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Issue: August 2012

An Aquarist's Journal: Starting in the Fishkeeping Hobby (Full Article)

Author: Tobias Li

LIM T 0812
Photographer: Tobias Li

Sometimes doing everything wrong can help you learn how to do everything right. One lucky young aquarist certainly learned that way, starting off with a 10-gallon predator tank that eventually turned into a huge predator pond.

Fishkeeping was a hobby I did not choose as a child. It was thrust upon me by parents who felt that I needed to learn responsibility. Yet it was a lesson that I embraced and one that I passed with flying colors. In fact, the lesson was so enjoyable that I begged for more. This marked the beginning of my aquatic diary. Ten years and 170,000 YouTube views later, I reflect back on my amazing journey that transformed my dreams into reality.

Dreams Do Come True

Fishkeeping was not a hobby to brag to your friends about at school (or anywhere else for that matter). It certainly didn’t make me the most popular or attractive prospect. The only attention I used to garner was from local fish shop owners and the occasional aunt or uncle—not exactly the type of attention a teenage boy craved in the budding years of his manhood.

Yet somehow, amid all the craziness of my teenage years, I found solace when buried deep in my fishkeeping obsession. I was fascinated mostly by large, predatory fish. It was the mystique of their behavior, hunting patterns, and growth that drew me deeper in my thirst for knowledge. I wanted to know absolutely everything I could about freshwater predatory fish. As a kid living on impulse, I did what I felt was right at the time: I bought them all.

Where It All Began

At the age of 12, my parents gave me my first predatory fish. His name was Tarquinius (named after a famous war general), a male flowerhorn cichlid. In 2001, these fish were the current craze. The flowerhorn cichlid is a hybrid consisting of species in different genera, although the exact mix is unknown. The product of this man-made endeavor was an immediate hit with the global fish industry. Flowerhorn cichlids are famous for their intense aggression, their striking colors, and the protruding hump at the top of their heads. The bigger the hump, the better the fish. Boys will be boys.

In addition, owing to the red hue on their bodies as well as their markings, which could be interpreted as numbers, the fish were said to bring good luck to their owners. Some people even went to the extreme of buying lottery tickets based on the numbers depicted on their fish. While this probably led to a lot of disappointment, I remember a few scarce reports of lottery winners.

All I had was a baby flowerhorn cichlid, a 10-gallon tank, and a big heart. Little did I know that this would be the start of an obsession that would transcend social boundaries and attract praise and criticism from around the world.

I knew from the beginning that this was no ordinary fish. He was responsive like no fish I’d ever seen before. He would allow me to pet him, hand feed him, and play with him. He seemed to recognize my face and voice. His aggressive behavior allowed me to bait him into following my finger, to the joy of gleeful onlookers. What fascinated me most were his feeding patterns and the way his body would flare when he sensed food was near. The ferocity with which he would attack his food, like it could escape his 10-gallon chamber, was astonishing even when it was only inanimate pellets. Due to the level of interaction I enjoyed with Tarquinius, it was no surprise that I bonded with this fish like no other. He was strong, proud, and loyal. In a way, he truly lived up to the great war general’s name.

The Snowball Effect

One fish turned into two, and two into three. I was now the proud owner of three flowerhorns, all in their own 90-gallon tanks. What the fish shops always coincidently forget to tell you is that these predators grow large! Flowerhorns commonly grow to over a foot in length. Sadly, flowerhorns today barely attain that sort of size due to inbreeding and allowing smaller and smaller fish to breed. By now, my obsession had grown along with the fish I kept. These fish were eating machines. From frogs to baby carp and even worms, no animal was safe (note: I do not feed any live animals to my fish anymore). I looked forward to every feeding like it was my last.

My obsession with large predatory fish led me to the Asian arowana. These fish are commonly known as dragonfish due to their elongated bodies and monstrous jaws. Chinese people believe that the dragon symbolizes strength, prosperity, and luck. I used this as justification to convince my superstitious Asian parents into investing in a $1,000 fish, which was guaranteed to bring them more money in return. I still can’t believe I won that argument.

As it turned out, first-grade red Asian arowanas grow much larger than flowerhorns (attaining lengths of 90 cm [35 inches]). Therefore, I was forced to invest in a 180-gallon fish tank, which would last him a few years. Correction: I was forced to convince my parents to invest in a larger tank that would last him a few years. My arowana (who was creatively named “Mr. Arowana”) was every bit as wonderful as my flowerhorns. He fed aggressively and could retract his jaws in a manner similar to a snake or alligator. It was fascinating to watch this fish hunt and eat. My experiences could be compared to enjoying documentaries in the comfort of my fish tanks. Unlike flowerhorns, Asian arowanas lived well with tankmates. With this in mind, I already had my eyes set on the next fish, and the next, and the next.

Before I knew it, my house was literally overrun with fish tanks. To the best of my memory, I can recall having over 20 fish tanks in my house, most of which were 180-gallon, 4-foot tanks. By now, I had accumulated a wide array of freshwater predatory fish. These consisted of the giant snakehead (Channa micropeltes), red-tail catfish (Phractocephalus hemioliopterus), and tiger shovelnose catfish (Pseudoplatystoma fasciatum). It is safe to assume that I spent the better part of my teenage years washing fish tanks and nurturing my future monsters.

At this point in time, my fishkeeping hobby was private and individual. Nobody truly knew about the existence of my budding collection except for close friends and family. Of course, I am forever grateful to my parents for supporting my expensive passion with little or no chance for monetary returns. That is what economists would call a bad investment. I also promised my parents that I would sell my fish for higher returns. This, of course, resulted in the accumulation of bad debts. I owe all of my fish-related success to the support of my family through the crucial growth years.

Giant Red-Tail Mistake

I am ashamed to admit that when I purchased my first pair of red-tail catfish eight years ago, I was oblivious to the monstrous size they could reach (the current world record stands at 51.5 kilograms [about 114 pounds]). This stresses the point that people should research their pets before they make lifetime commitments to them! Being young and impulsive, all I cared about was their immense size, voracious appetite, and even larger personality. Red-tail catfish satisfy that criteria better than any fish I have ever owned, which is why they remain my favorite fish to this day. Little did I know that my mistake would be the worst and best part of my fishkeeping hobby.

When my red-tail catfish (conveniently named “Mr. C”) outgrew my Asian red arowana community tank, I knew something had to be done. He was at risk of being stunted or, worse, devouring my arowana worth thousands of dollars! Back then, a pond was not an option. We were in the process of selling our house and finding a new one. Thankfully, my local fish shop volunteered to keep my red-tail catfish in their koi pond for a small fee until I was ready to take him back. The deal was too good to be true—and like the cliché goes, it was too good to be true. My lack of experience showed when the mention of koi and red-tail catfish in the same sentence did not ring any warning bells.

Note to the reader: A red-tail catfish can swallow fish of similar size. The only problem is that they do not always survive this indulgence. I got the phone call at 2:30 p.m. after badminton training. My fishkeeper’s wife was in hysterics. She informed me that my fish had swallowed one of her koi and both fish had suffocated to death by the time they were found. I quickly went to her fish shop in the hope that it was all a mistake and my prized fish was still alive. She took the stiff body out of the freezer to prove to me that she had not given the fish away to another customer. I was traumatized. Seeing such a magnificent animal’s life wasted on such a rookie mistake made me sick to my stomach. I remember storming out of the fish shop angry at myself for allowing this to happen. At that moment, I vowed not to make the same mistake again. It was a hard lesson learned, but one that made me a far better fishkeeper than I would have been.

Coincidently, my other red-tail catfish were starting to outgrow their 180-gallon fish tank. It was no surprise that I refused to send them to my local fish shop for fear of history repeating itself. After much deliberation and convincing, my parents agreed to invest in a pond for our new house. The timing was perfect because we were in the midst of building the new house.

Success with a Pond

My first pond was around 5,000 gallons. The only fish I put in there were my red-tail catfish pair, royal clown knifefish pair, and tiger shovelnose catfish pair. Shortly after I put these fish in the pond, I started to notice exponential growth and vigor! The fish were active, hungry, and healthy. I am proud to say that my fish have barely been sick for the past ten years. This change convinced me further that large freshwater predators are made for large ponds or best left in the wild. It is close to impossible for them to reach their full potential in normal fish tanks.

One day, I was sitting by my pond hand feeding my catfish dead fish from the markets. My back was turned to my largest red-tail catfish while I was feeding the other. Suddenly, out of nowhere, I felt a huge tug on my shirt and fell back first into my pond. I was flabbergasted. I had no idea how powerful my fish had become. I stared down at my fish and noticed just how large they were.

That one incident convinced me that I had something special that I needed to share with the world. Documenting my fish at YouTube or tropical fish forums never truly occurred to me until I discovered Going by the alias “TLkmDN,” I started documenting pictures and videos of my fish to share and learn from the experiences of others. My unusually large collection of predators garnered a fair amount of attention on forums. One thread documenting my first attempt at keeping an Arapaima gigas has accumulated over 45,000 views alone.

Similarly, my success on YouTube wasn’t trailing far behind. Before I knew it, I had accumulated 50,000 total views just through simple documentaries that I filmed with a poor-quality camera and no video editing. My fish spoke for themselves. Over the recent years, my fish have only become more famous. Now people send me emails everyday regarding fish-related problems or requests for new videos. It humbles me when I reflect back to when I was that young, excited kid asking all those same questions to older mentors on tropical fish forums. It gives me a sense of pride knowing I can give back to the fish community by answering questions through the documentation of my fishkeeping experiences.

Present Day

Ten years into my aquatic obsession, I am the proud owner of some of the largest, most exotic freshwater fish—all in my backyard! My pond was subsequently upgraded in size (to 13,000 gallons) and filtration in order to accommodate my growing collection of fish. Success on avenues such as YouTube (over 170,000 total views) and Facebook have inspired me to share my story with the wider fish community in the hope of inspiring the belief that dreams really do come true.

My Current Stocking List

•    Alligator gar (97 cm [38 inches])

•    Royal clown knifefish (90 cm [35 inches])

•    Red-tail catfish (over 120 cm [47 inches])

•    Tiger shovelnose catfish (90 cm [35 inches])

•    Red-tail catfish/tiger shovelnose catfish hybrid (90 cm [35 inches])

•    Pacu (75 cm [30 inches])

•    Arapaima gigas (110 cm [43 inches])

•    South American silver arowana (120 cm [47 inches])

•    Australian Jardini arowana (65 cm [26 inches])

•    Asian green arowana (56 cm [22 inches])

•    Paroon shark (Over 1 meter [3 feet])

•    Exotic koi (Kohaku, Benigoi, and Tancho)

•    Plecos (38 cm [15 inches])

•    Fly River turtle (56 cm [22 inches])

•    African tigerfish (25 cm [10 inches])

•    Giant gourami

•    Tilapia (58 cm [23 inches])

•    Lemon barb

Final Message

As can be seen in the sidebar, my fish come from all over the world. They range from my largest red-tail catfish to my baby African tigerfish at 25 cm (10 inches) in length. Specifically, my red-tail catfish and largest South American silver arowana are among the largest of their kind that I have ever seen in captivity (over 120 cm [47 inches] in length).

These fish have garnered the most Internet attention, attracting thousands of views and questions on my YouTube videos. It is my hope that through my aquatic diary entries, I am able to document and share my experiences keeping each spectacular species from the moment they were babies to the present, where most of them can be considered household monstrosities. I aim to share my mistakes and achievements, which will hopefully make us all better fishkeepers.


See the full article on TFH Digital

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