Some cold, hard advice during a very warm time of year.

Well, Summer seems to be taking hold around the world. It's pretty hot. That being said, sometimes, it's important to look at our hobby in the cold light of truth...You know...reality check. 

It's never a bad idea. Take it from me- your fish geek buddy...

I've been told by friends that I have sort of developed an almost "life coach" kind of personality of being everyone's aquarium-keeping confidant over the years. I know a lot of you turn to me for advice, discussion...a shoulder to cry on...and for stuff for your aquariums, too (well, that's a good thing!). Like Mary Poppins, most of my advice is dispensed with a "spoonful of sugar", and it goes down fairly easily, if not, on occasion, controversially.

Occasionally, I'll simply beat the shit out of something. And that's pretty healthy, really. There are way, way too many "how to.." articles in this hobby that dispense sugar-coated information and re-churned ideas based on the "way we've done it.." No challenges or suggestions to try some different approaches...or even to question anything. Okay, it's safe. Much of the "accepted" advice is terrific for everyone. And, there is a lot of great information out there. However, I still think that the stuff that isn't said as often (or at least, written about) is every bit as useful as the stuff you constantly read about everywhere. Besides, it's a bit more interesting to be direct and challenging at times, right?

Sure, over the years, I have always been upbeat and positive, and will continue to be that way. It's just that, when you see the same mistakes being made, disappointments being unnecessarily experienced by fellow hobbyists, you eventually reach a point where it's time to ditch the unicorns, smiley faces, and stuffed animals and dispense some blunt advice now and again. 

Sugar-coating our own follies and giving the typical warm fuzzy isn't always what you need. I realized, both in my personal practice, and in the "advice" I've been dispensing to fellow hobbyists of late, that I've had to take a more pragmatic approach to really do everyone some good.

So the tone of this piece might be a bit more, um... "blunt" than what you're used to. On the other hand, it's formulated to be helpful, not patronizing, and that means we sometimes all have to get some "tough love" in order to progress in the hobby. It's a distillation of advice sifted from a whole lot of emails and phone calls I've received over the past few months, peppered with a sprinkling of recent personal experience and practice.

I think it might help some of us. It might tick off some of us, too. It might be typical easily digested "Fellman-Fluff", and that's good, also! So here is some of my better advice, and I think much of it is worth at least pondering:

If it’s dying- get it the f--- out of the tank…Yeah- that sounds really bad, and it almost sounds like I’m endorsing a euthanasia protocol of sorts. Not exactly. However, much of this advice arose out of necessity. In the coral farming game, for example, if you have a struggling coral frag that might have flatworms, red bugs, or some other pest, you simply cant risk letting it take down other frags. And its the same in a display freshwater tank, IMHO. Ditch dying plants, etc.

Remove sick or struggling fishes for treatment elsewhere. It's not fun. It often involves ripping the hell out of your aquascape. What's the alternative? A full-on disease outbreak, or even worse? Remove the sick lifeforms. Treat them in a dedicated hospital tank. It's humane and responsible. Spontaneous "self cures" seldom happen. You KNOW this. You HAVE to. ’The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one…” (OMG did I just quote Mr. Spock from Star Trek? Yeah, I did.)


Ditch really bad ideas…quickly. Yup, kind of like the Facebook corporate mantra of “move fast and break things”, I think it’s time we let stuff go that doesn’t work. Life it too short. I am not saying to disregard patience (Lord knows, I’ve written a ton about that over the past few years right in this forum). All I’m saying is that you need to let go of ideas that simply aren’t working out, taxing time, energy, money, space, and “mind power.” Better to have tried and failed than not to have tried at all…but better to let something that was failing die a quick death than to have it function as a “black hole” of your hobby energy (and budget!). Harsh words coming from me, but they’re true. If an idea doesn’t work after numerous iterations and a lot of time and draining of resources...Kill it. KILL IT! Move on to the next one...

Seek advice and counsel from other hobbyists, but don’t talk anyone’s word as THE ultimate. Because the reality is, there is plenty to learn in this hobby from a lot of people. There are people out there in "Aquarium-Keeping Land" doing stuff you never even heard of, and maybe they are having great results. Does that mean you should listen to everything they say and try to replicate their efforts, or embrace all of their philosophies? Of course not. No way. Take everything- from everyone- in this hobby- with a grain of salt. Learn to evaluate aquarium keeping strategies in the context of “Will this work for ME?” Far better than to just blindly follow ANYONE. 

The counterpoint. Now, all of that being said, DO make use of the resources that are out there. For example, I get lots of emails and pm's asking "How do I start a blackwater aquarium?" And of course, I advise that our web site has hundreds of blogs and a ton of information to explore about every aspect of botanical-style, blackwater/brackish aquariums.  Make use of it.

Don't take it as "the gospel", but use it as a starting point for your exploration in this realm of the hobby. It's distillation of years of experimentation and playing with this stuff on our part, and of our growing community from around the world. And it's all free. You don't have to even buy stuff from us to get access to it. This is a resource for the botanical-style aquarium community. 

If you want something on your tank done right…do it…the right way. Yeah. Doesn’t matter if you’re the guy doing it, or if you hire someone else. Just make sure it’s done correctly. I’ve seen so many people put time and effort into aquatic projects that were not only doomed to fail, but they simply couldn’t work by virtue of design, function, or even budget. This sort of dovetails with my third point about killing bad ideas…

Okay, it’s an "addendum", really: If you’re not going to do something the right way, just don’t bother. Really. Ouch. It sounds negative, I know- but you’ll be much happier in the long run, trust me. You need to read and learn and commit to a process before you try a new approach, or throw stuff into your tank and expect some sort of result. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard aquarists tell me that “(Insert product here) doesn’t work. I’ve tried it. It sucks.” Upon further investigation, it turns out that the aquarist was using the product, but either not in the correct manner, or only part of it. If you’re using a regimen or system that needs to have multiple components or systems working together, use them! You can’t expect a complete result out of a partial effort.

Today’s full-on "slap" of cold reality, courtesy of your local aquarium-keeping enfant terrible!

Summer can be a hot time of year...and it's always a good time for some cold, hard advice. I hope you take this in the spirit in which it's intended, and benefit as a result!

Stay honest with yourself. Stay bold. Stay committed. Stay engaged...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 


Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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