The aquarium hobby will challenge you in every way. Push you, tease you, even taunt you at times. However, if you do things right; listen to Nature's clues...She'll reward you- often in ways that you never considered.
It occurs to me that some of the best moves I have made as an aquarist were not as a result of jumping right into something...No, rather- the best moves I've made were consistently the result of smaller, slower, more measured moves...Stuff that took what seemed like eons to accomplish...And yielded long-term results that were well worth the wait.
Most of them are predicated on one simple idea:
What's 'radical" about patience? Is there some special meaning to this? Well, not really. It's as much about common sense as anything, actually. Yeah, common sense.
That is- not jumping right into something...taking a bit of time- or even a long time- to allow your aquariums to "run in" and develop before pushing them along. I mean, why are we always in such a hurry to get fishes in?
Having set up more than a few systems in my time, I never seem to be surprised at my own true hobbyist-style impatience!
Let’s face it—once we get the plumbing done, the lighting tweaked, leaks sealed, and aquascaping set, we’re all seemingly hell-bent on getting some fishes in there! I mean—we’ve waited so long for “first water” in the tank that it’s time to enjoy the fruits of our labor.
It's like we need to get the fishes in there right away…even just a few, right?
Can’t really blame us, huh?
However, there may be some compelling reasons to wait just a bit longer…
Would you like to move into a house which didn’t have a refrigerator full of food? I wouldn’t, for sure. Unlike humans, fishes seem to have not lost their "genetic programming" for grazing and hunting for food. Let’s face it—most of the waking hours of aquatic animals are devoted to acquiring food and reproducing. They need to have some food sources available to "hunt and graze" for.
So why not help accommodate our your animals’ needs by supplementing their prepared diet with some “pre-stocked” natural foods in their new home? You know, slow down, get things "going" a bit, and then add the fishes?
I’m not talking about tossing in a few frozen brine shrimp hours before the first fishes go in the tank—I’m talking about a deliberate, systematic attempt to cultivate some living food sources within the system before a fish ever hits the water! Imagine a “new” system offering numerous foraging opportunities for it’s new inhabitants!
And in our world, that might mean allowing some breakdown of the botanicals, or time for wood or other botanicals to recruit some biofilms, fungi- even turf algae on their surfaces before adding the fishes to the aquarium.
“Scott. You’re being impractical here! It could take months to accomplish this. I’ve just spent tons of money and time setting up this tank and you want me to deliberately keep this tank devoid of fishes while the biofilms form and Daphnia reproduce?”
I am a bit crazy. I’ll give you that.
Yet, with my last few systems, this is exactly what I did.
And you know what?
It works really well.
For years, I did this in reef tanks.. and as a result of the "Radical Patience" thing, I was keeping Pipefishes and Mandarin Dragonets- notoriously difficult feeders-in the tank from “stocking day one” in my last few reef tanks with no losses, and fat and happy fishes actively foraging for their natural food sources between regular feedings.
(Synchiropus splendens, the Mandarin Dragonet. Image by Luc Viatour. Used under CC BY-SA 3.0)
I’m no genius, trust me. I don’t have half the skills many of you do but I have succeeded with many delicate “hard-to-feed” fishes over my hobby “career.”
However, I'm really f- ing patient.
Success is simply a result of deploying..."Radical patience." The practice of just moving really slowly and carefully when adding fishes to new tanks.
A really simple concept.
I mean, to some extent, we already deploy this practice with our blackwater/brackish, botanical-style tanks, right? The very process of creating a botanical-style aquarium lends itself to this "on board supplemental food production" concept. A sort of "food web" that's pretty analogous to those found in Nature, right?
And it plays right into the work that we regularly do as botanical aquarium fans...
For many fishes and ornamental shrimp, you "stock" your tank with some leaves and other botanicals and allow them to begin to break down a bit before stocking. Hardly a radical concept in our world; merely a simple "tweak" our typical way of doing stuff.
However, I'm always surprised at how a seemingly simple tweak can yield disproportionately great results! It's not like there is any special skill required in order to wait. I mean, it just requires self-discipline (and perhaps, the ability to stare into a tank devoid of fishes for just a bit longer, lol). And if you really plan right, like I did with my all-leaf litter tank some time back, the tank can run with fat, happy fishes for many months, subsisting only on the food the tank produces. I know several other hobbyists who have done this with similar results.
Assemblages of softer botanicals, which soften as they decompose, and leaves which "recruit" biofilms and fungi, form a secondary food source for many fishes and animals.
We know this. It's pretty much inevitable in our tanks, right?
So why not simply allow this to happen before adding your fishes?
Of course, the easy part is adding the botanicals and/or crustaceans, worms, etc. (if you choose to go the extra step) into your tank.
We more-or-less do this already, right?
The hard part is waiting longer to add fishes.
Wait a minimum of three weeks—and even up to a month or two if you can stand it, and you will have a surprisingly large population of micro and macro fauna upon which your fishes can forage between feedings.
Having a “pre-stocked” system helps reduce a considerable amount of stress for new inhabitants, particularly for wild fishes, or fishes that have reputations as “delicate” feeders.
And think about it. This is really a natural analog of sorts. Fishes that live in inundated forest floors (yeah, the igapo again!) return to these areas to "follow the food" once they flood.
It just takes a few weeks, really. You’ll see fungal growth. You'll see some breakdown of the botanicals brought on by bacterial action or the feeding habits of small crustaceans and fungi. If you "pre-stock", you might even see the emergence of a significant population of copepods, amphipods, and other creatures crawling about, free from fishy predators, foraging on algae and detritus, and happily reproducing in your tank.
We kind of know this already, though- right?
This is really analogous to the tried-and-true practice of cultivating some turf algae on rocks either in or from outside your tank before adding herbivorous, grazing fishes, to give them some "grazing material."
Radical patience yields impressive results.
I realize that it takes a certain patience- and a certain leap of faith-to do this. I’ve been doing it for a while and I can tell you it works.
If you like delicate or difficult-to-feed fishes, or even if you simply want to try something a bit different "just because", it’s a technique that could help you succeed where you might have failed in the past with some specimens.
The point of this practice is pretty simple. Embrassingly so, actually: To help develop—or I should say—to encourage the development and accumulation of some supplemental natural food sources in the system before they are quickly devastated by your fishes.
It's kind of the "refugium" concept yet again.
It's really a whole little concept which needs a lot more exploration. It's easy to do. It simply requires some planning, observation, execution...and a lot of patience.
It’s perhaps a bit against the grain of popular practice, but I commend you for even considering the idea. You could play it out in all sorts of ways, even going so far as to "scape the tank with materials known to recruit more fungal growth, biofilms, algae, or other beneficial supplemental food sources.
Just thinking from a different angle.
At the very least, just considering different aspects of your fishes' "in tank experience" when creating and stocking a tank is a very cool thing.
Besides, what’s the big rush, really?
You’ll develop a whole new appreciation for nature when you develop this form of "radical patience!"
Until next time.
Stay observant. Stay diligent. Stay methodical. Stay bold. Stay patient...
And Stay Wet.