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Issue: May 2007

The Habits of Successful Tropical Fish Hobbyists [Part 2]

Author: Mike Hellweg

HELL 2 0507
Photographer: Jay Luto
The second part of the veteran aquarist’s series on helpful fishkeeping habits examines nitrate control, water parameters, aquatic plants, hobbyist networking, and more.

Last month I outlined some basic habits that are valuable for any aquarium hobbyist to develop, whether he or she is just starting out or has been keeping fish for many years. Now it’s time to look at some of the habits hobbyists should develop as they advance in the hobby. The following includes reminders aimed at more advanced hobbyists, but beginners would also do well to add these habits to their growing fishkeeping skill set.

Be Wary of Nitrate Buildup

A very useful habit is to keep an eye on the buildup of nitrates. A slow, otherwise unnoticed buildup of nitrates and dissolved organic compounds (DOCs) can be deadly to your fish. Currently there aren’t any test kits available to the general public to measure various DOCs and other pollutants in the aquarium, but we can easily measure nitrate buildup. Use it as a key. If your nitrates are okay, most of your other DOCs are likely to be okay as well.

While nitrogen is one of the basic building blocks of life, excessive nitrates are not good for fish, and high levels of nitrates are absolutely poisonous to them. Many fish can tolerate elevated nitrate levels, but they are very stressed by them and become vulnerable to diseases due to this stress. Marine fish and invertebrates are even more sensitive than freshwater fish, and some freshwater fish are more sensitive than others. You may have a beautiful tank with crystal clear water and healthy-looking fish, but it might be a ticking time bomb.

Excessive nitrates don’t show themselves easily outside of water tests, and so their buildup can be insidious. Everything may go great for a long time as nitrates slowly accumulate, but eventually the fish will slowly start showing signs of stress. They will begin showing less color, become more lethargic, spend more time hiding, and even become skittish. They won’t go after food as quickly, and the more delicate fish may start to die off for no apparent reason. Fins will start to mysteriously fray, they may start to shimmy, and open sores may start appearing as diseases of all kinds start to appear on the weakened fish. Eventually even the hardiest of fish will show symptoms, but by then it may be too late. In the wild, fish don’t show disease until they are so far gone that they are almost dead anyway. This is a defense mechanism that helps protect them from predators. A predator looks for the sick and weak since they are an easier meal. Unfortunately this same defense mechanism in the aquarium may hide problems from the fishkeeper until it’s almost too late.

Try adding new fish directly to a tank with elevated levels of nitrate and they will usually react rather violently. In fact, they usually die very quickly. The few that survive usually are stressed out and become sick. Some may suffer and die slowly. And if the panicking aquarist then dumps in all kinds of medications trying to treat the symptoms, but not the cause, it usually just makes matters worse.

What happens next? The fishkeeper may blame the shop the new fish came from, but it is really his or her fault. I don’t know how many times I have heard hobbyists say that a particular shop sells bad fish because they always die when newly added to a tank, but other fishkeepers buy from the same stores and have no problems at all. A quick check of the water in the tanks where the newly added fish are dying will usually show nitrate levels off the charts.

I have even measured a customer’s tank where the nitrates were still off the scale—above 250 ppm on the test kit I use—after a 50-percent water change, and there were no measurable nitrates in the tap water. It took three 50-percent water changes over the course of a week, plus the addition of a nitrate-reducing resin, to get the nitrates below 100 ppm. In freshwater tanks you should aim for something around 25 to 30 ppm. The exact number isn’t as important as stability. Do water changes regularly and often and don’t let nitrates build up. Nitrate buildup is not benign—it is a fish killer.

Don’t Mess With Water Parameters

One of the most controversial habits I recommend hobbyists develop is leaving their water alone. Realize, however, that this is not the same as saying “don’t do water changes.” Most hobbyists aren’t chemists, but we regularly monkey with the water in our tanks trying to get it to stay at this pH or that hardness. The fish inevitably suffer. I would be willing to bet that more fish die from well-meaning but uninformed aquarists playing with water parameters than from any other cause save ammonia/nitrate poisoning. Every tank has a completely different set of variables that even a scientist wouldn’t always be able to predict or control. Unless you are trying to breed your fish, don’t spend your time and money playing with their water.

Freshwater fish are remarkably adaptable and extremely capable of tolerating a wide range of water parameters as long as the change is gradual—hence the drip line and quarantine period. In the wild, soft-water “delicate” fish and plants can also often be found thriving in harder water in small sinkholes and backwaters as the waters evaporate during the dry season. Other fishes come from a vast range that encompasses many different water sources with greatly varying parameters. Many fish species have been introduced to environments all around the world in greatly different habitats. Even in year-round natural streams, fish are subject to huge changes in water parameters. For example, in a shallow backwater the temperatures can fluctuate wildly, from nearly 90°F or more in the sun to 70°F or less in the cold of the jungle night. And when the rainy season comes, the sudden onrush of cold, soft water is not deadly to them, but rather often serves as one of the triggers that tells fish it’s time to spawn. Let the fish adapt to your water, unless you are trying to breed them. While fish are adaptable, their more sensitive reproductive products usually aren’t; but that’s for another article.

Be Patient

Another difficult habit to develop is patience. It is still the case, in this world where we can measure things by the fraction of a second it takes for them to download, that some things still just can’t be rushed. And that is especially true in aquarium keeping. The beneficial bacteria take time to reproduce and establish themselves. This time is measured in weeks, not hours or days. Nitrifying bacteria are much slower to reproduce than the disease-causing bacteria with which we are more familiar. It will take time for the natural bacteria to colonize every surface in your tank.

It also takes time for the fish to grow and mature. You wouldn’t expect a newborn child to be hitting homeruns two weeks after he comes home from the hospital, and fish need time to grow, too. Many common aquarium residents may take several years to reach maturity. Most of even the smaller fishes will not reach maturity for six months to a year. Even in the case of a fish breeder who buys a “breeding pair,” instant success is not guaranteed; sometimes it takes that pair a while to settle in to their new surroundings and establish a pecking order with their new tankmates before they can get back to the business at hand. Sometimes it never happens.

Those beautiful planted tanks you see in photos don’t just happen overnight, either. Sometimes they are years in the making. Their owner is often working a little at them every day, moving this and trimming that—that’s why they are called aquatic gardeners. Just like an outdoor garden, an indoor aquatic garden takes time and work. Don’t expect a beautiful aquascape to develop right before your eyes without putting some time and work into it. Be patient and give it time. 

Use Aquatic Plants

The next good habit for any freshwater aquarist to pick up is to use live, true aquatic plants in every tank, even if it’s “only” Java moss or Java fern, which are actually two of the best plants for beginners. Many advanced hobbyists use these two species extensively or even exclusively. Live plants help fish in a myriad of ways. We don’t even know all of the benefits. But the results are real, and they are quantifiable. Several years ago I read a summary of a study by Dr. Gene Lucas (the Betta Guy), confirmed by a personal conversation we had more recently, that found that even in small jars, young male bettas grew better, lived longer, and were overall healthier with a just a sprig of live aquatic plant in their jar. I believe the study used Java moss, but I couldn’t find it again so I’m not sure.

First off, the plants provide fish with a sense of security. Most fish that we keep in aquaria are smaller fish, near the bottom of the food chain. They spend a lot of time in the wild hiding from other critters higher up the food chain, usually among the plants. Aquatic plants feel familiar to them, and they make them more secure. When the fish feel more secure they are more likely to show themselves, knowing they can hide quickly if they need to.

Live plants also provide a small amount of water purification, in the form of processing fish wastes, and they also add a small amount of oxygen to the water. They further supply food for the fish, both directly and indirectly, serving both as a natural salad and as a platform for all types of micro-fauna upon which the fish graze. They compete with algae for nutrients and light, so they help control algae. They also make for good spawning sites for many fish species, as well as places for the eggs to be hidden from hungry mouths. Later they provide hiding places and feeding stations for the fry, and a place for smaller fish to get away from their larger siblings and even their parents.

The key here is to use true aquatic plants. Too often I see terrestrial plants, even common houseplants, being sold as aquatic plants. Generally speaking, if you think an alleged aquatic plant being offered for sale looks like a houseplant, that’s because it probably is! It will look good for a while, but then it will drown and start to rot. Aquatics dealers often sell terrestrial plants, not because they are trying to cheat their customers, but simply because that is what customers want. The customers are looking for an instant live plant that looks great right off the bat (remember the part about patience?). When it rots, the aquarist thinks that he or she just can’t grow live plants. Those plants belong on the windowsill, not in the fish tank.

Get true aquatics. True aquatic plants are sometimes harder to find because they are often small and don’t look like the photos in books when they first come in, and they sometimes take weeks to recover when they get to their new home. But if you know what to look for, you won’t be disappointed. This also ties back to the first habit I discussed last month: read. Read about the plants, just like you would the fish. Learn all that you can about them, and growing aquatic plants will be easy.

Watch Your Fish

An often forgotten habit is to sit back and just watch your fish. Enjoy them. So many hobbyists get to the point where they have rooms full of tanks, and they just spend all of their time working on them, forgetting to simply sit back and enjoy them sometimes. One hobbyist in my local club has set up a recliner in his fishroom so he can just sit and watch the fish. I think he enjoys his hobby much more than other hobbyists with dozens more tanks. If you haven’t done it in a while, just sit back and watch. Get to know their regular behavior. Let them tell you when something is not quite right. When you get to know your fish, any change in behavior will stand out and almost scream that something is wrong. That leads directly to the next habit...

Keep Notes

Get into the habit of writing down what you see and what you do with the tank. When you do water changes, make a note. If you do a test, write down the results. If something goes wrong, write it down. If there are changes in your fish’s behavior, write them down. A few notes will help jog your memory when you are trying to explain what happened to someone else, or trying to find out what’s going on by reading.

Take notes while you read, too. While I don’t condone or even like the idea, some feel that they must jot them down in the margins of their own book or magazine. Famed aquarist and author William T. Innes was known to often write notes to himself in the margins of his books and magazines, so you wouldn’t be alone in the practice. (Never do this with someone else’s book, though!) Personally, I prefer a pen and paper kept close by in a little journal-type book. Whatever method you use, just get some sort of note-taking system and make it simple so you can stick to it.

This is a Hobby—Relax

The most important habit is also the easiest to develop. Remember that this is a hobby, a pleasurable pastime that we engage in to relax and take our minds away from the stresses of everyday life. If you make it too much like work then it becomes work, and you aren’t likely to enjoy it very much. Don’t make things more complicated than they have to be. Whatever system you decide to use, be it for filtration, water changing, or feeding, make it something you can do, that you like to do, or at least don’t mind doing—and have fun. The people who don’t will soon move on to other hobbies. You can tell how many people fall into this category if you like to go to garage sales. Nearly one out of two will have an old fish tank sitting around for a really great price. Ask the owners why they got out of the hobby, and they’ll tell you one of two things: either it was too much work or the fish always died. Don’t become one of them. Relax, sit back, and watch the fish. After all, that was what brought you to this hobby in the first place, wasn’t it?

Don’t give up. Aquariums and their inhabitants are living systems. No two are alike. What works for the guy down the street may or may not work for you. Keep trying. Learn from your mistakes. Ask questions. If you don’t get an answer, ask someone else or, as your high school science teacher used to say, “look it up!” Get into the above habits and you will succeed.

Join a Club and Share the Hobby

If I may, I would also like to add a final comment or two, which will really help you succeed. Find, join, and become active in a local aquarium club. If there isn’t one in your area, start one. Get into the habit of attending the meetings. There is nothing better than having a group of like-minded friends to share your hobby with. There is no better resource for information and hard-to-find fish than a group of fellow hobbyists who may have gone through the same trials you have. They may even be able to give you advice to help you avoid the pitfalls they had to overcome when working with a particular fish. It’s also great to be able to share your first breeding experience with someone who understands. Try telling your golf buddies about your Neoheterandria tridentigerdropping its first batch of fry. What would they think?

Clubs are also great if you have a non-fishkeeping spouse who would enjoy having someone else to commiserate with! Imagine your spouse complaining to friends or co-workers about your using every container in the house that could hold water to serve as a fish tank. There will usually be other fishkeeper spouses in attendance who can share their own particular brand of “suffering.”

Get active in the club—you will only get out what you put into it. Don’t expect everyone to be excited to see you if you just sit there and then leave after the meeting is over. Contribute to the club. Attend special functions. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. No one knows everything, even the “experts”—in spite of what some of them might think or try to tell you. We all started out as beginners, and we all made beginner’s mistakes. Those of us who have been around for a while still make them from time to time. The truly smart ones among the “experts” will be the first to tell you they don’t know everything. Learn about your favorite fish and become the expert on it. Share that expertise with others. Give a program about them. Volunteer. Talk to your children’s class or scout group about your fish. Even if you don’t think you’ll have time, you will find that you do. You will also find that you enjoy what you are doing. You will find that you are making new friends, friends whom, like this hobby, will be around for a long time.

Pass It On!

Lastly, don’t keep your hobby to yourself. Pass it on. Just as my parents and Dave at the aquarium store did for me back in the day—and I must admit I was probably a pretty annoying kid asking him lots of annoying questions—I now try to do with the next generation. I speak to school groups about the wonders of aquatic life, and I have even worked with teachers and helped them set up classroom tanks. I encourage all of you to take the time and do the same.

Isn’t that what it’s all about?

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