Your fish houses: Julian Dignall

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Having geared for a trip into Scotland, Nathan Hill couldn't pass up the opportunity to interview a man with a mission to find out all he can about catfish.


Julian Dignall is one of those lifelong hoarders of all things fishy, owning a glut of journals, papers, out-of-print books, trinkets (like the one pictured below) livestock and so much more — all legacy of true immersion in aquatics and collecting tours around the world.

Known online simply as Jools, he’s the man behind the Planet Catfish website, among others, and has invested vast amounts of time to bring his vision of global catfish appreciation to life.

Speaking candidly to the man at his Scottish home, it soon becomes clear that the real driver behind Planet catfish is the craving for knowledge. Julian is passionate about all the fish in his possession, as well as those that are not.

The Planet Catfish project was born way back in 1996 from a desire to collate all silurid knowledge into one place, and it’s apparent that Julian is not averse to digging in and absorbing some of that himself.

If his thirst for knowledge and enthusiasm for livestock seems relentless, then his fish room is the physical proof of this passion. Here is a man with a dedicated 30 tanks — and it feels that, given the chance, he’d have many more.

Unusually for a fish fancier, Julian prides himself on keeping fish for all of their natural lives, and in some cases afterwards, too.

He’s not a whimsical snatcher of new species, keeping them for a few months before moving on to something else. He goes out of his way for something special and maintains a lifelong bond. As such, there are some very established fish at the Dignall home, like the 13 year old Brochis, collected in person from the Amazon.

He opts for individual filtering of tanks, some with external canisters, some with internals and some with multiple internals — especially where fish are uncannily filthy and live in an environment close to sawdust. Thermofilters are favoured for larger tanks, but given the insulated nature of this purpose-built aquatic arena, it’s hard to imagine them firing up often.

The fish room was built in 2007. Progress was laborious, with jobs as the painting of the backs and sides of tanks taking several days. You soon note that there isn’t a single tank with less than three sides obscured, giving comfort to these generally secretive and shy fish.

Julian also explains that the bases of each tank are blackened out, given their stacking arrangement, to prevent the algae forming on the bases, underneath the sand or rounded gravel substrates, where bubbles of gases are formed and creating potential pollution problems.

Maintenance of this lot takes around 20 minutes daily, including a rotational waterchanging system, cleaning of filters and feeding. Upstairs, there’s an aerated water tank to prepare mains water for aquarium use. With hard plumbing in place, Julian has a water supply as and when he needs it to make everything more time efficient.

Why this love of catfish?

I wanted to find out why Julian loves catfish so much, so pressed him for those reasons — and was pleasantly surprised.

Like an extension of the Planet Catfish website, this fish room is geared to knowledge, and that’s what Julian wants from his collecting exploits.

Collecting trips

He has gone further than most lay aquarists in tracking down the objects of his affection in the wild and he has undertaken four collecting trips to South America, two to North America, two to Africa and one to India. So, clearly, when he browses for livestock his horizons stretch far beyond the local fish store.

Julian feels there is still so much we don’t know about catfish and he’s embarked on a crusade to fill in the gaps — and not just out of curiosity.

As he explains, there’s an onus on fishkeepers to learn all they can about their fish, especially where previously unseen species are concerned. Such knowledge is owed, not just to each other but more importantly to the fish as well.

Julian is so dedicated to his crusade that he’s never strayed from the freshwater hobby.

Marines are not for him, nor will there be any likelihood of any turning his head. He feels the freshwater side of the hobby, especially catfish, is simply too vast to be able to collect all we want.

Favourites of the fish house

All of Julian’s fish are delightful, but some stand head and shoulders above the rest. There are undescribed species, lone representatives of bycatch, breeding projects and fish few human eyes have seen.

If you like obscure, this is the place to visit…

Catfish are clearly legion, though there's a surprising gathering of non-silurid forms too. Betta macrostoma are here, as well as Cryptoheros cichlid strains and Pseudocrenilabrus.

Gracing Julian’s office there’s even a community-esque display with a host of Mystus catfish, Sewellia loaches, home spawned Pethia and one of the finest and best-behaved Red- tailed black sharks in the land!

However, I came for the specialities and here's what I really found myself coveting...

Neosilurus ater (above)

Julian calls them the ‘kangaroos of the fish world’. Eel-tailed catfish are instant eye magnets and capable of hitting 45cm/18” or so, although the individuals he keeps are just over 20cm/8”.

The best way to describe these magnificent critters is to think of the front half of a Giraffe catfish with the rear half of a tadpole and a knifefish. Snuffling about underneath rainbowfish, these were my favourites of the day – and one of Julian’s self-confessed great loves.

Australasian by origin, they tend not to appear in the UK shops that often, although their care isn’t so difficult.  Acidic waters of around 6.5 to 7.5pH, temperatures between 20- 27°C/68-81°F, and a diet of meaty foods and insects will keep them on top form.

They’re safe too, not even bothering to eat smaller fishes.

Leporacanthicus heterodon

The Golden vampire plec has to be sought out, but when visible at Julian’s fish room it’s a sight to behold.

Apparently a smaller fish, only recorded as reaching a shade over 10cm/4” and with liking for warmer waters at 26-29°C/79-84°F, these territorial cats are the domain of the real ‘fishionado’. Adult sizes remain a contentious issue, as congeners do grow somewhat larger.

They have a meatier palate than most, but will fit in nicely in that hot-house South American tank you might be planning. Yummy.

Peckoltia snethlageae – L141

Another charming L- number you need to work hard to see, this white-seamed treat with uncertain taxonomic destination is real eye candy if maybe an acquired taste.

Pretty unfussy as regards specific water requirements and even temperature, they’re forgiving fish that should find a home in more tanks than they do. They don’t even reach 15cm/6” fully grown.

Centromochlus schultzi

Here’s a driftwood catfish you’ll not have come across before, unless you’re Julian, and I was delighted to lay eyes on one for the first time!

This adorable species is exclusively an insect feeder, retaining those whiskers in crevices either side of the face until ready to feed, which it then does directly from the surface as it snatches at fallen and unsuspecting swimming bugs.

Being a crepuscular hunter it’s not out much, but when it is it’s a real reward. Watch this space for possible future imports.

As far as we know it reaches around 7.5cm/3” and adores wedging itself into wooden crevices. Beyond that, information is more vague.

Spinipterus sp.1

Another near unknown species, and likely to be the only examples here in the UK, this woodcat is best thought as being part Tatia and part Liosomadoras.

The genera was only described within the last two years and represents a perfect example of how some catfish keeping can be real 'seat of the pants' stuff when we don’t have more information to go on.

Either way, they’re charming in their own right and a fish we should all look forward to eventually seeing in our stores.

A better range than many stores!

Spread across Julian’s 30 aquaria are a selection of fishes that any hobbyist would love to access to — retailers take note!

Fish hail from all around the world here, and every tank has another exciting project. I was fascinated to see a spawning set up for Synodontis nigriventris involving a bare tank, some moss, and egg crate.

African cats make appearances around the room, with a tank of Pareutropius buffei sat alongside Synodontis membranaceous, and even the cutest dwarf Giraffe catfish.

Some of the fish here have been picked up as by-catch of other imports, such as fascinating undescribed Ageneiosus catfish, that feast on insects and play possum for defence.

Even the more day-to-day fish are thrilling. A tank housing a community of fish is home to some of the nicest Corydoras robineae you’ll see, hunkered down with Corydoras pantanalensis.

And it’s not all about catfish making up Julian’s vast assortment of fish. Look closely and you’ll not only find some exquisite anabantids, but cichlid treats like the colourful Cryptoheros panamensis.