze-dried foods as well, but live foods really provide that extra boost that makes the difference between success and failure.

European drift worms are another type of worm that can be cultured and fed to fish that are being conditioned to breed.

European drift worms are another type of worm that can be cultured and fed to fish that are being conditioned to breed.

Every time I give a talk on breeding fish, I quote my friend and breeding guru Charley Grimes of Indianapolis.  I think he put it most succinctly:  “the best way to put eggs in her belly is to put worms in her tummy.”

Worms are an excellent live food.  We are fortunate in that we have many different types of worms to use that can be sized to the mouth of the fish, or larger worms can be cut up for feeding smaller fish.  Some of the ones currently in use by breeders include Grindal worms, white worms, tubifex worms, Dero worms, black worms, red wigglers, European drift worms, and night crawlers.  All can be found in a local pet shop or bait store, or they can usually order them for you.  If not, members of a local aquarium or herp club likely can supply starter cultures and information on how to culture them.  Or you can go to various sites on the web and order them from reputable growers. Of course, you can also read my book Culturing Live Foods (T.F.H. Publications, 2008) for tips on starting many different types of live food cultures.

Whiteworms do best at cooler temperatures, which is why these are stored in a fridge.

Whiteworms do best at cooler temperatures, which is why these are stored in a fridge.

Live food cultures need to be fed. Here whiteworms are eating a slice of bread.

Live food cultures need to be fed. Here whiteworms are eating a slice of bread.

Most breeders culture their own live foods.  There is a lot of excellent information out there about culturing live foods, including several excellent books.  Culturing your own foods gives you a chance to control every aspect of your fish’s diet.  More on this later…

Posted February 5th, 2010.


The Most Important Aquarium in My Fish Room

By Ted Judy

Here’s a horror story that happened in my fish room that I hope nobody has to experience, although I know that the cause of  disaster is the norm for most people rather than the exception.  I went shopping for breeder tetras or barbs at one of the stores I buy a lot of fish from and found some great looking tiger barbs Puntius tetrazona, lemon tetras Hyphessobrycon pulchripinnis, and head-and-tail light tetras Hemigrammus ocellifer. The fish looked to be in excellent health and were all large enough to try to spawn almost immediately. When I got them home I discovered that I did not have anywhere to quarantine them until I was ready to spawn them, so I took a gamble and put the tiger barbs in a community aquarium with some larger rainbowfish and the tetras in a different community tank with several other tetra species.  I made a poor choice…

Within a week all of the rainbow fish in the tank with the tiger barbs and about half of the fish in the tank with the new tetras started dying. They were attacked by a very rapid infection (probably protozoan parasites, bacteria, or a combination of the two) that caused the fish to start gasping at the surface, develop a nasty mucous all over their body, and pass away within 24 hours of showing signs of the infection.  The really weird part was that most of the new fish did not get sick (only one lemon tetra and one head-and-tail light tetra died).  The losses included an entire colony of adult emperor tetras Nematobrycon palmeri I had for three generations, six of eight adult Melanotaenia sp. ‘Moorhead River’ rainbows and all of my Glossolepis pseudoincisus, the Tami river rainbow, that were almost large enough to spawn.  No other tank in the room was affected.  Whatever wiped out my fish came in on those new acquisitions.

This Pelvicachromis taeniatus was shipped to the author with both protozoan and bacterial infections.  Since the fish was mailed, an assessment of its health prior to purchasing did not happen.

This Pelvicachromis taeniatus was shipped to the author with both protozoan and bacterial infections. Since the fish was mailed, an assessment of its health prior to purchasing did not happen.

I am totally at fault for the loss of those fish. I know better than to not quarantine what I bring into the fishroom, especially fish that are purchased from an aquarium store.  This is not a knock on stores.  There is not much a store can do to prevent diseases from coming into their tanks.  To properly quarantine all of their new stock a store would need half as much tank space in the back room as they have in the front.  Plus the store would need the financial security to expend thousands of dollars on fish and hold onto them for two or more weeks before starting to see a return on that investment.  I have only seen a couple stores set up that way, and both were the retail front of a larger wholesale operation.  And even then the wholesale part of the businesses did not sit on fish for two weeks to see if they were clean of infectious diseases.

These Mikrogeophagus ramirezi looked great in the store, but they were all infected with gill flukes and started dying two days after being purchased.

These Mikrogeophagus ramirezi looked great in the store, but they were all infected with gill flukes and started dying two days after being purchased.

Most pet stores will mark a tank ‘do not sell’ when they see signs of sick fish, but in the case of my scenario the fish looked great and did not get sick from whatever they passed on to the other fish in the tank.  There was no way to predict that is going to happen, and the only way to possibly prevent it would have been to quarantine the new fish properly.

This Pelvicachromis taeniatus was wild caught and came in with black blotches all over it.  This was diagnosed as skin flukes and was easily cured in quarantine.

This Pelvicachromis taeniatus was wild caught and came in with black blotches all over it. This was diagnosed as skin flukes and was easily cured in quarantine.

Quarantining fish is not as simple as just tossing them into a tank and waiting.  The aquarium needs to have a mature biological filter and be free from diseases to begin with.  Putting a dozen or more fish into a tank that has not been cycled does not have an upside.  You are either going to be doing a lot of needless water changes to prevent an ammonia spike, or you will neglect that chore and end up with dead fish.

There are a couple ways to maintain the biological filter in a quarantine tank between fish purchases.  The easiest way is to keep fish in the tank.  A few zebra danios will do the trick.

You can also maintain the filter with a fishless-cycling system.  This process involves adding ammonia and nitrite to the tank to feed the bacteria, and frequent testing for the nitrogen compounds to make sure that cycling is taking place.  It takes more time, attention and chemicals to go the fishless route.  I make do with danios.

The third option is to just keep buying lots of fish and rotating them through the quarantine tank.  That is the unintended system that I use.  I usually get out to the stores to buy new fish once a month, so the day before I go I evacuate the quarantine tanks (assuming the fish are healthy), do a thorough cleaning and set the tank up for new fish.

The quarantine process I use has two phases.  Phase one is to get rid of all protozoan parasites.  These little unicellular horrors are hard to diagnose until they are so numerous they are hard to kill.  A bad protozoan infection leads to secondary bacterial infections that are even harder to cure.  Ich and velvet are the two protozoan parasites most of us are aware of, but there are actually many species that we should be worried about.  The morning of the day I plan to get new fish I add to the quarantine tank a full dose of medication designed to kill protozoans (I use a product with metronidazole in it), 1 teaspoon of aquarium salt per 10 gallons (most of these parasites prefer soft water) and crank up the temperature to 78° to 80°F.  The heat will speed up the life cycle of the parasites, which is important because the medications will not always work on all the life stages.  The medications need to be in the tank through the protist’s full life cycle to be 100% effective.

After the fish are in the tank I will do a 20% water change every other day and add just enough medication and salt to maintain the proper concentration of each in the tank.  This first phase of the quarantine lasts for 10 days.  Phase two starts with a lowering of the temperature to 73° to 75°F.  I continue doing a 20% water change every other day, but now I do not redose the medications.  If the fish are a hard water species (such as Lake Malawi and Lake Tanganyika fish) I will continue to add salts, but my tap water is only moderately hard.  Phase two lasts for another 10 days, and at the end the fish (assuming they are not showing signs of poor health) are ready to go into tanks with other fish.  If at any time during the process I see signs of disease I will try to diagnose the problem and treat accordingly.  Once the problem is cured the quarantine starts again at phase two.

A quarantine tank is a simple set up.

A quarantine tank is a simple set up.

The best case scenario is that there is nothing wrong with the fish.  Careful observation of the fish in the store before purchasing will prevent most problems.   I will not buy fish from a tank that has another noticeably ill fish in the same tank.  If there are a lot of tanks in the store that seem to have problems I will pass on buying fish at all that day.  Passing up the opportunity to buy something really rare or cool is something I have had to do many times.

The most important aquariums in my fish room are the quarantine tanks.  They prevent something from coming in a wiping out what has grown to be a large and valuable (biologically and monetarily) collection of fish.  I have discovered that some species, especially egg scatterers, condition very well while they are in quarantine.  I have spawned pairs straight from the quarantine tank, and after they produce eggs it is back into the quarantine tank that they go.   If they happen to end up with some infection I need to get rid of, the small spawning tanks are very easy to disinfect.

Quarantine is as important to the hobbyist with one tank as it is to a breeder with a fishroom.  There is nothing more discouraging than adding a new fish directly to a well-established community and wiping it out.  I have done it more times than I like to remember.  I have a 10-gallon tank with a heater, glass top and air-driven sponge filter is all you need for quarantine.  Even a 10 inch fish can live in a tank that small for the time needed to make sure it is healthy.  If you are not using quarantine, you should be.  The alternative is a gamble that you really do not want to lose… I know.

Posted January 29th, 2010.


Worth the Wait

By Ted Judy

Mike and I are racing through species trying to see who can get the most to spawn in a year.  I do not want to give the impression that this is the normal work rate we have in our fish rooms.  We are testing ourselves, in a sense, and I am a little surprised at how many species I have spawned so far.  My personal best for a calendar year, before this contest, was 42 species.  I blew by that threshold and will possibly hit 70 species within the first six months.  I came into the contest with the goal of spawning 100 species.  Knock on wood… barring a disaster I think I should raise that bar.  But that is not what this blog entry is about…

A reader sent a question to TFH a few weeks ago asking how Mike and I obtain all these adult fish in order to be able to spawn them right away.  The reader described how he gets young fish, grows them up and then induces them to breed; and in this way works with only a few species each year.  That is how Mike and I do it too.  In fact, that is how I prefer to raise and breed fish.  I usually obtain fry from other breeders.  Sometimes growing them up takes a long time, and even when the fish are mature there is no guarantee that they will breed.  The longer the wait the greater the reward, especially when the reward is how good it feels when the fish produce fry.

A breakthrough spawn occurred in my fish room last week that illustrates the importance of patience very well.  Actually, the spawning took place almost a month ago, but the fish are mouth brooding cichlids and it took almost close to a month before the fry became free swimming.  The species is Chromidotilapia melaniae, which is a medium-sized cichlid from the West African nation of Gabon.  They are very rare in the USA hobby, and to get them I had to travel to… Austria.

Chromidotilapia melaniae.

Chromidotilapia melaniae.

There are two species of this genus that are relatively common in the United States:  C. guntheri guntheri and C. guntheri  loennbergi. There are actually twelve described species in the genus.  The most common, C. guntheri guntheri, is found across a wide range in West Africa (C. g. loennbergi is isolated to one lake in Cameroon).  Most of the others come from Gabon, which is a country without a tropical fish export industry.  All we have are what scientists and traveling hobbyists have brought out and bred in captivity.

I had the opportunity to go to Cameroon in 2009, and I was able to collect C. guntheri guntheri and C. linkei.  I traveled to Africa by way of Europe and sent out feelers looking for hobbyists over there with other species of the genus I might arrange to get fry from on my way through.  All I was able to obtain were five very young, unsexable C. melaniae from the Vienna Zoo.  And I was only able to get those due to the generosity of Dr. Anton Lamboj, my host in Austria, who had gifted the cichlids to the zoo in the first place.

All five fish made it home at the end of February, 2009.  They grew fast and I was able to determine in just a few months that there were two males and three females.  They started courting behavior in July, but I was getting nervous in early September when they had not yet spawned.  The C. linkei pair I made it home with never even started to court, and eventually the female killed the male.  Every day that went by without a C. melaniae spawn became torture.  I was really worried that something bad would happen and another species I waited so long to get, literally traveling across the globe to get, would also be lost.

Getting his C. melaniae to spawn required a great deal of patience.

Getting his C. melaniae to spawn required a great deal of patience.

In November the larger male and female finally spawned for the first time.  The eggs are laid on the inside wall of a half of a large coconut shell.  The eggs hatched after a couple days and the male picked up the larvae to brood them in his mouth.  Two days later there was no sign of the spawn.  I was frustrated, but having a first spawn fail is pretty common.  A few weeks later the pair spawned again.

This time I was very careful not to disturb the tank.  I left the lights off, covered ¾ of the front of the tank with paper and fed very little.  After two weeks I started turning on the tank light for a few hours each day, and in the third week I removed the paper and started to watch the pair.  The male held the larvae most of the time, but I did see the female holding on two occasions.  I never witnessed an exchange between them.  Interestingly, the male would act aggressively towards the other cichlids in the tank even when he had all the larvae in his mouth.  Most mouth brooders try to keep a low profile when they are raising fry.

The first time I noticed the fry free swimming outside their parents’ mouths was on day 20 post spawn.  There are about 20 of them.  The parents will pick them back up at any sign of danger, which includes me trying to look closely into the tank.

A happy family at last.

A happy family at last.

My experience with C. melaniae is much more typical than the purchase and spawn fast-paced pattern that has been the norm for most of the fish I have reported in this breeding contest.  But this cichlid spawn is probably one of the most important in my fish room in the past few years, if not ever.  This is one rare cichlid in the hobby.  And it is well worth the wait.

Posted January 13th, 2010.


Using Live Plants: One of my Keys to Success

By Mike Hellweg

One of the things you may notice that is different between my approach and Ted’s is that I use live plants in every tank. I know Ted’s reasoning is sound—many aquatic habitats do not have live plants in them, especially the blackwater habitats that are home to many of the fish that both he and I enjoy. Sometimes the fish we keep never see a live plant in their entire life in the wild. The only plant matter in many of these habitats is the terrestrial plant material that falls into the water and provides structure for the fish to call home.

Plants can provide a more naturalistic environment for fish and can serve as both hiding places and spawning sites.

Plants can provide a more naturalistic environment for fish and can serve as both hiding places and spawning sites.

So why use live plants? I’ve been using them since my first goldfish bowl in 1966. With but a few exceptions, I have included live plants, even if it were only Java moss Taxiphyllum sp. or a sprig of anacharis Egeria densa in every setup since that first bowl when I was a child and the clerk at the drug store told my Mom and I that fish had to have live plants to survive. Over the years, I’ve found that when I include live plants in tanks, I have more spontaneous or serendipitous spawns, and have more luck raising fry than I do on the few occasions when I don’t use live plants. I also learned from some of my early mentors in the breeding part of the hobby that they also used live plants when trying to breed just about any new fish. It works! I even toss Java moss into quart jars with my male bettas when I’m working on growing fancy bettas.

Our tanks are not natural bodies of water; they are artificial glass boxes full of water. Plants help even fish from blackwater habitats to feel more at home than those tanks without them. The fish color up quickly and set about exploring the planted tank, whereas in a plain tank they might hide for several days before feeling secure enough to go exploring. I contend that adding plants gives tanks a smell that is more natural to fish, helping them to settle in quickly. Go ahead, give a handful of aquatic plants a sniff! If they’re healthy, they’ll have an earthy smell to them, just like freshly turned garden soil. Some have even a more pleasant smell to them. A healthy tank usually has this smell, too. If it smells even a bit off, then the tank has something wrong with it. More on that another time…

In addition, plants carry all kinds of beneficial bacteria and other beneficial critters on their surfaces. You can set up a new tank with a raw filter and plant the tank well, and there will be no cycling required. The plants will begin taking up nutrients from the water very soon after being added. And the bacteria on them will quickly populate the tank. So you can basically set up a tank, add plants, and it is good to go. In fact, when I set up small spawning tanks and add plants, the fish experience no discomfort at all when I add them soon after—they get right down to spawning!

Some other benefits of live plants that I‘ve found:

1. They provide natural filtration of the water, removing ammonia and other waste products from the water column. Even if it is only a negligible amount, it is still a benefit over unplanted tanks.

2. They add oxygen to the water. Again, even if only a small amount, it is still a benefit over unplanted tanks. In conjunction with this, they also take in carbon dioxide during the day, again a benefit over non-planted tanks.

3. They provide a source of food for the fish to graze upon, either directly or indirectly. They serve directly for fish that consume them as food, and indirectly by serving as a surface area for a vast colony of microflora and microfauna which serve as foods for fry and small fish to graze upon between feedings.

4. They provide a place for dominated fish to hide, and provide a secure feeling even for dominant fish. The fish know there is a safe place where they can hide if they need to, so they spend more time out in the open. Female fish have a place to hide after spawning so they are out of the male’s line of sight, giving them safety until the breeder can remove the fish.

5. They provide an ever changing environment for the fish. Fish are intelligent, and are evolved to adapt to a constantly changing environment. Plants move, grow and change on a daily basis, providing the fish with something akin to a natural environment. A path that is open one day might be blocked the next, causing the fish to have to rethink and work out a new routine. Animal behaviorists call this behavioral enrichment and consider it an important part of any animal husbandry program.

6. They provide territorial markers so that fish can define breeding territories without claiming the entire tank, allowing groups of fish to live in peace where otherwise they would be fighting constantly.

7. They provide a spawning site for many species. Many egg scatterers lay their eggs among the myriad leaves and stems of stem plants or fine-leafed mosses. Many cave spawners will spawn in the area under the rhizome and between the roots of Anubias sp. or Java Fern Microsorum sp. Many bubblenest builders will build their nests under the leaves of floating plants like water sprite Ceratopteris sp. or under the leaves of submerged plants like Anubias sp. Fish like Pyrrhulina and Copenia, as well as festivums, angels and discus, lay their eggs on the surface of plant leaves. And some fish species, like the Trigonostigma species and some of the Nannostomus actually lay their eggs on the underside of the leaves.

8. Some species incorporate plant material into their nest, weaving a nest out of aquatic plants (sticklebacks), or placing plant leaves or stems into their bubble nests to give them strength and security (Colisa sp. for example).

9. Some plant species are excellent filters removing carbonates and even heavy metals from the water—so much so that they are used in wastewater treatment in commercial sewage treatment plants. If you have a trace of a certain metal in the water, a fish may not spawn, but certain plants may remove that metal and make the water safer for your fish, maybe even being the edge you need to get them to spawn.

10. Last, but by no means least, is the fact that I like live plants and I like to see them in my tanks, so it provides me with nearly as much enjoyment as do the fish. I’m just as challenged by figuring out what I need to do to get a particular plant to propagate as I am with trying to figure out the triggers to get a particular fish species to spawn.

Posted January 8th, 2010.


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