An Aquascaping Challenge: A Layout for Fancy Goldfish, Part 2

Author: Jeff Senske

For years I had wanted to keep fancy goldfish, but the lack of quality specimens from local suppliers left me believing that one had to live in Japan or China to get the good ones with any consistency. It had been a few years since I researched modern availability, so I decided to look for sources online. Surely there would be some exclusive breeders or dedicated sites out there offering quality fish free of disease and parasites.

It was a great thrill to finally find such a source, and the fact that the exact fish displayed was the one you were ordering made it almost too good to be true. To get a fish directly from the breeder would have obvious advantages over fish that had been shipped thousands of miles while changing hands, water quality, and diet multiple times before finally arriving in my tank. Fancy goldfish in particular had always seemed like a fish that would have an exceptionally hard time enduring standard livestock shipping conditions.

Finding Fancy Goldfish

From an aquascaping standpoint, I faced the question of what sort of look to go for with the fish. My initial idea was to limit the varieties of goldfish to two, maybe three at the most, and try to harmonize them more closely with the rocks and overall feel of the hardscape. But the lure of all the different types and the newfound opportunity to get quality, healthy specimens proved too much. It quickly became something of an obsession, and my first online shopping spree left me with way more fish in my virtual cart than were going to fit in my 90-gallon tank. I realized I had some serious cutting to do!

Fortunately, the simplicity of the hardscape would create a nice, neutral backdrop for the eventual cast of characters. I honestly could not remember the last time I was this excited about receiving a shipment of fish. I attributed it mostly to the fact that while I had always appreciated fancy goldfish, I never kept them personally.

In my many years working in all aspects of the aquarium industry, I certainly dealt with goldfish in a variety of situations, and every instance seemed to involve an inordinate amount of disease treatment and managing periodic episodes of constipation, swim bladder disorders, and other problems. The idea that this time would be different had me really looking forward to working with these fish.

Goldfish Varieties

The shipment arrived, and the fish were all in exceptionally good condition. After following a standard acclimation procedure, I released them into the tank. Another aquascape had come to life. These fish were amazing—better than I had expected. There was at once a vibrancy and vigor that gave me a clear sense that none of the fish had any health issues. Not a single preventative treatment was in order beyond adding a little salt to the water for the first few days. The hardscape proved effective right away, a simple setting for the fish to swim about and forage in without any distraction from the fish themselves.

Serious breeders use precise jargon to describe, evaluate, and identify the different types of goldfish, but we can certainly enjoy their efforts without getting bogged down in the terminology. I created this group from normal-bodied as well as egg-shaped fish, including orandas with their fleshy head growths; the similar but dorsal-less lionheads; telescope eyes with flowing tails and bulbous eyes; pompoms with color-contrasting nasal ornaments; pearlscales with each scale raised and shiny; and ryukins with their steeply sloping backs.

The decision to have many different varieties of fancy goldfish together set against a fairly consistent, simple arrangement of stones seemed to work. My eyes went straight to the fish, following one for a few moments, then the next. Each fish was different and had a distinctive personality that made the aquarium, well, fun! The fish moved about, interacting and playing their role in a way unique among all the fish I had kept before.

Order in the Tank

The fish seemed to get along perfectly, even the large ryukin, which generally can be a bit more aggressive. I realized how important it is to check the size very closely when ordering online. In photos and even video, the size of the fish could not always be precisely determined.

I actually had not intended to order such a large fish, though I was not necessarily trying to get fish all of the exact same size either. But perhaps because the fish were all introduced at the same time, there was not a single incidence of aggression. In time I would expect a natural social order of some sort to emerge, but for the most part all the fish have done great with one another despite some real size differences.

Caring for Goldfish

Most hobbyists will tell you that goldfish should be kept in filtered tanks, not plain glass bowls. Experienced goldfish keepers, drawing on the example of Oriental breeders, who have perfected their craft over centuries of maintaining fancy goldfish varieties, provide extremely large volumes of water with powerful filtration and frequent water changes.

Unlike common comet goldfish that can survive considerable abuse, fancy varieties need to be pampered. Like most aquarium fish, they thrive when given pristine water quality, plenty of room, and a wholesome, varied diet. Aquarists who provide fancy goldfish with such care are rewarded with happy, healthy specimens and beautiful displays—like the one described here.

Indisputably the first aquarium fish, goldfish were domesticated before the invention of the aquarium! First kept in ponds and in ceramic bowls, the ancestors of modern goldfish were selectively bred by Chinese—and later Japanese—specialists. In an unbroken line over hundreds of years, modern varieties have been honed and perfected, and new strains continue to be developed. A huge range of body type, finnage, coloration, and ornamentation often make a fancier’s choice very difficult.

These animals do not require inordinate care, but they cannot tolerate neglect. If your only experience with goldfish was with a county fair prize housed in a bowl, perhaps this aquascaping adventure will prompt you to give these regal fish another chance. With proper setup and care, they can prove wonderful aquarium inhabitants, as well as interesting and interactive pets.

Setting Up the Aquarium

My online research made it clear that there was no one agreed-upon way to set up a proper aquarium for fancy goldfish. From an aquascaping standpoint, there was precious little to be found save for the occasional person keeping goldfish in a live planted aquarium. The bare-bottom tank with no decor whatsoever is definitely the standard for serious collectors and breeders, of course, and I started to see how high-quality fish could really shine in such a setup.

But I remained confident that a simple, clean setting would work well to show off my new collection. The billowing river stones—with smooth texture and a shape generally mimicking that of the goldfish—coupled with a nice bright substrate just seemed right. I found it vaguely reminiscent of some minimalist modern outdoor ponds I had seen. In a sense this hardscape was like bringing this contemporary pond style indoors. Using an open-top aquarium only enhanced this effect by giving a sense of being an open body of water as well as facilitating a top view, from which fancy goldfish can be especially enjoyed.

Aquarium Maintenance

From a maintenance standpoint, this aquascape proved very easy to deal with. Of course fancy goldfish are notoriously messy, and I must say that I underestimated the amount of water changes that would be necessary to keep up superb water quality and a pristine aquascape. The average here turns out to be about three large (75- to 90-percent) water changes per week. Fortunately I am in the aquarium maintenance business and have all the right equipment at hand to perform these large water changes with ease!

The stones themselves were especially practical in that their smooth, round surfaces were very easy to wipe clean of any incidental algae (which was generally limited to a bit of the brown diatom type). It was easy enough to just wipe the rocks clean with an algae pad. Now, many serious goldfish keepers will let the rocks build up algae that the fish can graze upon—an excellent natural food for them.

Food Selection and Distribution

But here I am interested in aesthetics as well, so letting them get covered in algae is just not an option. Instead, I supplement their daily diet with plenty of spirulina and shelled frozen or canned peas. The peas act as a natural laxative, helping to reduce constipation and other digestive issues, and the fish absolutely love them.

The ample space in front of the stones provides an area for food to sink, and I always make it a point to strategically drop the food in so the majority of it settles there and not in the back or between the stones. The mellow current in the aquarium (which goldfish prefer) keeps the food from being spread around too much or onto areas where it would be hard for the fish to get. A balance between the needs of the fishes and the aquascape can be struck with a little extra attention to detail and taking specific steps to satisfy all the elements in play.

In time I certainly see several of these fish finding their way into a larger goldfish aquarium I am planning—yes, I am hooked!—or possibly a pond, which is on the drawing board as well. For now though, this group is providing infinite pleasure. It is true that the maintenance demands are high for such an aquarium, but the unique character and overall impression these fish bring to an aquascape make it well worth the while.