Events that shape us in the hobby...

Ever had something happen with your fishes-good or bad- in which you had no clue how to proceed?

I remember when I was about 14 years old, I had a 20 gallon "community aquarium", consisting mostly of my fave fishes- characins. I woke up one early morning to see most of the fish huddled in the corner-very unusual- with the exception of my large (like 10) school of Neon Tetras, darting all over the tank in a most unusual fashion. Every once in a while, a couple would stop and sort of press together, twitch a bit...and release a cloud of eggs!


That was so cool! And it was not something that happened every day back then...A pretty unusual occurrence- and it happened in MY tank!

And of course, it was on a school day, so I was really going to be distracted. Could I fake being sick...Umm, no- I was really sick just the week before and 100% better, so that "option" was off the table. Screwed.

How to talk to? Who to call? Where to look for information? My aquarium "library", which consisted of a few well-worn copies of Tropical Fish Hobbyist and a few basic books on aquarium keeping (save the antiquated edition of Innes' "Exotic Aquarium Fishes", which only had the initial description of the "new and exotic" Neon, and Axelrod's "Exotic Tropical Fishes", which just sort of glossed over any real details on their spawning...something to the effect that "they're egg layers, scattering them throughout the plants and substrate." Well, I knew that already!


My dad was a very experienced tropical fish hobbyist, but he was a guppy breeder, and had no experience with egg layers to speak of. His support and general hobby knowledge were invaluable and a huge help to me thus far in my hobby "career", but he was out of his own comfort zone with this one. He did his best to offer up some generic advice, but even he knew I needed more information from someone with experience. 

And, mind you- this was "pre internet"- I couldn't just jump on Google, Wikipedia, or any of a hundred tropical fish forums. It would take either a phone call or letter to an experienced breeder...not going to happen. 

Of course, when I had the chance, later in the day, I called my LFS, and the owner, a surly British woman named Shirley, promptly dismissed my call as a near absurdity, "Neon's don't lay EGGS!" was all I remember from that phone call..."But, it happened in my tank this morning...!"


Yikes, no help from the "friendly LFS!"

From that point on, I realized I was sort of on my own. 

So what did I do? I wanted the eggs to hatch. I wanted to raise the fry. I wanted it to happen again! 

One thing I didn't do was panic. Even at a young age, I knew that wouldn't help.

I did what any self-respecting fish geek would do. I sat down and tried to think of what I DID know that could help. One thing in my favor was that I kept a little "fish journal" with all sorts of notes, observations, and facts on my fishes...turned out to be a very good and useful habit! I could refer often to my own "body of work" if I needed it for something just like this!

WelI, having bred a number of fishes already, the idea of rearing small fry was not alien to me; and, in retrospect- other than the fact that these were a fish I'd revered and never even thought of breeding, they were egg laying fishes, much like the "Flame Tetras" and even the Zebra Danios I'd reared before, albeit semi-successfully. Just feed 'em, right?

I tried to "retrace" what it was that led to the spawning in the first place. Turns out, even back then I was experimenting with tannins. Inspired by a vintage 1970's book called "Aquarium Ecology", I decided to experiment with peat moss as a means of softening the water and lowering the pH. It certainly worked! 

I had recently started feeding live brine shrimp, chopped black worms (My mom loved that!) and some Daphnia, which I had reared from stock purchased from a member of the American Killifish Association (yeah I was a member back then!).

So, two things in my favor: Good environmental conditions, similar to their natural habitat, and a nice variety of fresh foods- things that every hobbyist knows are good for fishes.

And it went on from there- I performed a routine 20% water change just a day before the event..and it turned out that the one thing I recall about it was that I had trouble heating the water to the usual 78 degrees Fahrenheit that I kept my tank at; it was more like 75 at the time. I was a bit concerned, but everyone seemed to be okay.

A clue?

Yeah, perhaps this simulated an influx of water from a rainstorm? Don't a lot of fishes spawn after rainstorms in nature? And there was that event where my lighting timer mysteriously failed and the lights came on much later than normal...

And it just went on from there. I stayed calm, gave it a lot of thought, and noted all of the things that seemed to occur before the spawning event. Some were totally random- others, like the temperature change, could have some connection.

After a few days of intensive research, I figured I had as much information as I could garner from my limited resources, and set about to intentionally try to replicate the events that occurred just before the spawning...and...


Every the stubborn type, I waited a couple of weeks, and replicated the experiment again!" Sure enough, the day after the water change, and after leaving the aquarium lights off a bit longer, another spawning event!

This time, I was ready. I did manage to collect (with incredible difficulty, I recall) a bunch of eggs. And they did hatch. And I did manage to get a few of the fry through to maturity, although the ones that randomly survived in the aquarium by hiding in the plants seemed to do better and grew faster.

But that wasn't the point. The big victory was that I had acquired that skill- that experience that only the unexpected aquarium event can provide. Rallying when the stuff you don't expect to happen, happens.

And looking back, I realized that this was how I acquired many of my "core skills" in the hobby. Sure, many things were passed down from my father and the generations of hobbyists who came before. Basic stuff we simply knew to do...

However, the real innovative ideas and game changing knowledge came through stuff happening, and figuring it out.

Experience, earned by reacting to the events that occur as a result of bing in this very cool hobby.

Next time something good or bad, but entirely unexpected happens, just remember to make curiosity your "default" setting- not panic- and see what you can gain by reacting well and attempting to learn from what is happening.

These events- the ones which shape us, are one of the best gifts we can get in the hobby.

Enjoy them. Learn from them. Remember them.

Stay focused. Stay alert. Stay curious.

And stay wet.

Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics


Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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