What's your weakness when it comes to fish? Are you a catfish fan — or mad about cichlids or oddballs? Whatever your passion, you should run with it and turn it into something special, says Nathan Hill.
Remember the first time you went to buy fish? Chances are you were like a whirling dervish (derfish?), frenzied as you ran from tank to tank, working out what you wanted.
That first set up probably ended up like a million others; a total mish-mash, like some miniature multicultural experiment carried out with fish. I can picture Asian barbs rubbing shoulders with Mexican livebearers, while South American cichlids looked on aghast.
You might still be in that place, with a finger in every fish pie. And why shouldn’t you? A well-assembled community is amazing, which is why they’re the most popular tank the world over. Even so, with that cornucopia of assorted life, I’ll put money on you having a favourite.
C’mon, admit it. Every hobbyist I know (and that’s a lot) has a soft spot for one thing over all else. What’s your weakness? The brightness of a rainbowfish, looking like it got itself covered in superglue and then fell in to a pot of pastel shavings? Maybe you’re a shrimper, watching those little swimming squirrels scraping away and then scurrying through aquascape jungles.
Catfish seem to be the most popular, by no small measure. That, or the catfish crowd are just a hundred times more active than everyone else. I can’t peruse social media sites without someone wedging a colour-morphed Hypancistrus zebra down my digital throat. It’s great.
The thing with catfish fans is that they strike me as the perfect example of a fishkeeping paradox. We primarily buy fish to look at them, right? I set up a tank, fill it with whatever I’m working on that month, get a nice hot cup of Chai and park myself in front of it to enjoy the view.
But catfish folks. Some of them will splash out on a 300cm custom made tank, with welded frame, sump system, and the kind of plumbing that makes my house look like a slum tenement in former Yugoslavia. then they add flow pumps that are just rebranded outboard motors nabbed off a speedboat, stick in a couple of trees and then buy up the world’s brownest, most cryptic loricariids, which hastily park themselves in the first convenient crevice and only expose themselves for about 15 seconds over the next decade. There’s something inherently masochistic there, though I can’t quite place it. Some of them don’t even use lights. Think about that.
Cichlid fanciers seem to have it sussed. If catfish are secretive, then cichlids are pure pantomime. They display like frevo dancers at a Brazilian carnival, they interact, and if you’re lucky (or skilled) they’ll breed and bring you some revenue back. Very few fish have enough confidence to come out and bite their keeper, but cichlids don’t care about old-hat conventions like that. They can take liberties, and people will still keep them.
I never meet many barb fans. Pointing into their community tank, it’s rare that anyone will say ‘that Puntius is my pride and joy’. I’m sure there’s a barb following out there. Of the many cypriniforms, there’s a loach audience, a diehard underground guild of RTB shark fanciers, and an elite Koi collective, but not a barb division. I’m going to confess, they’re often a bit vanilla for me, too.
Characins, though! That’s what I’m taking about! The characin crowd is a reserved bunch, but they’re out there, harvesting oddities. As you’d expect, the piranha scene is pretty strong, but it’s so much more than just tanks filled with Red bellies and comedy skulls. It was a piranha that first lured me to the tropical side of the hobby — a sulky, chubby lump I got for my birthday when I was 12 or 13, which turned out to be the exact opposite of what a young lad would expect of a feared flesh eater.
The thing is, whatever our fetishes, we should embrace them. Most of the advances in breeding aren’t coming out of labs and research facilities, they’re coming out of hobbyist tanks. And once a home aquarist has mastered spawning an endangered fish, teetering on the edge of existence in some remote pond in Western Papua, you can bet that in this internet age it’s information that will float up to where it can make a difference.
Look at it this way. Your friends might be calling you a nerd for harbouring so much love for your gobies, but one day down the line, when an academic from a university in Brazil drops you an email to ask how you spawned them, you’ll still be a total nerd, but a nerd who might have just helped save a species.
If you’ve got a passion for a specific fish, run with it, nurture it, and turn it into something special. It’s too good an opportunity to miss.