My 10 all time favourite fish
PFK's Nathan Hill was given the difficult task of coming up with his top ten favourite fish. Not as easy as it sounds...
PFK's editor Jeremy Gay really put me on the spot with this one. "I’ll need you to list your top ten fish," he told me, "for an online thing." Within minutes my brain had overloaded and I had to reboot.
The problem is that I love loads of fish. Whittling down to just two hand’s worth of all-timers made my conscience feel bad. What would the other fish say if they knew I had favourites? The rainbowfish will never speak to me again for this.
It’s not even a case that I can focus on one group, either. If I go catfish, then I’m stuck. Cichlids, and I’ll be here all year deciding. And once I’m into the oddball camp I might as well just quit my job and sit in some squat somewhere, poring over lists of fish for the rest of my days, never able to make a decision.
So, after some troubling head-scratching, and traitorous feelings towards those that didn’t make the grade, I had to snatch my all time faves from the top of my mind, and not let myself get bogged down with possible close rivals. It’s a hell of a lot harder to do than you might think.
Anyway, here’s what I’ve come up with as my list of all time best fish, any of which I’d happily set up a dedicated tank for tomorrow, and in the case of one or two, I might just actually do that.
10. Mackerel, Scomber scombrus (picture by Hans Hillewaert, Creative Commons)
Yeah, it’s not exactly an aquarium fish as you might know it, but for the few of us who have been in public aquaria, we can appreciate what an amazing shoaling fish this is.
They’re ravenous little sods with a devilish turn of speed when they need it, and as shoaling fish go, you’ll be hard pushed to find anything that evokes such a sense of majesty.
Also, they bite almost anything that touches the water at feeding time, and those little rows of enameled daggers can leave quite a gash in unwary fingers.
I recall one occasion that involved snorkeling off of Hastings beach to collect things for the aquarium there, when suddenly I was hit by a small shoal of tiny fish, shoaling. I nearly drowned as I lost all sense of depth, with the sea of silver swimming neatly around and underneath me. And then, right in the middle of it, a mackerel came hurtling through the crowd, like some rage-filled blue torpedo and smacked me straight in the face. Kudos to you, mackerel.
9. Synodontis alberti
The first fish, I think, to let me know that catfish don’t suffer fools gladly. I was around 14 or 15, and had immersed myself without reserve into the shadowy world of catfish keeping.
I’d set up a tank specifically for this fish, and with hindsight I’d got it near completely wrong. So much for biotope books of the late eighties…
Sat amongst a 60cm/24" tank with undergravel filtration, fine Dorset pea gravel (there’s a blast from the past) and hidden beneath a piece of bogwood that had done the rounds of goldfish, piranha and community tank lived my Synodontis alberti.
He enjoyed hugging himself into a crevice in the wood, causing me endless distress as I panicked for his well being, and one day, convinced he’d wedged himself fast, I opted to play the hero. Wood came out of the tank, and I grabbed and tugged at the fish’s rump while it grunted and squeaked abuse at me from its firmly buried head. Changing tack, I started shaking the wood to get him out, and he played ball, dropping out and onto the floor. As I picked him up, still barking at me, he gave me a look that pre-empted a flurry of movement and drove sharp, serrated fins into my hands, sending blood and chunks of meat all over.
I nearly threw him back into the tank, and dropped the wood back in as I went to wash my wounds and get the biggest plasters in the house. When I next looked in the tank the syno had found his way into the exact same crevice and buried his head even deeper.
8. Pegasus sea moth, Eurypegasus draconis
I’m not even sure I should class the sea moth as a fish, it’s so un-fish like. It changes colours, it has a huge armoured carapace, and a whopping great big static snout. Oh, and they periodically shed their whole skin in one go.
What’s not there to love?
Supposedly, the fish is revered as an aphrodisiac, but I recall that when I had one my love life was pretty much as awful as always.
Related to seahorses, they are sensitive, awkward to feed, and likely to starve to death if kept in the same tank as anything else. But as a one off, species only marine set up, they’d be great on an open sandy base with worm heads sticking out and only a smattering of corals. Which is coincidentally the very next tank I’ll be setting up in a couple of weeks…
On the down side, they’re scarcer that Hens’ teeth and cost more than everything else I own combined.
7. Licorice gourami, Parosphromenus deissneri
Sheer nano heaven. This is a fish that never looks at its peak in a retailer’s tank. Kept in large concentrations, and in bare or minimally decorated tanks, they have this kind of wishy-washy brown striping. But take my advice on this one and get them into a small, heavily planted and acidic tank, darker then black tea with tannins, and prepare for some of the nicest colours going.
They’re secretive, and that’s part of the fun. They’ll lurk amongst bushy growth, sniffing around for tiny copepods and other snacks, and when fed they’ll often sit back and watch cautiously until the food comes to them.
They seem to have this 'I’m okay, Jack' attitude to life, very relaxed once settled and apathetic yet acutely aware of what goes on outside. Were they humans they’d have a dapper dress sense and frequent jazz clubs. Love 'em.
6. Archer fish, Toxotes jaculatrix
A triangular wedge of cool. With their big, puppy dog eyes they fast grow to recognize their feeder, and once they work out what dinner time is all about they become excitable and interactive.
Let’s cut to the chase. This is a fish that spits. And not only does it spit, it does it with the most amazing accuracy. And then, once you think you’ve got the spitting thing totally sussed, they’ll take a random leap one day, launching themselves from the water and snatching whatever treat of food you happen to have in your hand.
I’ve wasted many an afternoon with some fishing line and a packet of plastic flies, and that was before I discovered how mad they went for a lazer pen.
Don’t try it at home, because you're not an immortal like me, but one of the funniest times I had with archers involved a plastic fly, some glue, my forehead and a pair of safety goggles. Hovering above a tank of about fifteen of the things, it took me about ten seconds to work out that the barrage rate was actually getting painful. Get one of those jets in the eye and you’ll really know about it.
5. Corydoras concolor (picture by Julian Dignall, planetcatfish.com)
Why this one? I had hundreds to choose from, from tiny habrosus, to bright golden sterbei.
The concolor is unassuming. They call it a catfish, but as far as I can see it’s more canine than that. The only thing I can think of that might be cuter than a shoal of cory’s in a line would be the feeling of getting attacked by a whole pack of dachshund puppies. Insanely cuddly little things.
I remember the day I discovered that you could feed the things using a pipette, pushing bloodworm under the surface of the sand, and then they’d bundle over and bury their heads into the substrate, little rumps wiggling as they dug down to the wormy treats beneath.
Corydoras concolor is a perfect balance between size, shape and posture. To me, they seem more upstanding than most other corys, almost more regal in their attitude to the world. And unlike other cats with their contrasting lines, squiggles and blotches, the concolor just effortlessly shades itself from dark to light, with good specimens having a flaming bronze colour toward the end of the body.
4. Pictus catfish, Pimelodus pictus
If the cory is too canine for a catfish, then the pictus is everything that a feline aficionado could hope for.
So what makes a catfish a catfish? The whiskers, of course! And what whiskers the pictus have, trailing down either side of their bodies as they swim, like some underwater Salvador Dali.
Their body shape shames the sleekest of sports cars, and to see one is to see an example of what would happen if someone were allowed to design their own fish out of the coolest bits of all the other species. They carry a more predatory air than sharks, and their markings make them look like they should roam the oceans in huge, blood frenzied packs, growing 20' long and eating seals and surfers.
Nobody ever seems to do these fish justice, opting for a pair at best in a community. C’mon people! Someone get a group of twenty in a long, wide aquarium with decent flow, and go for the species tank that I’d die for. Don’t make me beat you to it…
3. Masked Julie, Julidochromis transcriptus (picture by Ad Konings)
The ever-refined cylindrical Tanganyikan gem. In fact, I suspect that it was seeing one of these for the first time in a species only tank that woke me up to what you could do in fishkeeping.
This was the first fish I ever bred, and I was ecstatic. I had Julidochromis transcriptus in with J. marlieri at the time, and when one species would spawn, the other would help to protect the fry, herding them up like their own. That’s something that always sticks, your first breeding success, and these fish fast reproduced their way into my heart.
I’ve not had one of these for about 15 years now, and it’s the one single fish that I keep promising I’ll do a set up for. They are, to my mind, the most manageable of the lake cichlids, and they do exactly what I expect a rift valley cichlid to do. They’re attractively marked, they set boundaries, they peruse rocks, they breed, and they give me a look whenever I view them that almost says "What the hell are you looking at?" Best cichlids in the world.
2. Blue streak basslet, Pseudochromis springeri
The moment I see one of these on a shop tour, I’m buying it. I visited TMC a little while back and they had one on display, all on its lonesome. I was tempted to tell my colleague to fire up the car and get ready for me to come running out with a single fish in a bag, beating off staff with a lump of wood the whole way. I’d put up a good fight for a Blue streak.
I love these fish almost beyond compare. Absolute jet-black bodies, so dark they’ve nearly got their own event horizon, offset by blue Jamiroquai streaks on the face make them the most visually impacting fish I’ve ever had the pleasure to see.
Not only have they got the looks, they’ve got brains, too. These bolshie fish learn fast and seem to lack all fear. They recognise their owner to the point of coming out to make their presence known when he or she is about, and their curiosity knows no bounds. They have a look in their eyes that brings out every grain of anthropomorphic sentiment that I have. They’re aware. They know. If I dropped a Rubik’s cube in the tank and came back two days later, they’d have solved it.
On the downside, they are pretty suicidal. The spinning blades of a pump are an intellectual challenge to them, and openings in the tank are a pathway to adventure that they cannot resist.
Find one, engage with it, and you’ll see exactly what I mean. When we humans wipe ourselves out, it won’t be insects that take over the world, it’ll be Blue streaks. And they’ll probably do a better job of looking after the place than us.
1. Shanny, Lipophrys pholis
The single, best fish in the whole universe. These are a native species to the UK, and I met these both in my public aquaria days, as well as in the numerous rockpools I used to scavenge through for most of my childhood. I had a poor family, we had to eat what we could find.
A shanny is the cheekiest fish you’ll ever meet. If I didn’t know better I’d say that they were hardwired to play. They’ll come over and sit on your hand while your working in their tank, and if you’re lifting rocks up or changing décor then they’ll be right there, having a look underneath and generally getting in the way.
They’ll even come out of water to get what they want. I used to have loads of them in a shallow touchpool tank, and one day left a load of chopped squid on a rock out of the water while I sorted out the lid on the tank next to it. When I looked back, a shanny was dragging himself out of the water, working his way up the rock several inches to where the food was. Once there he snatched up one juicy tentacle and slipped back down into the water, while I stood there spluttering into the air and pointing like a fool at a pile of dead squid on a stone.
Their colours are subtle, but intricate. Look closely and it’s a mosaic of green and spots, with lines and squiggles thrown in. Yeah, they don’t have immediate wow factor visually speaking, but once you get hooked on them they’re addictive for life. Think of them as an acquired taste, like fine wines, or exotic tea.
Even now, if I go to a public aquarium, I won’t go near the big tanks. Sharks? Pah. Ray tanks? Boo. Give me a quiet tank full of shanny and I’ll be sat there for hours, catching up on old times.
And that’s my 10. I apologise to the barbs, who didn’t get so much as a look in, to the pike who always thought we were close, and to the pufferfish, who always seemed to believe they would be safely sat somewhere in the top five.
Now it’s your turn. What’s in your own top ten of fish, and why? Told you it was difficult, didn’t I?
Why not take out a subscription to Practical Fishkeeping magazine? See our latest subscription offer.