Rate that lfs

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Photo of Discount Aquarium Fish and Reef in Tempe, AZ.

Having recently visited my local fish store (lfs), I thought I would comment on what, IMO, makes a good one (the photo above is not my local fish store, btw). At the end of the day, where you choose to purchase your fish is entirely up to you. Some hobbyists order online, some buy from their lfs, some buy from general pet stores. Pull back the curtain a bit at an lfs and you’ll figure out quickly who knows what they’re doing, who to trust, and who not to.

Here are some things to look for that, more often than not, suggest that an lfs takes good care of its fish.

  • A uncluttered store

This might seem like a no-brainer, but stores should be easy to navigate w/o stumbling over merchandise that hasn’t been shelved. Sure, any lfs can be understaffed on any given day, but regularly having to step over or around products located on the floor or on carts suggests a lack of attention to detail.

  • Staff that ask YOU questions and listen

A knowledgeable staff member will always ask you some questions when you seek their advice. Staff are there to match you with the right product as much as point you in the direction of their latest sale items. They should assist you in making informed decisions, especially if you’re a novice.

  • Clean aquarium glass/acrylic

If you can’t see the fish because the glass/acrylic is dirty, shop elsewhere. A store that takes pride in the selection and health of its fish will exhibit that pride by having tanks you can actually see into. This is especially important for fish only pet stores. After all, they make a living selling only fish and products for fish.

  • Tanks free of dead fish

Again, this one might seem like common sense, but spend some time going from tank to tank and count the number of dead/dying fish. Good stores have employees that perform a DFC (dead fish check) at regular intervals. Also, if you go into a store and never see a tank with fish that are being treated for something and have been removed from sale, beware. Good stores aren’t afraid to quarantine an entire tank when they discover something amiss. These stores will also indicate, on the tank itself, what the treatment regimen is.

  • Fish in quarantine

Ask your lfs if they quarantine new fish. Reputable stores will often have a whole series of tanks hidden in back where they are treating single fish or groups of fish. Just the fact that they’re willing to invest in and maintain solitary quarantine/sick tanks is typically a good sign.

  • Proper fish mix

Very often different fish will be mixed in a single tank. Nothing wrong with this as long as the mixed species are compatible. Keeping a couple of species of soft water tetras together is fine. Keeping adult Oscars with tetras isn’t. In fact, keeping some adult cichlids with juvenile cichlids isn’t always fine either. I once went into a pet store and discovered adult Oscars mixed in a tank with baby Oscars. The store owner didn’t realize this was problematic until I showed her one of the adult Oscars with the posterior of a baby oscar sticking out of its mouth.

Morrell Devlin interview

PictureMo with one of his favorite cichlids, a beautiful Paratheraps zonatus he called Big Blue.

Let me introduce Morrell Devlin, cichlid keeper extraordinaire and expert aquatic photographer. Better known as Mo or Aquamojo by fellow hobbyists, he has kept hundreds of species. His main area of interest is New World cichlids and for the past 20 years he’s focused on the diverse species from Central America. When it comes to aquatic photography, he has to be one of the finest in the hobby. In fact, you’ve probably seen his photos many times and didn’t know it. He’s a long term member of the American Cichlid Association (ACA) as well as its governing body, so he attends the ACA annual convention regularly. He’s also the proprietor of AquaMojo.com, a website for those interested in “tank buster” cichlids, as he calls them. I encourage you to visit his website and see some of the finest cichlid photos you will ever see. Check out his Facebook page too!

I met Mo sometime back in the early 2000s at an ACA convention and I have to say he is one of the nicest guys that I’ve ever met. We always enjoy good-natured banter about his love for large cichlids and my love for the dwarf variety.

The Cichlid Stage: How did you get started in the hobby?

My father got me interested at age 13.  He always had fish tanks.  I can remember visiting local stores shopping for fish.  All of my father’s tanks were community fish, but he leaned toward more of the oddball types.  The first one that I can specifically remember was a Congo Puffer that he bought. He kept it in a separate tank and I thought that was pretty cool.  Eventually he gave me my own tank. The first fish I ever “owned” was an albino tiger Oscar…a fish that ate other fish.  I was hooked.

TCS: You once had a huge pond…INSIDE! If you still have it, tell us about your cichlid pond. 

I got rid of the pond several years ago.  I’m pretty sure I was the first, definitely one of the first, to do something that crazy.  It was in my basement.  Eight foot square, four foot deep.  1600 gallons.  I had to modify a Jacuzzi heater to accommodate the pond…used a pool filter to filter it.  It had a skimmer and an intake system that was packed with sponge filters.  Ultimately, I got rid of it because it was too time consuming.  I used to do a 30% water change on it every two weeks.  That plus not being covered it had a big effect on the humidity in my home.  The final straw was a hose busting and emptying half of the water on the floor.  This resulted in a mold problem, a five thousand dollar fix and a very PO’d wife.  SO the pond went.

TCS: What all did you stock in the pond? 

I originally built it to house one fish…a red tail catfish I called “Ming”.  He was growing out in a 180 gallon tank and was about 20” long when I moved him downstairs.  I slowly started adding fish to the pond, fully expecting that most would be meals for Ming.  They were not. In fact the exact opposite happened.  I was able to keep a wide variety of fish without any problems.  At one point I had a 24” Pacu, Ming, Citrinellum and Gourami in the same tank.  Over the years it housed a variety of cichlids including Managuense, Istlantum, Citrinellum, Macrocanthus, Salvini, Convicts, Fredrichsthali, Dovii, and Nicarauguense…to name a few.  Non-cichlids included various metynsis, gourami, silver barbs, and even African Butterfly fish.  The latter a big mistake.  All of them eventually assumed there was “bigger water” on the other side of the pond…and ended up being found on the floor looking like dried up lapel pins.

PictureLongfin albino bristlenose pleco.

TCS: Tell us about your current tank set-up at home.

I have 23 tanks up and running right now…about 2800 gallons of water.  Most of the tanks have cichlids.  I just recently devoted one tank to some community fish (Rainbows, Danios, some Black Phantom tetras). My good friend and aquatic legend, Charlie Grimes, has promised to send me some Killifish and some White Cloud Minnows to try.  The rest of the tanks have a mixture of cichlids.  Most of them are dedicated to one or two single species.  I have one large tank with a mixture of the fish. The list of the tankbusters includes Managuense, Citrinellum, P. Coatzacoalcos, Fredrichsthali, Regani, Cyanaguttatus and Hogaboomorum.  I recently started “downsizing” to smaller species: Heckeli, Salvini, Myrnae, SIquia, Panamensis, Nanoluteus, Cutteri and Sajica. I also have a big variety of Metynsis and Mylosoma that I use as dithers…some quite large…and an assortment of pleco including an 18” Adonis pleco, an awesome long-finned albino bristlenose pleco, green phantom and several others.  One of the fish, a Raphael Catfish, is an almost unbelievable 22 years old!

PictureParachromis managuense with fry.

TCS: What’s your favorite cichlid species and why?

Hands down, Parachromis managuense.  I’ve always had one or more in my tanks.  Right now I have five of them.  Many years ago I had a managuense that I called “Jumbo”.  Without exaggeration, the fish was known by name internationally…no doubt because of all the photos I took of him. Jumbo was the most interactive and entertaining fish I ever owned.  In fact, if you Google “cichlid and jumbo”…his is the first image that comes up.

TCS: For those cichlid keepers who’ve never attended an ACA convention, what would you tell them to convince them they should, at least once?

I’ve been asked this question several times in the past. Hands down it’s to meet with other hobbyists. It’s one of the few places or times that you can get experts from all over the country and sometimes the globe in one place.  Ad Konigs, Juan Miguel Artigas Azas, Rusty Wessel, Anton Lamboj, Pam Chin, Paul Loiselle and more…not to mention people that you may converse with online over the years.  Lots of cichlid knowledge, lots of cichlids to see and buy, auctions, vendors…it’s a blast.  And if you miss one that’s close by…you made a mistake.

TCS: You are an expert aquatic photographer. How did you get started photographing fish?

Once again…my father. My dad was a collector of cactus.  He loved photographing them.  I got interested in photography watching him in action…picked up the camera and never put it down. It was just a natural progression to turn the lens toward the fish tank.  A lot of my skills in aquatic photography came from my experience with photography taking lots of other photos, including a military career where I used the camera to photograph autopsies.  If you want to hone your skills at getting the photo right the first time, that’s the place to start.  My boss used to say, you have to get it right the first time.  You can’t dig them back up for a second sitting.

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Hericthys labridens

TCS: What advice would you give someone wanting to take up aquatic photography?

Start taking photos and put the camera in manual mode.  You’re much smarter than the camera.  Get the photo you need, then the photo you want, then take the photo that you didn’t expect.  That can only happen by taking lots of photos and a lot of chances.  Many of my very best photos “happened” and were not planned.  I was just at the right place at the right time with the camera in hand and ready to record the moment.

Got wood?

Aquarists add wood to their aquariums for many reasons. Some seek to emulate the natural environment of the fish they keep, some want to help buffer their water in a natural way, and others use wood as natural shelter for their fish. Whatever the reason, there are many benefits to adding wood decor to your tank.

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Photo from http://www.aquariumtankdecorations.com/.
I have seen many questions by novice aquarists about what wood to use, when to use it, and how to prepare it for the tank. The latest issue of the Tropical Fish Hobbyist contains a great article about driftwood where many of these questions are answered.

Cichlids on Facebook

In a previous post, I mentioned online forums for cichlid enthusiasts. The forums I mentioned in that post are the typical bulletin board types. For those of you that use Facebook, there are also some really nice cichlid groups. Many of them are closed (i.e,, member-only, you must request to join), however joining them only requires a single click. I follow several of these and I must admit there are some knowledgeable members who are happy to help with all types of issues (fish compatibility, water quality, fish selection, fish identification, etc.).

A few of the groups I follow:

I encourage you to join one or more of these groups and participate. Whether a novice or expert aquarist, you can always learn something new. I certainly have.

Interview with Don Zilliox

 Don Zilliox

Not long after beginning in the hobby, I took a determined path toward keeping and breeding cichlids. My interests originally focused on colorful dwarf species of Central and South America. Very quickly I was starving for knowledge, having already consumed nearly every monograph and magazine article I could get my hands on. It was then I began reaching out to the experts.  One of my very first contacts was a kind gentleman by the name of Don Zilliox, otherwise known as Z-Man in the aquarium hobby. I can’t count the number of times I e-mailed him with questions. He responded to every e-mail and was quite patient with me.

A quick Google search for Don will yield a plethora of links to all kinds of information about cichlids. He has written numerous articles covering a variety of dwarf species, including Ctenopoma ansorgii and Crenicichla regani. He’s also written a great piece about keeping and breeding Apistogramma in general. Through decades in the hobby, he has bred more than 100 species. Suffice it to say, he has forgotten more about fish keeping than I’ll probably ever know. I recently got in touch with Don, who has mostly retired from fish keeping. He was gracious enough to answer a few questions for the blog.

Continue reading this post…Interview with Don Zilliox

Log that data!

When it comes to pretty much any maintenance activity that involves my tanks, I always take notes. Whether it’s adding/removing fish, testing the water parameters, doing water changes, or anything besides feeding the fish, I always write down what I did. Why? Many reasons.

The day will come when something will go wrong in one of your tanks – water problems, livestock issues, etc. Rather than trying to rely on memory as to what you might have done or not done to contribute to the problem, often times a simple check of your notes will reveal the issue.

Do you remember how many of those black skirt tetras you added as dither fish three months ago? Do you do a dfc (dead fish check) nightly, such that you’ll quickly recognize one is missing before his carcass becomes so decomposed that he blends in nicely with the substrate?

Or how about noticing that your pH has been slowly rising with each water change and subsequent test?

There are lots of reasons to take good notes about your maintenance activities. Use whatever method works best for you. I’ve used a pencil and little notebook (or several of them) over the years. Now I use a nifty little app on my Macbook called Evernote. Though not specifically for logging aquarium data, it’s a great tool for keeping, storing, and searching notes of all types. Trust me, over time you will come to realize the value in keeping notes on your aquarium activities.

Cichlid exporting

If you’ve ever wondered how wild caught African cichlids are collected for export, it can be pretty low-tech. Wild caught cichlids from around the world are prized in the hobby as breeding stock. Often referred to as F0 in cichlid offspring parlance, wild cichlids are typically adults and are most often sold by fish importers/breeders. F0 doesn’t always mean the fish was taken directly from its native habitat, however. F0s might also be labeled as such if they’re pond raised near watefront breeding stations. In any case, here is some good introductory information about the African cichlid exporting business.

For more video footage of Lake Malawi and cichlids, visit the African Cichlid Hub.

Water Testing

IMO, responsible aquarists monitor their water parameters by testing periodically, and proper water testing requires good test kits. I’ve used digital meters and reagent test kits over the years. Both are effective, and each has its place in the aquarist’s toolkit.  I currently use APIs test kits. Your local fish store (lfs) should carry them. If not, they’re readily available online.In order to understand the parameters of your tank water, you should understand the parameters of your tank water source. To that end, you should test your source water, whether it’s municipal or well water, as well as your tank water. If you get all your water from a local fish store, check that too. If you filter your own water (municipal or well), make sure you set a baseline for the filtered water and its source before it’s filtered. Changes made to any of these sources can affect the water parameters. The pH of water can change from one point of origin to the next and can also change over time (e.g., the pH of recently generated RO water will change over time in a storage container).

To be comprehensive with your testing, you should check levels of Ammonia, Nitrite, Nitrate, pH, Carbonate (KH) hardness and General (GH) hardness, and Phosphate. The API master test kit (shown at top) consists of a couple of test tubes as well as liquid reagents for testing Ammonia, Nitrite, Nitrate, and pH. Phosphate is a separate kit, so is the kit for testing the two hardness parameters. Combined, these kits will total four or five test tubes. You can purchase extras at your lfs or online.

Below is a test tube rack I purchased to help keep my tubes together and to facilitate their drying. The photo on the left is looking at the rack straight on. The right photo is looking down from above. The rack has two rows, one with spindles to invert the test tubes on and the other row contains hole slots to set the tubes down in. You will notice three syringes (left in left photo – syringe tubes in front row and accompanying syringe plungers in the back). You can pick syringes up at medical supply houses. I use these because they each hold just a bit more than 5ml, which is the volume of water each of the API tests requires. I bought the rack online for about $8.

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Photo courtesy of the author – Scott Wells.

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Photo courtesy of the author .

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Photo courtesy of the author.
Understanding your water and how its parameters can change will help you diagnose problems when they occur. For optimal fish keeping conditions, nothing replaces regular, frequent changes of water in closed systems (e.g., aquariums).