Fishkeeping Tips- Introduction

      Keeping an aquarium allows us to create in our homes a small piece of real estate from another part
      of the world. The aquarium can be simple, effective and consistent, or as complex as can be imagined,
      with difficult fish and plant species to keep and propagate. There can be manipulation of water
      chemistry and various expenses, depending on the goals you are trying to achieve. Or it can be a simple
      tank with a few contented, beautiful fish living out long lives that require very little care. All of
      the text here refers to freshwater aquariums, and the ways things are done here to keep maintenance
      and husbandry as simple and inexpensive as possible, with maximum benefit for the fish. I have kept
      many types of fish over the years, and most of the following information applies to most fish commonly
      kept in an aquarium, keeping things simple, inexpensive and effective.

       Very little is truly new, and today we have the opportunity to examine the practices of master
      fishkeepers going back to the beginning of the hobby, those who initially created many of the fish we see
      in today's pet trade. Much of the approach and equipment have changed over time, often to provide ease or
      convenience, while at the expense of simplicity and our full understanding of what goes on in our aquariums.
      For many hobbyists, the skill of keeping fish has evolved to where knowledge of the basic science is not as
      essential as it used to be. Technology provides filters where understanding of tank space vs. organic load
      is simply no longer as important as it used to be. The result is that our tanks possibly stay in better shape
      on average, and more consistent than in the past at some fairly consistent expense. However, when there   
      is a problem, we do not have the experience to assess, solve and fashion a quick fix.

      So this approach advocates high water quality, water changes and the best quality food we can provide,
      as cheaply as possible. To do this, I use the older style box filters that were dominant in the 60's,
      and that are still used by many breeders of livebearers. Water changes are done by a system with a how
      to guide HERE. I had thought that a drain system that does not require drilling was a modern thing,
      (It was not my invention) until a customer wrote me that Innes had published nearly the same design
      back in the 1930's! As a rule, this approach can be summed up as simple, effective, natural, and focused.

      A nice part of aquarium keeping is that each hobbyist has the opportunity to develop their own approach,
      as each aquarium setup, each species, and what you want to do can be entirely different from one effort
      to the next. I certainly have my own approach that works well for me. Some compromises had to be made
      through experience that have become comfortable- I no longer keep tanks with an inch of gravel on the
      bottom of each, filtered by a hang on the back type filter, for example. All of my tanks are bare
      bottom with generous live plants, some potted, set up both naturally and attractively with an in-the-
      aquarium box filter that provides simple, effective mechanical filtration and moderate aeration and water
      movement. Over time I have learned which species do best with my care and water. I focus on those 
      working to keep healthy populations that grow to a large size, breeding near their maximum species,
      capability. My approach may not be for everybody, but there are generalizations that can be made,
      regardless of most any type fish you keep.

      Hobbyists often put too much their faith in their equipment to do everything, hoping that money spent
      is proportional to results achieved, but aquarium keeping is a bit more than that. Buying and putting
      together the best setup is certainly wise, but the best equipment will never do everything the fish
      need. Everyone wishes to expend the least amount of effort for the greatest return, and in fact much
      of my approach derives from that desire- not because I don't want to work on my aquariums, but when
      there is work to be done, Iíd like for it to be effort that moves the tank forward- not simply to
      catch up or to stave off disasters. Starting from scratch with that in mind has led toward many
      approaches, and though the learning process continues, there are aspects that are now routine.

      Keeping fish in a glass box isnít natural. Most swordtails, for example, are indigenous to moving
      streams. They generally never encounter ammonia or waste buildup in their immediate surroundings.
      The water is always moving, replenishing itself, and generally well oxygenated. They feed by grazing
      throughout the day on organisms that share their environment, along with digestable plant material.
      When young are born, they quickly disperse into the surroundings, hiding in the plants and rockwork
      available to them. When compared to a well filtered, adequately oxygenated, moderately lit 10 gallon
      aquarium that encounters a minimum of monthly 25% water changes, the fish have shown they can adapt.
      But problems will still arise that require our effort to prevent, and the difference between owning
      fish that are stunted and occasionally drop undersized fry, or full sized robust fish that breed
      dependably comes down to a few critical steps. Some of those bits of effort are these:
      - Food. Many dry foods available today do a good job of keeping the fish healthy and breeding well.
      But a container left open at room temperature for weeks in a humid fishroom, fed from once a day
      isnít going to do the job. Keep dry foods refrigerated or frozen until used- I let food sit out in a
      sealed container for no more than 10 days. I feed at least twice a day. Variety is also very good-
      rotate a veggie food with a high protein food, and feed live or frozen food, if at all possible, at
      least a couple times per week. See FT 2 on Brine Shrimp and live foods for more information, as well
      as FT 3, 4, and 5 on raising Red Worms, Daphnia, Vinegar Eels, Blackworms and how to feed

      - Set up your tank where it can be seen and observed easily, out of direct sunlight where it can
      develop green water or algea problems, and away from heat or cold outlets that could fluctuate the
      temperature in the tank. Some fish may prefer a quieter environment where they can breed and raise
      their young undisturbed (such as many Cichlids), but the tank must still be where it can be closely
      monitored. In fact, if there is more than one tank, every tank must be kept where it can receive 100%
      care. Tanks that are hard to reach, get to, see into or observe for pleasure always suffer for it.
      Tanks on bottom rows in fishrooms, for example, never seem to fare as well as those at eye level,
      even with what seems to be identical care. Itís just a mystery. But itís true. For more info on
      setting up a tank see FT 1.

      - Cleanliness is important. By cleanliness I refer primarily to organic waste that is generated
      from uneaten food or accumulated fish waste (and the occasional dead fish). Some fish do not generate
      waste such that it accumulates, while some do, depending on the type, diet and size of the fish.
      Uneaten food can also create mold and stray organic material, which is not a good thing. Waste
      collected in a filter needs to be changed, and its affect is reduced as its surface area declines
      within the filter material. Any mulm on the bottom needs to be removed often with a turkey baster
      (what I use) or a gravel cleaner. I believe that fish must expend effort fighting infection from
      the detrimental conditions created by excess waste- primarily lower oxygenation and higher bacterial
      levels, spent effort that results in slowed growth, inconsistent breeding and a reduction of their
      overall health.

      Notice the ammonia smell of the mulm given off from the water, removed from the aquarium once
      it is siphoned out. It is not inert, nor is it a positive addition to the aquarium, as some feel,
      to provide microorganisms that fry feed upon. In my opinion, those rationalizations result from
      weighing routine cleaning against cost paid by the fish, who will generally survive. But their
      overall size, health and spawning success is compromised. To help with this, I keep all bare bottom
      tanks, with plants and occasional rockwork to provide visual interest. As my stocking levels have
      increased, and the need for biological filtration has increased, I have borrowed a practice from the
      Xiphophorus Stock Center. A single layer of gravel is placed over approximately half of the aquarium
      bottom to increase surface area for the development of nitrifying bacteria. Too thin a layer to
      accumulate or collect waste, this change has demonstrably improved water quality, generally within a
      week on tanks where it is used. Though it becomes more important to siphon up excess material as it
      cannot be seen as easily, the improvement in water quality by using gravel this way has improved the
      health and breeding of a couple species, most notably the Limia nigrofasciata.

      -In my opinion, live plants are essential. They help metabolize organic waste, and serve as a level of
      ďinsuranceĒ against bacterial or ammonia accumulation issues. They ensure a healthy nitrogen cycle in
      the tank, and evidence problems when they occur- if your plants are dying, the fish are often the next
      to show problems- and they provide a natural, more secure environment for the fish. Adequate moderate
      light needed to sustain plants facilitate the nitrogen cycle and greatly contributes to the overall
      health of the tank. Though plants also provide oxygenation of the water, the tanks here are moderately
      aerated with internal box filters or airstones, primarily as a reflection of the livebearers and barbs
      kept, both that do best with aeration and water movement. See FT8- Keeping Plants. These issues and
      further discussion of water quality issues are covered in FT6 Filtration and Water quality.

      -Keep a peaceful tank. Many fish with a mouth big enough will eat another fish that will fit into it.
      The stress on weaker fish of constantly being harassed, fins nipped and scales being picked off makes for
      a short, unpleasant life for the weaker fish.  In the wild, the smaller fish would move to another territory
      and get out of the other fishís way. In our artificial glass box they canít do that. Itís also a karma thing.
      You get to play God. Do it wisely.

      -Overcrowding must be monitored. Successful fishkeeping comes with batches of young, and overcrowding
      affects the issues already mentioned- cleanliness, buildup of organic waste and competition for resources,
      such as food. The inch per gallon rule, with fish up to about 2.5- 3 inches is fine. The more waste that goes
      into the tank, the finer the line becomes when there will be trouble. The larger the body of water, with
      fewer fish, the more stable biologically the tank will be.

      -In my opinion, and this is important, far too many fishkeepers do not approach their fishkeeping from the
      fishís point of view. Everything is provided, and everything is done the way the books say need to be done,
      but you must keep some awareness of what the fish are experiencing. For example, you should feed generously,
      but not so much as to overfeed and create waste. However, in some tanks with higher stocking levels, I
      once noticed the fish had become thin and were not looking good. I was feeding very generously twice a day,
      and after a few days of close observation it was clear that there were no diseases or parasites going on that
      needed more aggressive care. At a loss as to what it could be- they were certainly eating well- it got worse
      and I began to lose fish. So I started to feed twice at feeding time. Feed through the room, then go back and
      feed all of the tanks again. That way the amount of food going in was being eaten more efficiently. And that
      solved the problem. The most aggressive fish were getting all of the food on the first pass. I was feeding as I
      should have been, but each individual fish was not getting enough to eat. This sounds silly, but I have seen
      this in the tanks of others. Now, I make sure to notice if the bellies are full when deciding when to feed, and
      how much. When their bellies are obviously fairly rounded and the fish do not appear thin, I continue to
      feed at the level that keeps them that way. 

      That is a simple example, but it applies to many aspects of a fishís life in your aquarium. Which fish are
      kept with which, how hiding places are arranged, what is done when aggression from one fish is noticed
      against another. A second example involved a species I was trying to breed. I was constantly improving
      their setup to achieve results, based on what I was reading and finding out from others. Eventually, all
      was in place, and it was the best possible setup for success that I could have constructed. Months
      passed of continued efforts on my part with no spawns. Eventually, I gave up, and it wasnít until after I
      stopped fussing with their environment, allowing them to develop a sense of security over time, that they
      finally bred. From their standpoint, my effort by itself was keeping them from breeding. The best setup
      and best equipment makes little difference if the fish aren't allowed to adjust and adapt while you as
      the fishkeeper deny them what they need, by focusing too exclusively on the equipment you are using 
      and the mechanical aspects of their care.

      Lastly, fish arenít stupid. There is quite a comparison that can be made between some of these wild
      populations with the widely available, brightly colored domestic hybrids, bred for their looks and not their
      brains, over many years. The wild fish can be very difficult to catch with a net, and they will show a number
      of complex behaviors with one another when faced with challenging circumstances. After the occasional
      long effort to catch one of the wild fish with a net, I have often wondered- If I were given their limitations,
      under the same circumstances, and the roles were reversed, would there be moves or strategies I would
      have done differently, and would I have done as well as the fish just did? Possibly not. All we know is what
      we can test for and observe, which tells us very little. There is much these small creatures still have to reveal,
      which is why keeping them is both interesting and important.

      The most common questions asked that may not be covered here are addressed at the
      Frequently Asked Questions Page, and if a problem is still not addressed, please drop me an 
      email at and someone will get right back to you!

      Hopefully the upcoming information helps to get you started, or simply provides information you may
      not have considered. If you have any questions, please drop me an email at


      Greg Sage


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