Thinking like a fish....?

When we're planning an aquascape, we spend an enormous amount of time selecting the right materials: Rocks, plants, wood, etc., to get the right "feel" to our 'scape. This is an enjoyable and interesting phase of an aquarium build, for sure- but take yourself out of the "I'm-gonna-enter-THIS-ONE-in-the-aquascaping-contest-and-place high" mindset for just a second, and put yourself into the mindset of...a fish.

Yup. Think like a fish for a second. 

I mean, sure, I'll bet that fishes like living in those insanely cool 'scapes you see in all of the contests, but those are mainly designed and constructed for the pleasure of humans, right? Specifically, human judges, who evaluate a design based on a set of specific criteria. "Iwagumi" looks really cool, but I'd hazard a guess that you won't find many of these "submerged Stonhenge" features in the natural streams and rivers of the world.

I'm just gonna go out on a limb and make that speculation...

So what about how the fishes interact with the aquascape you create? 

My suggestion?

Again: Think like a fish a bit more. Really. It might be kind of fun-and educational- to think about where fishes are found in natural streams, lakes, and rivers...and "work backwards." Hell, fisherman have been doing this for eons...why not fish hobbyists?

Let's look at some of the features in natural bodies of water where fishes are commonly found...this might give you some insight into how to incorporate them into an aquascape. We can kick off this occasional "series" with a very cursory look at rivers and streams, where a good chunk of the fishes we keep in aquariums seem to come from. We've visited some of this territory quite recently in "The Tint", but we'll go just a bit more in depth today.

Here are just a few of the many features of streams and rivers that fishes LOVE to congregate in...Think about how you might consciously incorporate some of them into your next aquascape!

First off, a few "generalities." Fishes tend to live in areas where the food and protection is, as we've talked about previously. Places that provide protection from stronger current and above-and-below-water predators. Places where they can create territories and spawn and defend themselves.

Bends in streams and rivers are particularly interesting places, because the swifter water movement will typically carry food, and the fishes seem to know this. And if theres a tree branch, trunk, or a big rock (or rocks) to break up the flow, there will be a larger congregation of fishes present. So, the conclusion here is that, at least in theory, if you design your scape to have a higher "open water" flow rate, and include some features like rocks and large branches, you'll likely see the fishes hanging in those areas...

In situations where you're replicating a faster-flowing stream environment, think about creating some little "rock pockets", perhaps on one side of the aquarium, to create areas of calmer water movement. Your fishes will typically orient themselves facing "upstream" to catch any food articles that happen on by. So, from a design perspective, if you want to create a cool rock feature that your fishes will likely gather in, orienting the flow towards it would be a good way to accomplish this in the aquarium. 


Among the richest habitats for fishes in streams and rivers are so-called "drop-offs", in which the bottom contour takes a significant plunge and increase in depth. These are often caused by current over time, or even the accumulation of rocks and fallen trees, which "dam up" the stream a bit. (extra- you see this in Rift Lakes in Africa, too...right? Yeah.) Fishes are often found in drop offs in significant numbers, because these spots afford depth (which thwarts the hunting efforts those pesky birds), typically slower water movement, numerous "nooks and crannies" in which to forage, hide, or spawn, and a more restive "dining area" for fishes without strong currents. From an aquascaping perspective, this gives you a lot of cool opportunities.

If you're saddled with one of those seemingly ridiculously deep tanks, a drop-off could be a perfect subject to replicate.And there are even commercially-made "drop-off" tanks now!

Overhanging trees are common in jungle areas, as we've discussed many times. Fishes will tend to congregate under trees for the dimmer lighting, "thermal protection", and food (insects and fruits/seeds) that fall off the trees into the water. And of course, if you're talking about a "leaf litter" or botanically-influenced aquascape, a rather dimly-lit. shallow tank could work out well. Lots of leaves, small pieces of wood, and seed pods would complete a cool look. For a cool overall scene, you could introduce some riparian plants to simulate the bank as well. A rich habitat with a LOT of opportunities for the creative 'scaper!

A lot of reefers have done "cave tanks" over the years, with "live rock" creating cool overhangs and ledges.

Why not do the same thing with wood and rock and create an analogous stream/river feature that is known as an "undercut?" Pretty much the perfect hiding spot for fishes in a stream or river, and undercuts occur where the currents have cut a little cave-like hole in the rock or substrate material near the shore. Not only does this feature provide protection from birds and other above-water predators, it gives fishes "express access" to deeper water for feeding and escaping in-water predators!

Trees growing nearby add to the attractiveness of an undercut for a fish (for reasons we just talked about), so subdued lighting would be cool here. You can build up a significant undercut with lots of substrate, rocks, and some wood. Sure, you'd have some reduced water capacity, but the effect could be really cool.

In the end, design and build the aquascape that makes you happy.

However, if you're trying to create something a bit different and perhaps a bit more true to nature, you might want to take a little "field trip" to a nearby stream, river, creek, lake, etc., where fishes and other aquatic animals reside, and observe things from the perspective of how they interact with the features of the environment. My friend Reid Chung of Monsterfish Studio in Hong Kong does this often, and comes back with lots of great inspiration that reflects in his uniquely natural-looking 'scapes.

You should "get outside" and do this once in a while, too! You'll definitely leave with some inspiration, ideas, and just maybe, a slightly different perspective on aquascaping than you've previously had! 

And in the end, gaining a fresh perspective and new inspiration for your hobby is never a bad thing! So, "thinking like a fish" isn't such a bad idea, is it?

Stay inspired. Stay bold. Stay creative. Stay unique.

And Stay Wet.

Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 



Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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