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Issue: June 2007

Raindrops on Roses and Whiskers on Catfish...

Author: Lee Finley

CC 0607
Photographer: Oliver Lucanus
Catfish Corner: June 2007

I must immediately start this entry with thanks, and any necessary apologies, to the wonderful collaborative team of Oscar Hammerstein and Richard Rodgers. Thank you, gentlemen, for the inspiration for the title used herein. Equal thanks are offered for the ending of this month’s column. Now all I have to do is fill in the rest and my editor will be happy.

Just about every writer, or at least so it seems, ends up doing a “favorites” piece. A recent contribution that comes to mind was written for this magazine by my friend Mark Soberman (“My 5 Favorite Catfishes,” TFH October 2006). As best as I can recall, I have never written such an article. Is it time for me to do this? Or more importantly, is it necessary for me to do so? I will let you decide the answers to these questions.

My involvement with aquarium catfishes has been ongoing for many years. To the extent that I can foresee the future (always a shaky venture), no changes in this path are evident. With this in place, I guess that it would not be difficult to pick out five catfishes (as Mark did), or even ten if I so desired, designate them as favorites, and write something about them. But as I mulled over the initial concept (mulling always seems to come easier than the part that involves transferring such thoughts to paper), other thoughts relating to this came to mind. I do not mind stating that catfishes have played an important part in my life over the last three decades (plus a couple of years). Catfishes have been good to me and I’ve done my best to repay them in kind. So, it becomes necessary for a piece such as this to reminisce a bit, at least at the beginning. I hope that you will allow me this little mental luxury. With this in place, let me first go back to…

The Past

What has to be the seminal event in my catfishes “career” goes back to shortly before my wife, Aline, and I got married. We were at a fish show (where else would one take their wife-to-be?) and Aline, who is not a fish keeper per se, saw a catfish that really caught her fancy. This catfish was Synodontis flavitaeniatus, which is arguably one of the most attractive members of its genus. Aline spoke with the owner of the fish to gather some background and ended up saying something like “I’m going to ask Lee to get me one of them.” She was then told something like “they are very rare, I doubt if you’ll get one.” Aline came over to me afterward, wearing a pouty expression on her face, and related the discussion to me. Now, at the time I was maintaining about 40 or so tanks of mainly Lake Malawi cichlids (and a few species from Lake Tanganyika). I told her that I would see what I could do. Later in the week I spoke with the importer that I frequented for cichlids and asked him about possibly obtaining a flavitaeniatus. He said that he’d let me know if one became available in some “Congo” shipments that were expected in shortly.

     Well, as friend Ray Lucas always says, to make a long story short, I received a call that a “flavie” was available. The timing was perfect and I picked the fish up (along with my first S. angelicus while I was at it), and sneaked it into the house with some new cichlids. I set the 4-inch or so fish up in its own 20-gallon tank and then (maybe you have seen this coming) gave it to Aline as a wedding present. I cannot tell a lie, this scored me a couple of extra points. Of course, I had to do the feeding, water changing, filter maintenance, etc., but it did get her into the fish room on a greatly increased and regular basis. So began, for the both of us, a journey into catfishes.

     Time passed, and I had become involved in what turned out to be an ill-fated partnership in a pet store. The home collection of catfishes had grown, with resultant shrinkage in the cichlid population. On a trip to a wholesaler I had run across two very large royal plecos Panaque nigrolineatus that were about 12 inches in total length. Upon examination it was evident that they were a male and a female, and I said to myself “what the heck.” These two fishes became the only residents of a 135-gallon tank in my home fishroom. Aline loved them and within five minutes had named them Fred and Ethel (any guess what one of her then, as now, favorite television show is?). The only other potential option for names would have been Ralph and Alice, again based on her viewing habits. I do not name fishes, but I must admit that I started referring to the two royals as Fred and Ethel…and I think of them as such to this day. These fish lived a long life with us, but alas no little ones were ever produced.

     Fast forward quite a few years – I excitedly came home one day with a batch of loricariid catfishes named Hemiodontichthys acipenserinus. These are best described as a tannish-colored catfish with a body shape similar to the well known whiptail catfish and a “nose” like a Farlowella (or twig) catfish. I got them set up and brought Aline down to the fishroom to show them off. She mulled for a minute and then asked me “Why don’t you get pretty catfish any more?” Oh well. As it turned out, I was able to spawn these fishes, which are lip-brooders. To date, this is the only lip-brooding loricariid that I have had spawn for me, but…(see “The Future” below).

     In the past, and it will remain so in the future, there is one broad group of catfish that must be counted among my favorites. These are catfishes that I have caught myself. I have been very fortunate in having made four collecting trips to South America, and on each of these have returned with live catfishes. Some of these have been rare (at least hobby-wise) and unusual, while others were of the “common” sort. But the common ones have been much less so in that I caught them and brought them home to live in my tanks. (Hey, they are a lot better than a souvenir T-shirt!) This concept does not only relate to “exotic” foreign fishes. One of the nicest little groups of catfish that I have had the pleasure to keep is the native tadpole madtom (Noturus gyrinus). Along with a friend, William Kenney, acting as the guide, I collected a group of these not more than an hour by car from my house. We had even collected some eggs (that had been laid in a submerged beer can) which were brought home and artificially incubated. These hatched, producing a batch of young catfish that truly looked like little tadpoles, which I raised up. It doesn’t get any better than that.

The Present

This is fairly straightforward. My current favorite catfish is Mystus leucophasis, the Asian upside-down catfish. I made note of these in a fairly recent column. A quick recap is that I showed up at home, after purchasing four large adults at an auction, with no tank for them. At least this situation provided me with the opportunity to give you the Finley technique for a quick tank setup.

Mystus leucophasis was at one time a rare and expensive catfish. It had achieved a somewhat magical (and mysterious) reputation in the hobby through the publication of a photo labeled as Heterobagrus in 1968. This picture was in a book published by T.F.H. Publications and titled simply Catfish. While this book is generally little used today, it was during its time a widely used book in that little else was available. Even with all of its “warts,” it still has some good available historical value today.

In any case, the Asian upside-down catfish is widespread in today’s hobby and it can be seen even in the big box stores (unfortunately, often mistakenly under the name Synodontis nigriventris!). But not to worry. I really like this fish with its upside-down swimming and its generally somewhat aggressive behavior. That they are not rare or expensive anymore doesn’t matter. Did I say that I just like them? And would I like to spawn them? For sure! I could complete the circle and take the young (or at least part of them) back to my club’s auction.

The Future

No one knows where the future will take us. So we have to plan a bit and be ready for new opportunities, or challenges, that might appear. For my future plans (subject to change, of course) I want to work with a few of my following favorite things:

Ageneiosus magoi

This is a smaller (6- to 7-inch) and attractive so-called gulper catfish from northern South America. Like other members of the family Auchenipteridae, they are internally fertilizing catfishes. I have previously observed these fishes mating in my tanks and on one occasion had eggs laid; these were unfortunately infertile. It is time to revisit this favorite and see about getting some fertile eggs.

Hemiodontichthys acipenserinus

I love these lip-brooding catfishes and need to revisit them for further spawnings. I just won’t show them to Aline this time. A few months back I had discussed, and illustrated, another (and attractive!) lip-brooding loricariid Pseudohemiodon apithanos. Should I run across some of these, they are mine. I think they can easily become a new favorite.

Madtoms

I would like to add some of these mostly small United States-based Noturus species (all local collecting laws obeyed, of course) to my favorites list. We have none of these here in Rhode Island, so some traveling will be necessary. But, all in all, it is a good time to just travel in the U.S., and collecting at home is a good concept. Just ask any North American Native Fishes Association (NANFA) member.

There are, of course, many other catfishes that I would like to work with. Some of them I am, no doubt, not even aware of yet. But there is one species that definitely needs to re-enter my fish room, and it will bring things full circle. This fish is…

Synodontis flavitaeniatus

Not only is it, as noted above, attractive (actually, make that beautiful), but having some of these will unquestionably draw Aline back to the fish room a bit more than the somewhat less attractive (by her standards) catfishes that I none-the-less am drawn towards. Ah, a fishroom full of catfishes and Aline by my side.

Or should it be me by her side? She started this whole obsession of mine, after all. Maybe I’ll just burst into song—“These are [definitely] a few of my favorite things…”—for Aline and our catfishes.

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