Nathan Hill hooks up with a Hungarian reader of Practical Fishkeeping and fish house owner to pore over just what it takes to breed a better class of fish.
If I might crudely stereotype, there are three things I love about Hungarian aquarists. The first is their well-oiled generosity when it comes to breaking out bottles of wine and good food. The second is their sheer resourcefulness and ability to put together a magnificent aquatic project on a budget of airline and shrapnel. The last is their natural inclination to breed whichever fish they keep.
My visit to Gabor Horvath’s hillside-perched, South Wales property gave me a chance to experience all of these things in just a few hours, from his fry-peppered, economic fish house, to hearty home cooking and fish discussions over glasses of Hungarian red. Gabor is a long-term fishkeeper and recalled fond memories of his first dabblings — Bitterling when he was just six years old — before leading up to his present fascination with all things aquatic.
With 42 years on this earth, no less than 36 have involved at least one aquarium. Now settled and with roots firmly anchored, he has one tank for every year of his life, sequestered away in a purpose-built fish house sat at the base of his garden, ringed with puddles and pools of cultured live foods.
He’s owned this fish house for six years, starting small in a shed that came with his home and eventually stretching and rebuilding, doubling his tank numbers for little extra cost. His first fish house was enough to fit one man and a brace of tanks, but this soon became too claustrophobic for Gabor. By simply cutting off the front fascia of his shed, placing down extended floors and walls, and reconnecting the front again, he now boasts something with standing space for several plus plenty of room to increase his breeding projects.
Gabor gained the breeding bug after some initial disappointments. Early on in his hobby, fish would go through the motions but he could never get past the fry hatching stage. That all changed when he had a more devoted attempt with some Acara, the species of which he has clean forgotten over time. Once he had reassured himself that he really could raise fry to adulthood, he wanted to do nothing more.
Gabor’s current exploits are entirely freshwater. When he first moved to the UK, he spent a year working at the Blue Reef public aquarium in Portsmouth but the salty aspect of aquatics didn’t quite get under his skin the same way that his beloved tropical had.
His stocking choices might come as a surprise to some, but Gabor stands by them. Where some aquarists have a fondness for the obscure or fish with high monetary value, Gabor prefers to work with fish that some of us might consider more mainstream. Instead of rare loricariids or endangered cichlids, his tastes lean towards the egg scatterers of the world: the tetra and the danio, the Betta and the goby. That’s not to say that what he breeds is bland. The fish he has are distinctly pretty; his bright Emperors, Coffee bean tetra and Zebra danio are a step above the usual, farmed domestic strains.
Gabor sources his fish from Hungary, where he has a spider’s web of contacts in both the hobby and the trade. His danios, for example, are of the pure-strain research kind, procured for him by someone who would normally be testing for genetic diseases.
His fish are all F1, that is to say first generation tank bred. He swerves around wild fish as not being entirely necessary, at least not for his purposes, and considers many of these F1 strains to be stronger, cleaner specimens from a breeder’s perspective.
Gabor has more recently developed a leaning towards the numerous shrimp strains, too. Of his 42 tanks, 20 are set up for shrimp alone and he has dabbled with various crossbreeding and line breeding projects. He suspects that he may be one of the first to have successfully crossed Green shrimp with Indian tigers and has the pictures to prove it.
So successful is Gabor’s shrimp breeding, that on occasion he’s even been asked to provide stock for retailers: a task that he has previously filled with surplus shrimp of his own but is reluctant to increase his turnover of. He tells me of concerns that when a hobbyist takes too much of a plunge on the production side and starts to become commercial, it’s easy to start losing the passionate element of the hobby. And Gabor is so very passionate about what he does.
He’s also extensively travelled. Being on first name terms with Far Eastern fish farmers, he often gets the chance to peruse exporter’s facilities whenever his work takes him to Singapore. In fact, this is where much of his shrimp stock comes from, imported from the Far East (via Hungary), and so he often finds himself with access to new and interesting strains.
He’s no stranger to dipping a fishing rod either and has tales to tell of his Singaporean exploits. Whenever there, he always ensures that he has access to fishing equipment, and a gallery of images show him clutching at prize pacu, four-foot Clarias catfish, thickset snakeheads and even fat-bellied cichlids that are plump and ripe from an easy life in the warm, ornamentals-tinged rivers.
When not breeding one of many fish, or rather any number of fish at once, Gabor even finds the time to contribute to Hungarian publication Akvárium Magazin, where he frequently shares his ever filling pool of knowledge with others. And, it has to be said that his wife makes one killer Goulash, if you’re ever lucky enough to find yourself invited into his home!
All the ingredients of home
Building everything up on a budget was key to Gabor’s fish house plans. The building itself is straightforward enough and follows the format of fish houses everywhere. Simply take a shed, line the inside of it with bubble wrap, then line that with an inch of polystyrene and you’re pretty much there. Gabor notes that the order is important. Initially he had bubble wrap on the inside but found that it was prone to being smothered with condensation, so he turned everything around.
However, there are some lovely extra touches that any aquarist would be wise to learn from. Keeping the fish house warm is no issue, and he opts for a simple 1kw blower style heater to keep the room at a constant temperature. This results in a little thermal layering, which helps Gabor to condition fish. In the height of summer, the problem is quite the inverse — keeping things cool.
To that end, Gabor has installed air conditioning plugs that he can open as needed. These large holes in the wall consist of rigid piping that can be attached to blowers, but in winter they are filled with bungs made up of a mixture of 5cm of Kingspan, bubble wrap and polystyrene.
The floor has been tweaked too, and Gabor excitedly shows me plugholes that can be lifted out, leading straight into a drainage system directly under the building. Rather than labour his spine with endless, tedious bucket lifts, he can simply run hoses down through these plugholes when water changing.
Gabor is blessed with silky soft Welsh tapwater, and given his choices of livestock he has to do little to it in order to use it. So, unlike some aquarists, he doesn’t need to store drums of RO around the place like teetering, water-filled menhirs. With a hardness of just 2°KH and 5°GH, and a stable 7.4pH, the only thing he needs do is add some coral gravel to those tanks where fish like things a little harder.
With undetectable nitrate and phosphate levels, he notes that his tank levels drop after each water change, and seeing as he never allows nitrate to creep up over 20ppm in the first place, he finds himself with conditions that those of us elsewhere in the country should envy. He even concedes that he doesn’t need to use dechlorinator with the water that he uses.
The tanks are the fruits of both clever buying and trawling of Freecycle. Occasionally, Gabor will invest in an old, battered eBay aquarium, but the core of his project stems from Freecycle. A few aquaria hail from retailers upgrading their own kit, and some he has even deliberately bought or rehomed with broken panes or bases that he then replaces himself.
These are sat on wooden frames of Gabor’s own design. He tells me that his choice of wood is simple; he can’t work with metal. Constructed with simple crossbeam designs, he’s never had issues with so much as a wobble.
Filtration for the systems comes in the form of home-made foam and bio filters, mainly created from old drinks bottles. By cutting them in half, filling the bottom of the bottle with gravel and then pushing the conical bottle tops into this, with an airline creating an uplift through the centre, Gabor can then pad out the edges with foam, creating an extremely economical yet functional system.
The filters are powered via two small Koi blowers, each with the ability to step in to cover the other should one fail. With an intricate set of one-way valves and gang taps, Gabor has the security that in the event of a pump fail, his stock will still receive ample air supply. The blowers are in turn cooled by a fan, which helps circulate the heat they produce around the room.
Breeding the Hungarian way
A typical breeding strategy for Gabor is as follows: Females are separated and placed into one of the bottom row aquaria. Because of the thermal layering of the room, base tanks ride at around 21-22°C/69.8-71.6°F, while the top tanks sit at 26-27°C/78.8-80.6°F. In the cooler water, Gabor conditions the fish with plenty of frozen Cyclops, Daphnia, bloodworm, Tubifex and Artemia until they are fat with eggs.
Males and females are introduced together in hot, top row aquaria with a mesh grid (actually a mesh for protecting trees) on the base.
Breeding normally occurs within a day or two, with the eggs dropping through the mesh. Gabor leaves the fish for an extra day to ensure that all the eggs are laid before removing the adults to a separate tank. Once the fish hatch out, Gabor monitors their yolk sacs and starts to feed a mixture of egg yolk powder, Liquifry and JBL Artemia fluid.
As the fish grow, he moves on to feeding freshly hatched Artemia nauplii as well as microworms. In the case of large fry, the early feeding arrangement may be skipped. Given the density of tiny younglings scattered about in various tanks, I’d say it’s an approach that’s serving Gabor well!
One trick of Gabor’s is to keep a handful of very young shrimps in any of his fry tanks.
His reasoning, as he explains to me, is that he has found the shrimplets to be much more susceptible to drops in water quality and/or pH than his fry, so by observing their wellbeing, he can get a very early warning about deteriorating conditions before they can upset the fish!
One thing that’s hard to avoid is the growth of numerous terrestrial plants, leering like Triffids wherever you are in Gabor’s fish house. He explains to me that this is Epipremnum aureum, or the Golden Pothos plant, and upon inspection, its roots can be seen in many tanks.
Though not aquatic, if kept this way the plant hauls nutrients out of the water, helping to explain Gabor’s perpetually low nitrate readings.
Feeding an army
As well as relying on many brands of dried food, such as Tetra, King British, Spirulina flakes, algae wafers and so on, Gabor loves to have his own live food cultures at all times.
A single small pond vat sits in the garden, bustling with bulbous and red Daphnia, and vats of wastewater beside the fish house have colonised with mosquito larvae. As well as these larger bits, Gabor also keeps a rotational culture of Artemia nauplii on the go for fry, with one hatch at 24hr and the other at 48hr timescales.
Paramecium cultures sit in a small tank on the windowsill, wallowing in their bright green, sunlight fuelled home.
There are even twin batches of Banana worms and microworms on the go at all times.
Secret to success
Shrimp are sat everywhere in Gabor’s fish house, displaying some fabulous colours courtesy of clever selective breeding.
Part of the secret of his success with these delicate little beasts is put down to the choice of food used. As well as various proprietary foods, Gabor likes to harvest nettles and dandelion, as well as using spinach, Swiss chard, lettuce, green pea, cucumber and courgette. To make things extra palatable, Gabor skins his courgette and after slicing, he microwaves it for 40 seconds or so. I was dubious about how much they’d enjoy this, but upon dropping a slither into a tank, his shrimp descended like a plague of starved locusts from the dark recesses and gorged themselves like little shelled pigs.
As well as good food, Gabor puts faith into his substrates and filtration. Large, gently simmering foam filters provide much biofilm nourishment and the addition of Ebi Gold Shrimp Substrate, as well as a clutch of Catappa and oak leaves, seems to stimulate breeding.
I noted a high volume of Ramshorn snails in each tank, which Gabor explained help to feed the young shrimplets who love to graze on their nutritious, slimy tracks. Live and learn!
What’s Gabor keeping and breeding?
The range of fish and shrimp found here is pretty huge, but among the noteworthy faces you will spot are:
Kitty tetra, Hyphressobrycon heliacus
Imperial blue rainbow tetra, Hyphessobrycon sp.
Coffee bean tetra, Hyphessobrycon takassae
Emperor tetra, Nematobrycon palmeri
Serpae tetra, Hyphessobrycon eques
Congo tetra, Phenacogrammus interruptus
Zebra and Leopard Danio, Danio rerio
Vietnamese minnow, Tanichthys micagemmae
Red throat killi, Epiplatys dageti
Fighting fish, Betta splendens
True flying fox, Epalzeorhynchos kalopterus
Golden dwarf cichlid, Nannacara anomala
Peacock goby, Tateurndina ocellicauda
Crystal red shrimp
Crystal black shrimp
Golden bee shrimp
Taiwan bee shrimp (King kong, Panda, Blue panda, Blue bolt)
Black tiger orange eyes
Fire red/painted red cherry
Blue rili and jelly
Tiger shrimp and Tibee (tiger x CBS)
Blue tiger shrimp
Last but not least, a culture of White tail cobra guppies that Gabor collected from a feral population in Singapore!