Native Fish for Home Aquariums

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Guppies are good aquarium options.

It’s been estimated that as many as 26 million Americans keep fish in home aquariums. If that figure is accurate, the hobby is the second most popular in the U.S. right behind photography. And, as a glance at the yellow pages will show you, the term aquarium hobby isvirtually interchangeable with tropical fish hobby.

Why the almost total emphasis on exotic fish? Well, it’s certainly not because of any shortage of native ones. Over 700 species of freshwater fish are found in the U.S., and as you’d imagine, more than a few of them are suitable for the home tank. In fact, as a group, they possess several advantages over tropicals:

  • Native fish are less expensive than imported or specially bred fish. If you content yourself with a selection of species that can be collected near your home, the cost of the fish themselves can approach zero. (Of course, as with any avocation, you can “get technical” and spend a fortune, as some native-fish hobbyists do, on far-flung collecting trips for rare and unusual fish.)
  • The costly and energy-consuming electric heaters necessary to insure the survival of most tropicals can be dispensed with. This fact has misled many folks to think of all our northern fish as cold-water creatures. True, there are coldwater fish (the trouts being the most familiar examples), but they’re a minority among the North American fauna. The difference between most of our native fish and true tropicals is that natives are able to tolerate cold water. Given their choice, though, many northern varieties would prefer to skip winter altogether and stay in water between 75°F and 85°F. (Because of this, natives can be kept with tropicals in heated tanks, if desired.)
  • Keeping native fish promotes an awareness of our own environment. I’d be the last to downplay the allure of the exotic; a tank full of jewel-like fish from the jungles of the Amazon is appealing, in part because it presents you with a slice of the unknown. On the other hand, aren’t our nearby aquatic environments just as unfamiliar to many of us? And what does the geographic origin of a fish have to do with whether it is beautiful or homely, interesting or comparatively dull?

The fact is, the aquarium industry has played up the mystique of the exotic, and has built it into a sort of snob appeal. The purpose, of course, was to make money, but this kind of publicity has caused several generations of American aquarium hobbyists to virtually overlook our native fish.

Types of Fish

A standard joke in the aquarium trade has to do with the slick dealer who peddles minnows from the creek to unsuspecting hobbyists as “new imports from Timbuktu.” I have in my possession a 1934 issue of The Aquarium magazine that features a cover story by William T. Innes on the “rainbow minnow” (Notropis lutrensis), officially known as the red shiner, which is native and abundant in most of the central United States. In the article, Innes extolled its “great beauty — a beauty different from that of all known aquarium fish” and went on to confess that, being “not averse to an occasional practical joke,” he sent pairs to “two aquarist friends, with the statement that they were a new species of the genus so-and-so, just imported from Africa.” But, as Innes later noted when he included another native (the sailfin shiner, Notropis hypselopterus, found in coastal drainages from South Carolina to Alabama) in his classic text Exotic Aquarium Fishes, the serious aquarist’s “ardor soon cools when informed that it is a home product.”

The late Dr. Innes might be amused to know that his joke is still playing. Today red shiners are actually bred in Singapore and sold by the aquarium trade in the U.S. as “flame barbs.” The barbs are a large group of popular aquarium fish of mostly Asian origin, and most dealers and aquarists are doubtless unaware that the forebears of their precious flame barbs swim contentedly in the Missouri River.

No offense to the fish breeders of Singapore, but I’d derive more pleasure from Notropis lutrensis, the aforementioned red shiner, if I knew where it came from and could attempt to simulate its habitat in my home aquarium. Assuming that many of MOTHER EARTH NEWS’ readers share my feelings, let me go on to mention a few of the native fish you might keep, saying a little about how you might obtain and maintain them.

As the flame barb story suggests, among the most attractive groups of native fish for aquarium use is the large group of cyprinid fish, which has more than 100 species, known as shiners. As the name implies, most of them look metallic and bright. One common and beautiful type is the golden shiner (Notemigonus crysoleucas), which is often sold as a bait fish. Individual golden shiners are eye-catching, but a school of these flashing beauties is a nonstop, living kaleidoscope of gold, silver, and red.

The shiners are among those fish belonging to the family Cyprinidae that can properly be called minnows. The daces, another notable group of attractive minnows, run mostly to boldly painted color patterns. Among the truly spectacular daces are the three similar species of red belly dace (Phoxinus spp.) that feature alternate bands of black and flaming chartreuse, with splashes of scarlet on the belly and elsewhere.

Along with the shiners, the greatest diversity among native fish is to be found among the darters (there are nearly 150 species, all of which are of suitable sizes for the home aquarium). Besides being good-looking, the darters have “personality.” Perky is an adjective that comes to mind whenever I see a darter peering around inquisitively, with the front quarter of its body propped up by its pectoral fins. Darters include some of the world’s most fantastically colored fish. (See Handbook of Darters, by Dr. Lawrence M. Page, for more pictorial proof than can be offered here.) Some of these fish have very limited distribution or are federally protected, or both, but some of the most beautiful of them — such as the rainbow darter, Etheostoma caeruleum, which is alternately banded in brick red and peacock blue-green — are also among the most common and widely distributed.

Just about everyone is familiar with sunfish, and particularly with the larger species that serve as food and sport fish. But do you really know them? Take a good look at the photo of the pumpkinseed (Lepomis gibbosus). That’s one of the most familiar North American fish you’re looking at, properly displayed in an aquarium habitat. And, in addition to such panfish species as the pumpkinseed, there are a number of smaller sunfish that are seldom encountered by the angler but are equally beautiful and perhaps even better suited to the home aquarium. Furthermore, all varieties of sunfish have the potential to become true pets, learning to recognize their people and willing to take food from the hand.

The killifish (family Cyprinodontidae) are one of the few groups of native aquarium fish that have attracted a following. A small but dedicated organization of fanciers, the American Killifish Association, has adopted the enlightened outlook that native “killies” deserve equal billing with their tropical brethren. (Killies occur on all the continents.) One Florida species in particular, the flagfish (Jordanella floridae), is most commonly used to pull the “new import from Timbuktu” hoax.

No tropical fish tank would be complete without at least one South American “vacuum cleaner” catfish serving as a scavenger. And the native-fish fanciers will be glad to know that its counterparts among the North American catfish (family Ictaluridae) run to more than 35 species. The more familiar kinds, such as bullheads and channel catfish (Ictalurus spp.), are attractive (well, maybe cute) when young, but they may eventually outgrow their quarters in your home. However, the majority of American catfish belong to a group known as the madtoms (Noturus spp.), few of which exceed six inches in length.

Some aquarists derive particular (some would say perverse) pleasure from keeping “goldfish gulpers” — single, large predatory pets. For me, the best of such fish are the redfin pickerel (Esoxamericanus americanus) and the grass pickerel (Esoxamericanus v ermiculatus), which are miniature pikes that nature made in aquarium sizes. They seldom reach more than a foot in length. The young of the larger pikes (Esox spp.), garfishes (Lepisosteus spp.), and bowfins (Amia calva), to name a few, might also make acceptable denizens of your aquarium.

At the other extreme, a hobbyist who has really limited space should consider the tiny, hardy sticklebacks (family Gasterosteidae), which thrive in the smallest containers. An ordinary dime-store goldfish bowl is an adequate facility in which to maintain sticklebacks, allowing you to observe their fascinating breeding behavior.

For fanciers of the bizarre, there’s the American eel (Anguilla rostrata). And if obscurity is your criterion, try searching the swamps for cavefish (Amblyopsidae). Some species of gobies (Gobiidae) do well in either fresh or salt water, as do killies and small flatfish — such as the hog choker (Trinectes maculatus) — which can be interesting novelties. The suckers (Catostomidae) are alternatives to the varieties of catfish. Species of pupfish (Cyprinodon spp.) hail from such extreme habitats as thermal springs or isolated pools in Death Valley. Texas specialties are the Mexican tetra (Astyanax mexicanus) and the Rio Grande perch (Cichlasoma cyanoguttatum), respectively the only North American members of the families Characidae and Cichlidae, which include many popular tropical fish. And then there’s the yellow perch (Percaflavescens), the Atlantic needlefish (Strongylura marina), a mixed bag of minnows apart from shiners and daces, and a few native species of the live-bearer family (Poeciliidae), which includes such popular tropicals as the guppy, the platys, swordtails, and mollies. You get the idea: There’s no shortage of native fish to appeal to any aquarist’s “pet” interest.

And where can you get these fabulous native fish? Well, you might find some at retail aquarium outlets. A few, such as the sailfin molly (Poecilia latipinna), are honestly sold as tropicals. That is, they’re Central American fish whose range extends into the extreme southern part of the United States. Species such as the flagfish and the varieties of pygmy sunfish (Elassoma spp.) occur naturally in the waters that supply Florida’s tropical-fish breeding farms and are marketed as “by-products.”

Collecting Wild Fish

Of course, the most enjoyable and certainly the most educational way to acquire your own native aquarium fish is to catch them yourself and maybe, later, to breed your own stock. Conventional advice at this point would be to set up your tank first and then go get your fish. I agree, but since I assume that most readers are not all that familiar with the native fish available to them, I’m going to suggest a preliminary scouting trip. The idea of this excursion is not to bring fish home, but just to get a look at what’s available, perhaps to convince yourself that the possibilities I’m suggesting are real, and maybe to stake out a few sites for a later trip when you really mean business.

Unless you know the countryside well, it’s best to start off with a map-study session. Try to incorporate visits to a variety of types of water into your trip: say, one fast and one sluggish stream, a pond, the shores of a large lake, and maybe a swamp or a ditch. If you’re near the coast, be sure to sample the brackish waters of the intertidal zone.

The other thing that you should look into before setting off to collect is the legality of what you propose to do. Don’t assume that, just because you aren’t going to keep any fish this time, your expedition is automatically legal. You may be required to have a sportfishing license. Furthermore, in some waters — stocked trout waters, for example — it’s against the law to catch fish by any means other than by hook and line. There may also be regulations concerning the type or size of gear you can use.

In general, most states permit capture of “minnows” for bait purposes and prohibit the netting of “game fish,” though definitions of just what constitutes these classifications can vary considerably. Collection of nongame fish other than designated bait minnow species usually requires a collector’s permit. Other regulations may restrict the taking of endangered or threatened species. It is, of course, the responsibility of the collector to find out what these species are and where they might be found. (In most waters there will be none.)

Some of the regulations affecting the amateur fish collector may be bothersome; they may seem to be arbitrary or based on outdated information. But regulations, particularly those concerning endangered species, are intended to protect aquatic resources for everyone. If the hobby is to be a force for environmental conservation, we’ll all have to pay attention to the rules.

You’ll improve your fish finding if you invite one or more companions along on your trips. In most situations, three people make an ideal sampling crew. Later, when you’re collecting “for keeps,” a fourth person can be employed to help handle buckets and other equipment. If at all possible, invite someone who already knows the local fish and waters. But don’t be discouraged if you have to go it alone: There’s plenty that a lone collector can do.

The basic fish-collecting tool is the seine, which is no more than a long piece of netting with a series of floats along one edge and lead weights along the other. In use, it’s drawn through the water with the weighted lead line on the bottom and the float line up (attaching each end of the seine to a pole makes this task easier).

Seines come in all lengths and in a variety of depths and mesh sizes. Ideally, your seine should be a third longer than the greatest width of the body of water to be seined, and a third deeper than the area to be covered. Of course, as seines get bigger, some practical limits tend to be reached. Aquarium hobbyists usually use seines 25 feet long or less. Four feet is about the right depth for most situations that you’re likely to encounter.

You’ll be after small fish so choose a small mesh size, perhaps an eighth of an inch. For light use in relatively snag-free water, the type of netting sold as “Common Sense” will be satisfactory. For heavier or rougher use, you’ll need to go to the more expensive knotted netting. Since it’s good to be able to adjust the weight of the lead line (heavier for fast or deep water, lighter for soft bottoms), a small supply of clamp-on weights is useful.

Ordinarily, seining is a two-person operation. On occasion you’ll also find a third helper is handy for freeing the lead line when it catches on obstructions. However, a short seine (say, up to five feet long) can be operated by one person as a “push seine.” Just hold the end poles crossed in your hands to form a triangular net with the apex at your hands, and move forward from deep into shallow water. Seining technique could be the subject of a long discussion, but a little experience will teach you the best ways to set, haul, beach, and lift seines.

Other types of collecting gear are designed for use by one person. The umbrella net is most effective in standing or relatively slow moving water, particularly when operated from sites such as docks, which afford an elevated vantage point. The extended net is simply sunk to the bottom and then lifted as rapidly as possible when the fish swim over it. Often some form of bait, such as bread crumbs, is used to lure fish over the net.

You can use a hand-held dip net in weed beds, beneath undercut banks, and in other confined situations. The nets most commonly available for this purpose are bait dealers’ scap nets. However, because these have very shallow bags, they will often allow fish to leap out. Lightweight aluminum frames are less work to use, but if you’ll be collecting around weeds, a heavier frame would be better. The fish you pursue may not be large, but you’ll be amazed at the weight of the vegetation that’ll fill your net. In addition to long-handled dip nets, a few aquarium nets will be handy for pursuit of individual fish in confined areas, as well as for handling them after their capture.

Transporting Live Fish

On serious collecting trips you will, of course, need containers for transporting fish. (A general rule in the aquatic sciences is “You can’t have too many buckets.”) And always carry at least one clear glass jar, in the largest size convenient, for unobstructed viewing of fish.

If you’re going to be collecting specimens, almost any clean plastic or glass container of suitable size, equipped with a non-tight-fitting or perforated lid, will do. Except for trips of less than an hour, metal containers are suspect unless you know they’re nontoxic. Don’t use galvanized pails: They’re fish killers.

If you have large containers, few fish, and a short trip to make, you should be able to get the catch home alive without any fancy technology. In nature, oxygenation occurs through contact between the water surface and the air, aided and abetted by normal splashing. However, long hours in transit, warm weather, delicate species, dirty water, or crowding all dictate that you provide some form of aeration for newly collected fish. Inexpensive battery-powered circulators’ and compressor pumps are available for this purpose. Another excellent tool, fairly well known in angling circles but not among aquarium hobbyists, is a device known as Otab, which is a small metal canister containing barium peroxide detoxified with calcium sulfate, which — when placed in water — gives off oxygen for at least eight hours.

Some of the equipment mentioned here can be bought from sporting goods dealers. A larger selection of nets can be had from the net and twine companies. Two that have given me satisfaction are Memphis Net and Twine Co. and Netcraft Co.

Proper handling is important, even if you just want to get fish back into the water without injuring them. The best procedure when you’re dealing with tiny aquarium fish is to remove them from the collecting net with a premoistened aquarium net and then — without touching them with your hands — transfer them directly to the traveling or observation container. From then on, you can treat them pretty much as you would tropical fish bought at an aquarium store (instructions are to be found in the standard aquarium texts).

In-Aquarium Care

The most critical factor in keeping native fish is water quality. You need to hold pollution by fish wastes and excess feed to a minimum while maximizing the dissolved-oxygen content of the water. Half of the battle is prevention: not overfeeding or overstocking; the other half is filtering and aeration. With strict attention to sanitation (including periodic water changes), you can manage small numbers of fish in such small containers as the traditional goldfish bowl without mechanical filters. However, in larger tanks, filters are mandatory.

Keep in mind, too, that fish from flowing waters don’t usually need a current to survive (though they may be unable to reproduce in standing water), but they need more oxygen than pond fish do. The current is nature’s aerator. As a rule, then, you can treat fish from standing or slow-moving water like tropicals with respect to aeration. Fast-stream fish will need lower population densities or more aeration.

A claim that tropical-fish enthusiasts make against native species, with some justification, is that the homegrown species are usually more difficult to feed. While some native fish will take the standard dry-flake or powdered tropical foods from day one in the aquarium, others must be coaxed and trained, and some never learn to accept anything but live foods. Catching or raising live foods for pets can be fun — or it can drive you into a frantic dither, especially in winter.

It’s in aquascaping that native-fish aquarists really come into their own. Some tropical-fish fanciers go for sunken wreck replicas and plaster castles, so I suppose native fish can be kept in that kind of environment, too. If you’d derive particular pleasure from watching a blacknose dace swim around a bubbler disguised as a deep-sea diver, don’t let me stop you. But I prefer constructing a replica of the fish’s natural environment.

The aquascaping process really begins at the collecting site. On your first collecting trip an observation period is useful not only for watching fish and plotting their capture, but also for making notes about the appearance of natural habitats you may want to imitate. And if it will make you happier to bring something home from the first trip, you can collect a few rocks or pieces of driftwood that strike your fancy, and perhaps some plants.

Though the bottom of the fish’s natural body of water may be composed of anything from mud to bedrock, you should depart from nature by providing a gravel substrate in the aquarium, particularly if you’ll be using a subgravel filter. It’s better to buy clean gravel from an aquarium store than to attempt to wash creek gravel. To create a realistic appearance, choose gravel of a natural color, and buy a mixture of sizes, perhaps further supplementing it with rockwork.

There’s nothing wrong with including almost any rock or piece of driftwood that catches your eye, but the most natural appearance will result from items that you have collected on site.

If you have a large tank, you may be able to extend the illusion of naturalness further with a combination aquarium-terrarium, incorporating a planted dry-land component with such animals as frogs or turtles. But most of us will have to be content with a totally underwater scene. Even in a really huge tank, it would be impractical to attempt to encapsulate a complete ecosystem, because that would involve a complex of predator-prey relationships impossible to accommodate within the confines of an aquarium. In nature, you see, reproduction usually keeps pace with predation, but in the aquarium a prey creature is quickly exterminated.

Almost equally problematic is the matter of aggression between fish. Some species are naturally sociable; others are solitary and territorial. (Take a clue from nature here: Did you collect a lot of a certain species immediately in one place, or did you find them in small numbers here and there?) Some fish are aggressive primarily toward their own kind; others nip and harass other species. A community of fish is like a community of humans: How individuals get along with one another is largely a matter of “chemistry.” Don’t assume that all fish of a given species will behave alike, but do remember two rules:

[1] Allow your fish some opportunity for privacy within the aquarium. Just as humans like to have rooms of their own, fish get along better if they can sometimes swim away from the crowd. Two sunfish that would fight to the death in a bare tank may cohabit peaceably in a tank with an assortment of plants and rocks.

[2] Avoid great disparity in the sizes of fish, especially within a single species.

A Finny Finis

Using the information presented here, and the education available through research and experience, you should be well on your way to a new hobby, a pastime that will treat the eyes, increase your understanding of, and love for, the natural world that surrounds you — and in effect bring a little of the brightness of the summer outdoors into your living room year round!

EDITOR’S NOTE: The best single source of information and encouragement for anyone interested in keeping native fish in the home aquarium is the North American Native Fishes Association (NANFA). A major tenet of NANFA is that without popularappreciation of our native fish, there is unlikely to be effective conservation of the fish and their habitats.NANFA’s official publication is American Currents, a ten-issue-per-year magazine featuring articles on finding, observing, collecting, and breeding native fish.