It started with ...a kiss...

There is something about those early days in the aquarium hobby that's special...Especially if, like me, you grew up around aquariums and fishes! Who forgets the first aquarium and the fishes we were exposed to, right? You know, the ones that started this whole crazy hobby adventure for us? 

I remember an aquarium, way back when I was probably 8-9 years old, which captivated my attention. It was at my sister's friend's house- right smack in the entryway to their home:  What I believe to be a 40 gallon "Show" tank (based on my recollection of its size and proportions). Metal framed..It was on one of those ubiquitous metal type stands, straight out of the early 1970's, decorated with hanging fishing nets and dried starfish- you know, pure kitsch!

Yet, this an captivated me like few other things did at the time. I used to love when my sister would drag me over to her friend's house, because I'd just park myself in front of the tank and do what comes naturally for a fish geek- Just fully "geek out" in front of it, taking it all in... Of coarse, my sister's friend also had a sister who I had a little crush on, so that didn't hurt, either😍!

In addition to the classic turquoise-colored gravel, petrified wood, and plastic plants, the tank had another appeal for me: A cool variety of fishes, including what I thought was the coolest thing out there at the time: a group of "Kissing Gourami", Helostoma temminckii. Of course, at the time, I was enamored by its goofy appearance, calm demeanor, and the iconic "kissing" behavior that would occasionally occur. 

(Pic by Green Yoshi used under CC BY- S.A. 3.0)

Now, at the time, I had no idea that this was a behavior that took place between rival males (and females, too, so I've heard) and was sort of the equivalent of a "sparring contest" - a face off between rivals for the fish, and was hardly the charming display of affection I interpreted it as. And of course, I had no idea at the time that these fish could reach a size of 8-10 inches or more and live up to 25 years! I mean, a group of 5 of these in a 40 gallon community aquarium seemed just fine at the time! I wanted some! I mean, they were only like 2 inches long! They'd "fit", right?

Ahh, ignorance.

(pic by Jorn Kussender  Used under CC BY-S.A. 2.0)

Of course, what that fish actually did for me was to further my efforts to petition my parents for a larger aquarium for my bedroom. The 5-gallon, metal frame tank I had since age 5 was no longer cutting it! I needed something larger. Time to step up to the big leagues. I knew instinctively that I could never successfully lobby for a 40 gallon aquarium, but I might just be able to make a case for a 15-20 gallon tank!

Of course, it didn't hurt that my dad was a fish geek, with 3 aquariums full of fancy guppies  in the living room of our modest suburban home at the time. He was the guy who got me into this thing- he was the guy I could make my case to!

Of course, I did press my dad for the BIG tank (40 gallons)...and of course, he "counter-offered" with a more realistic 10 gallon tank. With a little more back-and-forth, and some "incentives" in place, tied in to a better grade in math, I was able to secure approval for a 15 gallon tank! Little did I know that these negotiation exercises would come in handy decades later, when I purchased my first home (yet another benefit of being a fish geek!)!

I'm pretty sure that each of us felt we got the best end of the deal: I got my larger tank- my mom and dad got little "Scotty" to shoot for an "A' in math! Win-win.

And of course, before I finally got the tank, there was a tremendous amount of research being done about all of the new, cool fishes I'd get! I had to keep a few of my favorites from the 5-gallon, like my Leopard Danios, the Corydoras aenus, and my small school of Glowlight Tetras! Other than those guys, it was a clean slate! And of course, I was able to negotiate, through a series of concessions, being able to keep the 5 gallon in operation after the new tank was in place! Yeah, my first foray into "MTS" (Multiple Tank Syndrome"), and I was only like 9. This boded really well for my future as a fish geek!

And of course, with the larger tank, I discovered that the accessories and equipment required had to be scaled up...And THIS is where my dad cleverly got me. Being an accountant, he wanted to teach me the value of money- and the lesson I was about to learn hit home: I had negotiated the tank, but the equipment I was to supply (unless I wanted some of his "hand-me-down" stuff from his old tanks, which, of course,  I did not!). And I learned the lesson that has served me well during a lifetime of fish-geeking: Larger aquariums require larger, more sophisticated equipment and accessories, and that adds to the expense.

We all know this basic thing, of course- but to a 9-year-old who wanted Kissing Gouramis, it was a most important lesson!

Well, it took a lot longer to accumulate all the gear I wanted for the new tank, and a lot more of my allowance than I wanted to spend; a painful, but necessary tradeoff! I think this is when I really learned about discipline and patience in the hobby...staring at the shiny new, but decidedly empty aquarium in my bedroom, accumulating a little "patina" of dust as it awaited being outfitted for operation for several months.

And I didn't let those months go to waste.

I agonized over the stock list. I selected black gravel ('cause that was the COOLEST thing going at the time- and unfortunately, the priciest), an outside filter powered by an air pump (a LARGER, more expensive air pump than I had before, mind you), decided to go with live plants ( in my brand-spanking new black gravel bed.. Great decision, huh?), and painted the background of the tank a deep brown (hey, even then I had this affinity for that color, huh?).

Finally came the day everything was set up.

Very exciting! Then to get some fishes in there. I remember going down to the LFS with my mom to get my first fishes- naturally, the "Kissing Gouramis" were at the top of the list. Of course, they were not in stock at the time, so I had to wait and get some others (I think I got some Red Swordtails and some Rasboras). Still was pretty excited, but really wanted those Gouramis!

And as the months passed and more and more fishes were added to my tank, the painful realization came that I was out of room for any new fishes- let alone, the damn Kissing Gouramis. Nonetheless, on a foray out to the LFS, I found some, and was ready to pull the trigger and finally grab the fish I had been coveting for almost 2 years at this point! Of course, the owner of the LFS, a sort of scruffy, old-school-type fish guy named Karl, was acutely aware of all of my fish purchases, as well as the size of my tank. He'd have none of this nonsense from the kid with a plan.

When I went to grab the Gouramis and fulfill my destiny- "tough love" set in...

Karl was quick to tell me, "Scott- your tank is pretty much full. Besides, you know those Kissing Gouramis can get too large for your tank.."

Damn. Thwarted. By my fish dealer, no less! My source. I was done. Finished. Couldn't get those fishes. Not at his store. And quite frankly, not anywhere else, either- because... I knew better...and so did my dad. Yet another valuable lesson for my fish-keeping "career":

You can't always get what you want.

Flash forward about 8 years...As a teen, I now had a 40-gallon breeder in my room (yeah, I finally pulled that one off!). I was looking for inspiration. I thought about some more fishes to add to the interesting mix I had accumulated: Loaches, "Sharks", Some "Moss Green" Tiger Barbs, Rasbora, Pineapple Plates, and some larger Tetras. Tons of live plants...The tank looked AWESOME! Classic.

It was pretty full.  But I wanted more. Different. On a visit to the LFS,  I spied the fish of my youth...the Kissing Gourami! And the stigma of Karl the owner being there to chastise me about my tank size and population was not a factor, as he had sold the store a couple of years back! I was footloose and fancy free- and damn rebellious, too!

Time to grab a group.

And I was about to. then I noticed one of the Gouramis cowering in the corner of the dealer's tank, shimmying away. I knew what that meant. No go. Don't. And being the arrogant, "I-want-it-now" teen with the New Wave haircut and accompanying attitude, I threw caution to the wind and pulled the trigger anyways: "Bag up these 5, please", I said, motioning to the seemingly healthy ones. They'd do fine, I reasoned. They weren't showing any signs of illness.

Quarantine. What's that?

Yeah, you know what happened: Into the tank the new Kissing Gouramis went. They looked just fine. I fulfilled my destiny, and at age 15, was finally about to have the fish I had coveted for almost a decade! I earned this! I was stoked! 

That lasted all of about 48 hours, as every fish in the tank, including the Gouramis, began to clamp their fins, shimmy, and expire one by one. Along with my other fishes...No amount of "Rid Ich", "Quick Cure", or whatever other meds I had at the time did the trick- I had bet against the house and was felt a losing hand. Arrogance had gotten the best of me. 

I lost every fish but two.

Those damn Kissing Gouramis! THEY CAUSED THIS! THEY'RE A CURSE!

No, actually- my lack of judgement, impulsiveness, and youthful impatience caused it. My flaunting the basic rules of aquarium keeping- to which I had been brought up to follow practically since I could walk-did me in this time.

A painful, humbling, invaluable lesson that I would never, ever forget. Even today, when I see a Kissing Gourami, I shudder just a bit, perhaps reminded of the painful lesson form that dark period in my fish keeping career. I came to call it "The Curse of The Kissing Gourami"- but really, it was no curse- it was the predictable end product of not doing what I knew I should have done- for tempting fate and throwing caution to the wind when it was not necessary...

Super painful. Unforgettable.

It's served me well. Very well. I've long since recovered from that painful reckoning, but the lesson that it taught me about patience, skepticism, fundamental- and, oh, yeah- quarantine of all new additions- has made me a much better hobbyist. So, I do still call it "The Curse of The Kissing Gourami", but I know now what it really was: A lesson. An awakening. A blessing, really. A factor in my growth and maturity, in both fish keeping and other facets of life.

I have never kept a Kissing Gourami since. Probably never will.

However, those five fishes which paid for my arrogance with their lives helped me in ways I couldn't even comprehend back then.

And to those of you, who've learned those painful lessons. Or have yet to experience the pain, I say to you- learn.

Grow. Listen. Don't forsake the fundamentals.

Stay humble. Stay inquisitive. Stay focused. Stay honest with yourself.

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics


Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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