Steve Rybicki interview


 Steve Rybicki

When I started the blog several years ago, one of my goals was to make it as comprehensive as possible. By comprehensive, I meant I would try to include information about all cichlids, not just what I keep or have a lot of experience with. To meet that goal, I knew I would have to get information from other sources. Hence, the interviews. By interviewing hobbyists, breeders, business people, and other experts, I can share with you information from a variety of people who have the experience I lack. This leads me to angelfish. Though they are quite popular in the hobby, I’ve never kept them. So I contacted an expert.

Steve Rybicki has been breeding and selling fish for several decades. In 1987, he and a friend started a tropical fish business called Angels Plus. In 1996, Angels Plus became the first online retailer dedicated to angelfish and for 32 years it is has been a full-time hatchery that specializes in show-quality fish, housing over 400 tanks.

Thankfully, Steve was quickly onboard for the interview. Let’s get going.

Your business sells and ships angelfish. What do you think differentiates Angels Plus from other online fish retailers?

We have a unique product in our live fish. Not only are they carefully bred within a planned program, but we took great pains to set up a hatchery that is completely free of parasites and pathogens. This is difficult to do. It requires special knowledge and years of preparation to accomplish. It also requires a quarantine that is so strict, no outside fish ever enters the main facility. I don’t think there is another hatchery like this in the U.S., and it’s a huge advantage when it comes to producing the best fish and makes it much easier to ship them. Shipping stress causes any parasites/pathogens to overcome a shipped fish, and that simply doesn’t happen to ours.

A row of tanks at the Angelfish Plus hatchery. Photo courtesy of Steve Rybicki.

I’ve visited many websites of online cichlid sellers, and I must say yours is one of the most complete that I’ve come across in terms of fishkeeping information. In fact, the FAQ is outstanding. For cichlid enthusiasts new to angelfish, what are five things they should know before keeping them?

Thanks, it’s nice to know the time writing it wasn’t a complete waste 🙂 . My views on keeping and breeding angelfish make me a bit of a renegade. Fifty years of doing this, with about 32 of those being a full-time (make that triple-time) job, will tend to make for some strongly-held opinions. I’m sure there are those who will be shocked by some of this.

1. Angelfish do not require special water. It does not have to be soft or acid. My hatchery is at 8.5 pH and 650 ppm TDS. It’s what comes out of my well and I’m not about to modify it since I use well over 1000 gallons per day. I’ve had many different water supplies over the decades and I’ve managed to raise and breed some very nice angelfish in all the varying conditions. They may prefer a particular range, but it’s certainly not critical in most situations. In my opinion, people succeed or fail based on the excellence of their fish husbandry or lack thereof. Another point that I disagree with is the recommendation to keep them at 80 F or above. That is okay for a breeder, but way too warm for the average fish keeper, in my opinion. A temperature of 75 F will result in less aggression, lower need for food, longer lifespan, and a better community resident.

2. There are more deformed and downright unattractive angelfish on the market than any other species of fish. Their fins are the most delicate of any aquarium fish that I’m aware of. This makes them prone to fin-rot, splitting, tearing, breaking, and bending. It means that unless you provide superb husbandry, you’ll likely end up with fish that most experienced angelfish keepers would consider very ugly and undesirable. Oddly, beginners, for some reason, do not seem to notice the deformities. To prevent this, you must keep them at very low densities while their fins are forming, and overfeeding is a cardinal sin. Most people overfeed, and that will always result in fish that are not as beautiful as they could be.

3. The typical cichlid-aggression of South American cichlids is well displayed in the average angelfish. They will eat what they can fit in their mouth. This is not true aggression, just a feeding response. However, if you raise them from a small size with other fish like neons or guppies, they will quickly realize they can’t eat them and usually never try again, even when the angelfish are large enough that they could.

There are basically two types of aggression – territorial and breeding. Breeding aggression can be mitigated with dither fish, large tanks, and lots of hiding places. Territorial aggression seems to give most people fits. It works opposite of what most people expect. The fewer fish in a tank, the more likely territorial aggression will occur. If you really want to keep it to a minimum, you have to put a lot of fish in the tank. The more fish, the less likely any one fish gets the brunt of the attention. If the tank is a bit crowded, they won’t pair off because there isn’t the space to defend the spawn. They won’t even try to defend a territory because they would quickly be exhausted by the sheer numbers. Crowded tanks do require considerably more maintenance, so you have to balance that with your willingness to consistently do the work. So, my formula for the least aggression is to keep at least 8-10 angelfish fish together in a well planted 55 gallon or larger tank and keep it at around 75 F. Feed no more than they can eat in a minute (yes, 1 minute), 2-3 times/day. If they don’t eat it within a minute, you’re putting too much in. If you have a pleco or cats you want to get food to, do not overfeed to accomplish this. Put their food in after lights are out.

4. When you want to add more angelfish to an established group, you do NOT want to try and put in fish of the same size. It seems that most people assume that the bigger fish can defend themselves from the territorial aggression, but that is simply not how is usually works. The established angelfish population see the large new fish as threats and often a smaller resident angelfish will kill a larger, newly added one. The big one has nothing to fight for, so it often doesn’t. It’s best to add at least a few small 1” angelfish to an established colony. Make sure there’s lot’s of cover and put a divider in for a couple days. Then, remove the divider and even though the little fish will get chased for a bit, they will be faster and soon the large ones will give up the chase, especially since the little guys aren’t seen as a threat. Within a few days, the large ones will likely never pay attention to the little ones again.

5. Angelfish are prone to some diseases that don’t seem to have much effect on many other species. It’s best to quarantine them for at least a few weeks in a separate tank and even better to keep them by themselves. They can do fine in a community set-up, but the constant introduction of new fish usually ends in a situation where some parasite or other pathogen is brought in with the new fish and becomes the downfall of your angelfish. My recommendation is to plan your tank setup, get all the fish at once, and do not add fish again. This always seems to work best but is the hardest plan to get the average hobbyist to stick with.

Following up on that question, if not purchasing from you, what should a fishkeeper new to these fish look for when purchasing from their local fish store (LFS) to avoid a “bad” purchase?

Unfortunately, fish stores are reservoirs of diseases that angelfish are prone to. It’s best to try to find a shop that buys from a local breeder and is smart enough to keep those fish by themselves. Certainly, look them over carefully for signs of clamped fins, extra body slime, white patches or any listlessness. Make sure the fins are long, straight and pointed, without squared-off ends. Then by all means, quarantine it for a long time.

A breeding pair of Koi angelfish. Note the array of eggs in near the female. Photo courtesy of Steve Rybicki.

Not only do you sell angelfish, but you also breed them. Talk a little about what it takes to be a successful angelfish breeder?

Success can be defined in many ways. At the lowest level, it’s not too difficult to get a spawn and a few living fry. To simply get a pair and a few fry doesn’t require much more than most other South American cichlids. To have vigorous, prolific pairs with hundreds of perfectly formed fish at selling size, is many times more difficult.

It’s easiest to get pairs by putting groups into very large tanks. It’s best to raise fry by putting the pair into their own tank of at least 30 gallons. It’s easiest to let the parents raise their own fry, but only if they will readily do it. Any stress, and most pairs will not raise their own. Rearing your own artificially is easily done if you have the routine down. If not, it can take a bit of practice, but there are many online sources to help you along the way.

Perhaps it’s a bit of a myth and therefore incorrect, but I seem to regularly hear that angelfish are “delicate” and hard to keep successfully, just like discus. Can you dispel that and any other “rumors” about them?

I think one reason these myths persist is that people do not experiment. They read that it has to be done a particular way and they believe what they read without question. Myself, I trust nothing I read. I have to test it. When I was about 10, I read a book that said not to expose the eggs to air if you removed them from the tank to artificially rear them. The air would kill them. A couple years later and I tried removing my first spawn. I forgot about the advice, and low and behold, they hatched. I happened to re-read the book to get hints on the rearing and immediately realized that one of the first things the author cautioned about was wrong! After that, I tried purposely leaving them exposed to air longer and longer. I think I got up to about 10 minutes before I decided air had no effect as long as you didn’t let the eggs dry out. Ever since then, I’ve experimented wildly with many aspects of keeping and breeding angelfish. I doubt I could convince anyone how many things turned out to be false that were and still are adamantly defended in the angelfish breeders community. The percentage of old-wives-tales was enormously high. I’ll leave it at that and encourage everyone to try different things when something almost everyone is insisting on isn’t working.

As for being delicate. No, they are not delicate, but they are prone to some parasites and pathogens that can cause a lot of trouble. So, buy fish with these problems and you’ll have lots of trouble and will consider them delicate. Buy disease-free fish and you’ll consider them easy-peasy, bullet-proof fish.

Describe for the readers your ultimate angelfish show tank setup (i.e, tank size, filtration, tankmates, tank decor).

Many will find this odd, but out of my 400+ tanks, not a single one is a show tank, nor do I have any interest in setting one up. I don’t mind looking at beautiful aquariums, but it’s not why I do this. I’m a breeder, fascinated with genetics and driven by the desire to improve and develop strains. I get up every day looking forward to studying fish in a spawn, looking for certain characteristics, figuring out what my next cross will be. I have no interest in setting up display tanks of any kind. Like I said…to many, this will be weird.

A species tank of Koi angelfish. Photo courtesy of Steve Rybicki.

You’ve been in the aquarium business for many years, perhaps talk a little about the direction you see the hobby headed. In other words, what are some trends you are seeing with respect to fish keeping in general, and perhaps cichlids (or angelfish) in particular?

I’ve seen a lot of changes with the biggest being the decreasing number of serious, dedicated breeders in the hobby. There is a different interest level. When I was young, there were many people breeding fish and producing some amazing stock. Today, most hobbyists are keepers, not breeders and, if they breed, it’s not within a serious breeding program. Most of the best breeders are in SE Asia, China, even some European countries. As the older hobbyists dedicated to breeding start dying off, I wonder what will happen to the quality of many of the fish we keep. I expect it to go way down.

What are your top three concerns about the aquarium hobby or industry and why?

1. Young people choosing other hobbies. So many children seem to have short attention spans. They have so many interests and so many choices, they seem to bounce from one thing to the next, never becoming expert at any one thing. Fishkeeping seems to be very low on the list for most children. Even when it’s on the list, it’s not a consuming interest for the most part. This goes hand in hand with my answer to the previous question where I point out that serious breeders are declining in number. If you don’t start young, the real passion for serious long-term breeding never seems to develop.

2. I’m a bit annoyed by the commercial aspect of the hobby. Too many manufacturers of very expensive equipment have convinced new hobbyists that they have to buy this high-priced stuff to be successful. It can be so expensive that too many will never bother. Yet, many have raised some of the highest quality fish in the world with nothing but a tank, a sponge filter, some natural decor, and a way to heat the tank. Seriously, nothing else is required. Power filters, sterilizers, CO2 injectors, fancy lighting and exotic additives are not needed and, in many cases, not even helpful. This high-tech mentality has permeated the hobby to the point where Facebook groups are overloaded with hobbyists who recommend all this equipment as if there is no other way. My opinion is that beginners should start with simple, easy to learn techniques for keeping their fish in good condition.

3. This might get me in hot water, but I think the whole “animal rights” movement is going too far. They make tiny gains each year towards their ultimate goal of eliminating all pets. They don’t want us keeping fish captive in tanks. They don’t want us breeding or shipping fish. They don’t even want us to own fish. You might say this will never happen, but I’ve watched what they’ve accomplished over the past 60 years and it’s scary how far they’ve gotten. Little by little, they move towards this end and, if we aren’t vigilant, we’ll wake up one day not being able to keep an aquarium with fish. The sad part is, it requires a large active fishkeeping group to keep the politicians in line, which is steadily declining. Without that, laws will be incrementally passed that take away our rights to own fish as pets.

3 thoughts on “Steve Rybicki interview

    • Hi Kelly! Thanks very much for the note and thank you for the kind comments. I hope you find some other content of interest here. Tell your cichlid keeping friends!

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