Skills you have...and need.

Okay, you know I’m forever harping on you about getting the soul back into aquarium keeping, abhorring things like Facebook auctions and relegating expensive controllers to turning on and off the lights (nothing like an $800 light timer, huh?). I’ve prodded you to put down your test kits and stare at your tank more. Hey, I’m a bit cranky, but I admit it. You know a lot of my cranky knocks on some of the latest “trends” is because I think we’ve gotten away a bit from some of the basic skills that we need to be great aquarists.

A lifetime in both fresh and saltwater has taught me a few things…

So, today, I’ll put my money where my mouth is and launch into a bit on just that: Skills that I think we all need to work on to be better fish geeks. I’ll start you off with my ungainly “two cents worth”, and you fill in the large swaths of missing stuff, ok? Deal.



A keen sense of smell. REALLY? You’re starting the list off telling me I need to SMELL better? Well, yeah…Think about it. As a reef person, I have a pretty good sense of it, if I say so myself! There is nothing quite like the smell of “SPS coral death”, is there? Once we’ve smelled that, we will forever be attuned to it. I can walk in a fish room, store, or my facility and tell by smell if something is wrong…Now, cut the jokes…seriously!  As a reefer, you simply have this stuff down: Those of you who frag corals will understand and know what I mean about the” dead coral tissue” smell. You’ll also become keenly attuned to the smell of a protein skimmer that needs your attention...

I can’t use words on this family friendly site to adequately describe that one! You’ll also know the way a freshwater tank should smell when things are going well- earthy, “garden- like”, and pleasant. Bonus- you’ll learn to recognize the smell of fish food to the point where you’ll remember if you left it out of the fridge all day and rushed off to work! Bonus- if you use ozone, you’ll easily be able to discern the smell of excessive ozone, much in the way you can smell a gas leak. So yeah, a sense of smell is high underrated in aquarium keeping, but pretty important!

Plumbing knowledge. Yeah, that’s kind of a given if you're a fish geek. You need to know the difference between a “Street L” and a 90 degree slip FIPT fitting, or a ball valve and a gate valve. When you’re just starting out in the hobby with no plumbing experience, it’s a bit daunting. However, after building your first tank and several months in the hobby, you’ll be haunting the plumbing aisle at your local home improvement like an old pro…And you’ll be seriously stoked when you can apply your new found plumbing skills to something more practical, like a leaky faucet! You’ll be like, “That’s NOTHING to fix compared to setting up my fish room! Piece of Cake! I can DO this!”

Household cleaning skills. Huh? Yeah, you need to be really good at stuff like cleaning hardwood floors and carpets after those little “accidents” that seem to always happen. You need to know where every spare towel, cleaning solution, and trash bag is.  This is especially true if you have a doubting spouse, family member, or other co-habitant that already thinks you’re nuts because you spent $300 on a box of “Seriyu Stone” Knowing where the cleaning supplies are can totally save your hobby gig in an emergency.

(Especially true when the “Spouse Factor”, as they say, looms large as a potential issue. Added plus for guys- knowing how to operate the washer and dryer- and how to fold the towels to replace them in the closet as if nothing ever happened is a big plus! Better yet, have the number to the local jewelry store saved on your "Favorites" list on your phone…I’m not trying to sound sexist, but if the way to a guy’s heart is through his stomach, there seems to be no better way to a non-aquarium-keeping female’s heart than the jewelry store! It's like- factual...I consider this a “nuclear option”, of course, to be utilized when you REALLY screw something up!


Balance. Yes, you heard me. As reefers, especially those of us with larger aquariums, we spend an inordinate amount of time on step ladders, on our tip toes, and leaning over and under our tanks. It’s an inevitable part of the game. You have to be able to balance on the near top rung of the step ladder, while holding a heavy rock in one hand and a piece of wood in the other, and deftly maneuver both into position. Often, this involves a complex calculation in our head, taking into account things like depth, length, and even the refraction cause by the water’s surface.

This enables us to place things in our tanks with uncanny precision that people engaged in other hobbies can only dream of. If you're into Yoga, you do have an unfair advantage over most fish geeks, as the flexibility you’ll gain will totally save your a** one day when you’re trying to place that big piece of Spiderwood on the ledge in your rock structure while holding a wadded up ball of epoxy in the other…Mad skills.

Negotiation skills. Yeah, you need to be able to convince the guy on the other end of the counter or phone, be it at a livestock vendor, LFS, or online dry goods vendor, that you MUST have that item delivered by tomorrow, even if the odds are against him or her having it in stock for another week. Who cares if there is a waiting list that’s been in place for weeks. YOU need to be on the top of the list, because YOU must have that new light in your hands before anyone else. Getting favors out of the LFS people is a huge skill that cannot be overlooked, either. This is often a skill one develops over time by spotting weaknesses in the employees. For example, if you know that the manager has a weak spot for say,  donuts, you can’t tell me that she won’t give you the extra consideration when you walk in with a box of ‘em for the staff “just because” one afternoon, and then ask innocently if it would EVER be possible for them to net a few fry of that crazy Apisto in the display know, then one that says “not for sale!” on the tank? Seriously, this technique works..Learn it.


Weight training. Yeah, that’s actually kind of a no brainer. We are constantly lifting heavy and awkward stuff as reefers, aren’t we? I mean, a 5 gallon bucket of water is frickin’ heavy when you’re balancing on a step stool! And moving around big pieces of rock or buckets of water during changes is no easy feet. You need to have some strength as an aquarist…Of course, you can combine this strength with some of the other skills mentioned above to help leverage help when you need it! Like, knowing strong fellow hobbyists is always a huge plus when it comes time to moving that new  300 gallon tank into your living room. Cultivate fish geek friends who play rugby or American football  Other skills, such as bing a good cook, a massage therapist, and having amazing plants that people want cuttings of will definitely help you compensate if your upper body strength isn’t quite there yet. You’d be surprised how far “properly-motivated” (and strong) fish geeks will drive to help you lift a heavy tank. Uncanny.


(This one again is for my saltwater friends…specifically those who keep coral.) Ability to remove glue from fingers. Don’t overlook this skill! If you operate in just about any other business sector besides the coral trade (where it’s pretty much expected that you’ll have dried super glue on your fingers on a regular basis), you need to learn how to get the stuff off of you- and quickly! It’s not too professional for most people to have dried glue all over their fingers. Yet, as reefers, we kind of wear it as a badge of courage, a sign of respect, much as a military person has rank insignia. A reefer at the local frag swap with dried glue all over his or her hands is recognized as a VERY serious reefer…They’ve paid a heavy price in both skin and glue. Nonetheless, it’s equally as important to learn how to use the proper solvents to get this crap off after you’re done fragging up that massive efflo! Especially if you’re on the singles scene, dried glue is not cool. Knowing when and how to remove glue are overlooked and highly necessary skills!


Okay, I’ve started you off with seven vital skills and attributes that you must have as a fish geek. I have overlooked literally dozens in this abbreviated list. The aquarium world is counting on you to share the secrets you know…Please don’t let us down. Let’s see your contributions to the leaky “tank of knowledge” that is “aquarium culture!”

Have a great day, a great Holiday, have some fun, support your LFS (and favorite online botanical vendor, of course!)…but most of all…

Stay Wet.

Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics




Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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