Doing it differently....and more healthily.



“Oh…Fellman is back to being preachy again…”


No, actually, I’m being reflective, really, but if you want to call it “preachy”, well, ok. This is something that's been floating around in my head for a while after a deep discussion with a fellow hobbyist, and it sort of bubbled to the surface lately...

As Autumn unfolds, I’m getting ready for that most exciting of times for a fish geek: A new tank build!  And, with every build comes the usual considerations: “theme”, budget constraints, equipment choices, aesthetics, etc., etc. And, with every build, us fish geeks tend to look at things as if this is our new chance to “get it right”, as if all of the previous tanks we’ve built were part of a buildup to this "ultimate achievement." Now, that’s not an entirely unhealthy thing; I mean, we always strive to improve, to learn from past mistakes, and to constantly work at perfecting our craft.  There is nothing wrong with self improvement.


The "problem", as I see it, is that we tend to overreach at times in our attempts to create perfection. We sometimes tend to push too hard in terms of how we do things, the equipment we select, and the methods we choose. We put too much pressure on achieving some prescribed result, and overlook the fun of this whole thing. I know that I have done this over the years- sometimes with good results, but often with unintended, less-than-favorable effects. 


This time, rather than pushing myself to the limits of capability, technology, and budget just because it’s what’s “expected”, I’m spending more time enjoying the process; thinking about what gives me the most pleasure in aquarium keeping, and how I can design my system to provide that experience for me-and health for my animals. I mean, it’s a hobby, right? It’s supposed to be fun. Aquarium keeping is not like any other hobby- it’s an obsession for many, an expression of ourselves, and often a lifestyle as well. 


That’s all well and good, but, after 30-plus years in the game, I’m finally able to reflect back on my experiences in the hobby and truly put my mind into a mode of “I can really enjoy this for the right reasons…” A personal breakthrough, if nothing else. I figured I’d share my little epiphany with you, as I actually concluded some things during my planning phases that have helped me enjoy the hobby more than ever…perhaps they will benefit you…(Or, perhaps they’ll demonstrate just how far off the deep end this particular fish geek has went!)


Either way, as always, I’ll share my experiences/thoughts/ideas with you in the hope that it might just touch a few of you who occasionally (like me) tend to take this stuff a bit too seriously, and risk losing the enjoyment that we’re supposed to have from the reef keeping hobby. I’ve broken this little personal discovery down into a few points about things I know I have to to differently to have a successful, enjoyable tank. These are written to myself, from a third person point of view, so please don’t take this as me preaching down to others, ok?


Of course, we might need to think about what “success” actually means in this context. to some of us, just having a tank that holds water in our home without leaking is a plus one! For others, it needs to hit on a whole litany of points. For still others, a “successful” reef aquarium experience means to win accolades and peer approval- you know, the whole “Tank of The “Millenium”  prize that more than one hobbyist I know has coveted…




So, without further pomp and circumstance, here are my conclusions about things I’ve found that I need to do differently this time in order to achieve the results I want with my tank. Some of this you've already figured out. Some of it may seem insultingly obvious to you. And, just perhaps, some might be worth passing on to a friend:


Stop trying to create the perfect tank from the start…it will evolve- Yeah, it does happen. You don’t need a “finished product” worthy of peer accolades and compliments right from the start (or ever, but that’s a different point). Great tanks evolve over time. Wood doesn’t even get that certain “patina” for months, plants and botanicals take a long time to settle in, leaves soften gradually, and water chemistry parameters take some time to get dialed in. In short, you can’t rush nature- nor would you want to. Part of the fun is watching things evolve over time. 


Yet, we often like to accelerate this pace, for reasons not easily defined. For many hobbyists, we get into this “collector’s mode”, obsessively acquiring as many different fishes, plants, etc. as we can find- sometimes because we love them, and other times, because they are the “hot thing” at the time. I saw this in the coral game daily. For many, if you honestly assess your motives, you may find that you’re source of enjoyment in the hobby is simply the process of acquiring stuff- the “thrill of the hunt.” Nothing wrong with that, but something worth noting. For others, it’s a about growing the fishes; evolving the system. 

For all of us, it should be about letting nature run its course, as it has for eons. 


 See challenges like algae issues, parameter control, etc as opportunities to improve your skills- It may seem utterly ridiculous when there is “black beard algae” on your wood, green filament algae clogging your filter intakes, and diatoms all over the aquarium walls, but if you actually take the mindset of “Here is a chance to figure out what I’m doing wrong and how to keep it from happening again,” you may just come out of challenges with a better attitude and greater skill that will benefit you and your efforts for years!


Yeah, really, the old “when life gives you lemons…” mindset works well in aquarium keeping. Because it’s not a matter of IF you’ll have some challenges- it’s a matter of WHEN. They come with the territory; living creatures in closed systems and such always throw us the proverbial “curveballs.” Everyone freaks out- it’s human nature. However, the TRULY successful hobbyists is the one who gathers his/her wits, observes what’s going on and considers how it occurred, and tries to figure out what to do about it so that it doesn't happen again. Don’t just go “through the experience” with a problem- LEARN from it and use it as a skill enhancer.


 Don’t over analyze everything-  That’s almost laughable, coming from a guy who has become an “evangelist” for tcareful monitoring of your low pH environment. Well, yes, I can see how one can easily be caught up in “analysis paralysis”, spending tons of time chasing every parameter and freaking out over the slightest deviation. That’s not a good attitude. In fact, it’s nuts. Let’s be honest- I think information about our water parameters is important- even vital. However, it’s what you DO with the information that has the most impact. 


Chasing numbers is a maddening obsession, and not the key to success. Fanatically keeping your aquarium’s environment within your chosen parameters is not. Creating a beautiful, healthy aquarium is an amalgamation of many skills and factors. Obsessing over every single aspect of your tank is going to drive you insane- if not out of the hobby- in record time. It’s far better to set target ranges for aspects of your system’s function, appearance, and environment, than it is to force yourself into rigid parameters.


And, for goodness sake, don’t freak out over every weird noise, white spot on your Pleco, and bit of biofilm on your leaves. Sure, there are reasons for almost everything that happens in an aquarium, but you don’t need to worry about every single one. I know  some reef hobbyists who that think the world is coming to an end every time their protein skimmer goes out of whack- convinced that this is a sign of the “great reef apocalypse.” Typically, it’s just a sign that they reached into the tank with a fresh algae scrub pad, or just fed some extra food. Not worth worrying about, unless you see signs of overt distress. It’s the same in freshwater tanks…not everything is a sign of disaster, okay?


We try to relax- yet we watch, and we worry, and we ponder. Pondering is fine. Worrying is not good for your hobby experience-or your health. Don’t worry so much! Enjoy. Really.


Stop worrying about what everyone else thinks-  This is a tough one for many hobbyists, in this internet-enabled, Instagram-fueled, Twitterized, forum-driven “postmodern era” of aquarium keeping, we’re literally besieged hourly by dozens of examples of “amazing” tank build threads, DIY projects, fish acquisition success stories, and assertions that “THIS” is the way to succeed at aquascaping an aquarium. And, with the online forum “community” elevating various actively-posting hobbyists to near divine status daily, we can easily feel not only humbled, but downright insignificant or irrelevant as aquarists. This is a really bad thing to get sucked into. 


I can’t stress it enough: If you have a vision, and idea- a theory- and the ability to act upon it…do it! Don’t listen to the naysayers, the followers, the sheep. There are always plenty of self-appointed critics hiding behind the security of their keyboards and a window with Google open- ready to show you a dozen reasons why what you’re proposing is not going to work.


And there are always plenty of people heaping adoration on the hobbyists that seem to be doing “cool” stuff…tried and true, but maybe not the direction that your heart tells you to go. You’re not in the aquarium hobby to impress anyone- let alone, the masses. You’re probably in this hobby simply because you love keeping fishes, plants, and aquariums. These are the right reasons. Just because you may have a contrarian bent- an idea that seems to go against “conventional aquarium-thinking” (whatever that may be), doesn’t mean that it’s wrong, or no good, or not worth pursuing. In fact, that’s all the more reason to go with your gut! So what if you may not be “popular”…so what if you take a few hits from naysayers…You’re following your own road. The irony is, that by being successful at something radically different or previously out of fashion- you might just end up with the adoration that you previously scorned. Weird, huh?


Grit, passion, and determination can take you farther than style, money, and gadgets- Anyone can throw together an uber-pricy tank with all the latest gadgets, name-drop-able plants, rocks, and  crazy “collector’s” fishes. Anyone can hire “experts” to make it for them. Not everyone can create a great aquarium; one that takes time, patience, and the occasional dose of failure. Not everyone can rise from setbacks, mistakes, and outright catastrophes- and create an amazing tank, propagate that awesome plant, or breed that fish once though impossible. Only those who have the conviction, perseverance, and determination can create a tank that is truly worth admiration.


Don’t for one minute think that your little tank with a pair of Bettas and a healthy growth of Aponogeton is any less amazing or interesting than the 2,500 gallon river tank that some well-heeled hobbyist somewhere is building and splashing all over the forums. This attitude, in my opinion- is near "epidemic" in the reef side of the hobby. Your effort, your drive- your love for the animals under your care is every bit as impressive- if not more so- than anything that all of the cash and flash can achieve. 


As we start a new season, pause for just a moment to reflect how awesome this hobby really is…and how fortunate that we are to enjoy the gorgeous animals that we love so much. Always remember the amazing responsibility we shoulder as reefers to provide the best possible care for the animals under our care, and for their well-being.


And then, remember how fun this whole game really is- when you let yourself enjoy it!

Have fun…Don’t take the hobby too seriously. Stay dedicated. Stay original. Stay inspired.

 And most important of all…

Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics



Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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