Nathan Hill visits an aquarist who feeds infrequently, avoids water changes and has some of the healthiest stock in the land. Welcome to the topsy-turvy world of snakehead keeping.
"Fat fish in a heated aquarium, that’s the greatest problem for the snakehead keeper," Paul Jones tells me. I’ve come to his north Wales home to see what might be an unrivalled Channa collection. Walking through the door and taking my first glance, I concede to him that I’m in over my head. This man knows his fish inside and out, and all I can do is take notes and listen.
He’s kept fish since he was 16, starting when he witnessed a relative’s aquarium: his cousin had a community tank and it was only a matter of time before Paul had one of his own too. The 29-year-old began as a community keeper with tetras and Angelfish, but he always felt there was something missing. As much as he would fill a tank, he’d never feel happy with it.
Like many community keepers, he’s dabbled in a bit of everything. It was when he was visiting a local breeder to pick up Fire eels that he stumbled across his first snakeheads, specifically the Rainbow snakehead, Channa bleheri. This fish caught his eye as a flash of colour in another tank. "The fish went up for air," Paul says, "and slowly fluttered back down, resting on some driftwood with erect fins, just staring at me. I closed in for a better look and the fish shot straight up to me, face to face, waving his pectorals. They were the most amazing fish I’d seen. They put on a great show." Now Paul just needed to track down some for sale.
"A couple of months later I had some good news from Jaydee Aquatics who had just stocked some Channa pulchra…" That was two years ago, and since then, he’s been an out and out snakehead aficionado.
Within six months of acquiring them, he’d bred them in his first snakehead set-up: a heavily planted, 100cm/39" long Marina 160 l/35 gal tank with a Fluval 105 and hang-on filtration.
After that initial success, Paul turned his hand to other species. Currently he owns six, scattered about his home. He’s managed to successfully breed three types so far: Channa pulchra, C. stewarti, and C. gachua. When we venture upstairs to his bedroom tanks, the proof is right there, with a pair of proud C. gachua barely visible from a galaxy of their own offspring.
I ask what the appeal is with this one family of fish. "I just like the way they interact with each other. And how they interact with me,” Paul replies.
"Plus, I can breed them…" Breed them he certainly can, and in abundance.
Keep the peace
Something you notice with Paul’s tanks is the extent of planting and décor. Most of my own experiences of snakeheads involve large, barren tanks lacking substrate and décor: what I call the 'Singapore' method. Paul’s tanks couldn’t be more opposed to this. Each of them seems at first glance to be more wood, rock and plant than water.
Part of this is to break line of sight and keep the fish from fighting. “They go medieval on each other,” Paul tells me. Where snakeheads are concerned, open tanks are more like a boxing ring than a home for potential lovers and the abundant nooks, crannies and caverns he gives his fish all serve a very real purpose.
Paul tells me the only issue with such decorated tanks is that every so often he’ll find uprooted plants. Initially he’d been informed that the fish wouldn’t dig, but his own experiences proved contrary. Wild fish make burrows in nature, Paul notes, and the species he keeps all like to root about in substrates.
The décor Paul uses is visually commanding, and he’s managed to put together a fine selection of displays for mere pennies. Generic silver sand and cobbles usually line the bases, and the wood that can be seen jutting is locally collected. Likewise, his river stones, the kind that made my inner aquascaper envious, were simply hauled from local streams.
Even the leaves have come from the great, free outdoors. I ask Paul which types of leaf he’s using as litter, and he just shrugs with a wry smile. He collects them from all around, and in they go. He has no problems on the back of that.
The successful planting comes without CO2 or heavy fertiliser doses. Instead, Paul opted to follow the ‘Walstad’ method, keeping his plants potted and using organic soil to bed them into and nourish them. “They probably wouldn’t be so planted in the wild,” Paul concedes, but he prefers his tanks this way to help reduce aggression.
I also spot a heavy presence of cork tubes, the kinds normally sold for reptile keepers, weighted to the base, pinned underneath other wood or rocks to stop them floating off. Some have been allowed to drift, providing bobbing shelters, and Paul has made them both attractive as well as functional.
On top of those rafts he has further plants, mainly mosses and Java ferns, which grow terrestrially on their ‘islands’. That helps overcome the blander parts of Paul’s tanks: the dry zones. Like other anabantids, Channa are air breathers, making use of their labyrinth organs to gulp down oxygen. This means that Paul provides several inches of open space above the waterline, where air remains humid and at not too much of a temperature difference. The floating cork with its growing fern canopies helps to keep this region looking natural.
Minimise water changes
Paul tells me the key to keeping snakeheads happy and healthy is an absence of water changes. That’s a sharp contrast from everything fishy I’ve ever known, and I ask him to explain. "They like it filthy. They’re from swamps in the wild," he says. Paul cites water changing as being the biggest cause of mortality he’s had. Snakeheads hate change, especially in water chemistry.
"That’s how my pulchra died," he says. "I didn’t know at the time, and I did a water change. The male started attacking the female and she never recovered. Just leave them alone. The more you mess about with the tank, the more they mess about with each other."
Apparently, younger fish cope well with changes and alterations, but older ones, especially established pairs, detest it. Chop things up and they break their bonds, going from being best of pals to outright enemies. Breeding pairs can be ruined in an instant with an over-eager length of siphon hose and a bucket.
Paul performs small top ups to replace evaporated water. The heavy planting helps to keep on top of a lot of issues you’d expect on the back of that, quaffing down nitrates and phosphates, and the duckweed and other floaters help to reduce waste, while their prolific growth also gives the Channa the surface cover they so adore.
That’s not to say that the fish never, ever get a change of water, but it tends to be an annual affair and fraught with danger. Paul strives to replicate a yearly cycle in all aspects from temperature to rainfall, and come April he’ll run a small change to simulate a change in seasons. But that’s pretty much it.
Testing many parameters is pretty pointless, but Paul tells me that pH needs to be kept constant if the fish are to be content. Pending species, his own tanks ride somewhere between 6.5 and 6.0pH.
That dislike of change extends to decoration, too, and Paul explains that ample décor is essential. "Give them plenty of cover," he tells me. "And if they’re not happy, give them more cover."
Getting the temperature right for Channa is essential for spawning. In the wild, these are seasonal fish, triggered by meteorological changes that signal periods of impending abundance or scarcity. "They’re seasonal breeders, it’s important they experience summer and winter," Paul says.
At the time of visiting, Paul had heaters running in some tanks, as he’s emulating a long summer. Come December, those heaters go off. “They’ll go down to 10°C/50°F,” he says, though currently he’s running as high as 24 or 25°C/75 or 77°F.
He’s nervous of prolonged or excess heating. "Keep them warm too long and they get lethargic and ill," he says. In fact, it’s one of the sorry sights that he has to contend with when he looks at other, less focused Snakehead set-ups.
Paul is strict when it comes to mealtimes, adamant that he doesn’t want fat, ill fish. Dinnertime involves live inverts. Sometimes he’ll offer dead shrimp or prawns, but for the best part, his fish get a regal — and wriggling — diet.
Reptile keepers will recognise much of the menu. I watch as he places a few waxworms into a tank with a pair of attentive Channa aurantimaculata. Before he’s even got the lid open, they’re both bouncing from the condensation trays. Other food includes mealworms, earthworms and crickets. I even spy a tub of plump locusts sat on the mantelpiece.
Paul dusts his food with reptile supplements, using calcium and vitamins to keep his fish tip-top. Mealworms and crickets get gut loaded, fattened up on dandelion and cereal foods before they are, in turn, eaten. That might sound like a rich diet, but it’s really not when you consider the frequency: in Paul’s case the fish get a meal around every three to four days.
Feeding can increase pending situation. When conditioning females for breeding, rations increase to daily. They also get more than usual if rearing young.
Paul’s snakeheads have developed recognition of him as their feeder. Other people can come and go from the tank, and if they try to do anything inside it, the fish either go ballistic with concern or aggressively stand their ground. But as Paul pops his hand down to drop some food and moves a plant back for our photographer, his Channa aurantimaculata sit like well-trained hounds. Until now, I’d never seen such unflinching fish.
Paul has a particular approach to spawning. He starts off, where possible, with groups of young fish and lets a pair form on its own. Once that pair has bonded, he loses the remaining fish, as the bonded pair will kill them off. The young appear aloof and indifferent to each other until that all-important union, enjoying their shared space until they opt to settle down.
Once those other fish have been moved on, it’s a case of turning tank flows down. At that point, they might start to spawn there and then. Failing that, hibernation may be needed, which involves dropping the temperature for a few months to simulate the winter period. As temperatures pick back up (usually around April) the fish should start to go through the motions.
Pending species, water conditions may require the slightest tweaks as well. For hillstream varieties, for example, the winter usually presents a powerful flow of water with a high pH, becoming slower and more acidic in summer.
Paul adds that as temperatures come back up for spawning, food levels need to increase for a while, with greater variety than usual. Young fish might even spawn late into their first 'season'.
On average, Paul expects 300 eggs per spawn. Development rates vary with temperature. For Channa stewartii, it took ten days of mouthbrooding at 18°C/64°F until the young were released. The gachua took six days at 24°C/75°F.
For the first five weeks the female provides food for the young in the form of a nutritious slime coating she develops. After that, Paul moves on to a mixture of lobster eggs, along with blended prawns, Cyclops and Daphnia.
"It’s easy when you know how," he tells me, smiling at his abundant gachua fry…
Paul's fish and tips for success
Channa aurantimaculata, wild-caught
Tank: ND aquatics 160 x 71 x 61cm/63 x 28 x 24" with sand substrate. Bogwood, oak branch, river rock décor and mixed leaf litter including beech leaves.
Plants: Echinodorus, Microsorum, Cryptocoryne, Hydrocotyle, Crinum, Anubias, Tiger lotus and Indian rubra.
Temperature: 25°C/77°F (will tolerate 10-30°C/50-86°F).
Water: soft, 6.5pH.
Size: up to 40.6cm/16".
Paul says: "These are found in a monsoon rainforest in north Assam. They thrive in ponds, swamps and forest streams. They’re like kids and you always need an eye on them when they are in groups. I started off with four. From the start, there was aggression and chasing. And if there’s a way out of the tank, they’ll take it when you’re not looking. That’s how I lost one during feeding. I was then left with three fish. Two of them got close and started to hunt the third. This is what happens when a pair bonds."
Channa sp. 'Maghalaya leopard'
Tank: Temporarily housed in a Juwel Reckord 120.
Temperature: Can go as low as 5°C/41°F and up to 24°C/75°F.
Water: Moderately hard, 7.0 to 8.0pH.
Paul says: "These are an undescribed species from the Khasi hills of Meghalaya, India, but they’re thought to be part of the stewartii complex. They’re super aggressive and won’t tolerate any other fish in the tank. If trying for a bonded pair, it’s best to use a divider and remove it when temperatures are on the cooler side. Watch them closely, as the divider might be needed again. I came across these online, advertised as Channa sp. 'Moonbeam galaxy'. I had my doubts and got in touch with German and Indian experts. Five out of seven agreed that they were Meghalaya leopards. All was great for 48 hours, but then the male just started hunting down the female. This is where the divider helps. If I remove one from the tank, the bond will be completely lost without the sight and scent. I’m sure some time soon they’ll be fine with divider removed."
Channa sp. 'Redfin'
Tank: Marina Style 160.
Temperature: Subtropical, between 16-27°C/61-81°F.
Water: Soft, 6.5pH.
Paul says: "These are some of the more aggressive species of snakehead from Burma. The tank should be densely aquascaped. They were German-bred by Pascal Palle Antler, a real expert on these fish. Aggression doesn’t seem to be a problem, but I only have one male in the group. The dense aquascaping helps a lot. They’re in excellent condition, at 10cm/4". I’m expecting them to pair off in spring and spawn."
Tank: Second hand 122 x 61 x 61cm/4 x 2 x 2', with gravel substrate. Rock, bogwood and branches décor.
Plants: Microsorum, Echinodorus and Hornwort.
Water: Soft, 6.0-7.5pH.
Size: up to 33cm/13".
Paul says: "These are one of three African snakehead species. I’ve been waiting two years for them, so I’m made up that I finally own some. They seem peaceful. When they display they shake their heads like they’re saying 'no', where Asian species nod their heads and snap their jaws. I’ve also noticed that they make clicking sounds as though communicating."
Channa gachua 'Dhubulia'
Tank: Second hand 160 l/35 gal, sand and gravel substrate. Bogwood, branches and river rock décor.
Temperature: Subtropical, 17-27°C/63-81°F.
Paul says: "Gachua are the widest spread Channa complex with many variants. Sizes vary from 10 to 23cm/4 to 9". These ones are found in a small lake in Dhubulia and reach about 18cm/7" in size. These fish are peaceful for a snakehead, and I’ve hardly seen any fights among themselves. At 13cm/5" they paired off and spawned. This is a male mouthbrooding species, with the female being the egg feeder."
Channa stewartii ‘violet blue’, wild caught
Tank: Juwel Rio 240, with Walsted substrate capped with sand and gravel. River rock, bogwood, cork bark and branch décor.
Plants: Aponogeton, Cryptocoryne, Echinodorus, Microsorum, Myriophyllum, Vallisneria, Anubias and Ceratophyllum.
Temperature: 20°C/68°F (will tolerate 16–27°C/61-81°F).
Water: Soft, 6.5pH.
Paul says: "The variant I have is a common lowland type, known as Violet blue as named by collector Andrew Rao. They’re one of the most aggressive snakeheads, so I ‘scaped densely to create as many caves and hidey-holes as possible. The cork bark rolls are life saving décor. I started with five 4-5" specimens and aggression was wild. Nothing would calm them. One evening I noticed the dominant male fish, appearing to chew gum — he was mouthbrooding! I moved three to another tank, and within a week another male was brooding."
Do your research
Paul’s been up against it where gathering snakehead data is concerned. "It’s all very hush-hush," he says, “"and nobody shares information. I guess people want to breed them themselves."
Facebook’s a good source of likeminded individuals. It’s also been something of an Argos catalogue, as one thing people will share is images: tempting, teasing pictures of their fish.
As with many fish, Paul suggests that key to success is research. Whichever species you’re interested in, learn it inside and out and know some of the traits associated with different regions.
"The higher the altitude, the more aggressive they are," Paul mentions when I ask about suitable species for a new keeper, adding that: "The cooler they’ve got it, the less aggressive they are."
Highland species seem a bad choice to start with. "They seem to have a different attitude to the lowland species," he says. "Channa bleheri or Channa gachua would be good for the first time snakehead keeper, as they’re not as aggressive, plus they’re smaller."
Meet the aquarist
Name: Paul Jones.
Time in the hobby: 13 years.
Number of tanks: Six.
Favourite fish: Channa aurantimaculata for snakeheads, Arapaima gigas for non-snakehead.
Most paid for a fish: £90 for a 'short bodied Red tail catfish'.
Other fish kept: Has owned Malawi cichlids, Guppies, Platies, Badis, Freshwater pipefish, Elephant nose, Silver arowana, Knife fish, Giraffe catfish, Spotted gars, Fire eels, Peacock bass, Synodontis catfish, Polypterus lapradei, Black pacu, plus a 20-year-old goldfish that still spawns annually!