The Native Aquarium

The term "native fish" can bring about visions of dull colored, olive-gray fish - usually found on the end of a hook as bait or as the catch. As a result, there is little interest in keeping natives as aquarium fish in this country.

European aquarists have prized North American native aquarium fish for many years. The increasing demand for these native jewels has created additional interest in our local populations of fish. The Europeans have always been known as excellent hobbyists - connoisseurs of rare and unusual fish - so our native fish fit right into the European hobby.


I started keeping natives at the young age of eight years, and ever since my fascination has grown into a rather demanding hobby. I have, at times, had as many as 100 aquariums filled with various native species, and just about every weekend was spent in some creek looking for more. I have had the opportunity to collect tropical species in Africa and South America, but my preference is still exploring some oxbow lake or unknown creek for a new species of shiner or darter that no one else in the U.S. or world has in an aquarium.


Tank Requirements for Natives


The aquarium for native fish does not have to be an elaborate setup. Many species are quite hardy. However, as in the case of some of the more delicate tropicals, there are natives that do require special water conditions, and these requirements must be adhered to if you are to succeed with these species.


The aquarium does not have to be heated unless it is exposed to harsh winter cold or a steady draft. The optimum temperatures for native fish are between 50 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit. The fish can withstand lower temperatures, but very few will survive temperatures above 70 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit.


Other than temperature, there is not too much difference between the tropical aquarium and the native aquarium. Aquascaping is still your prerogative, but if you try to provide a suitable biotope for the fish, you will notice more comfort and less stress in your newly acquired specimens.


Food Requirements


Native fish will eat just about anything. I have never had any problems feeding them. Even after two hours in captivity, wild Notropis will gobble down flake food.


Some of the more finicky species as in the case of darters, may require live foods such as blackworms and fruitflies. I would, however, try adjusting them to flakes and use live food as a treat or spawning conditioner,


Acquiring Fish


There are several ways to obtain native species for your tank. The most obvious is to collect them yourself.


Collecting can be an addictive sport once you learn the ropes and become more familiar with the natural history of the fish you want to keep. Ever since I started collecting native species in central Alabama streams, I have been "hooked" on his activity. At that time as a youngster, I didn't understand scientific nomenclature or why fish seemed to vary in every creek, but I did enjoy seeing how many different fish I could find and place in my 5-gallon (19-liter) tank.


When I first started out, I knew little about the fish and how to care for them. As a result, I would have to replace the fish that died much to the dismay of my parents. Within a couple of years, however I learned why they died, what they were and why bread was not a good food for them.


Before you set out to collect, sit down and skim through some magazines or books on native fish. There should be several different field guides available at the library or a book store. Talk to members of your local aquarium society. Some of them may have books on native species. Figure out what you want to keep in your tank.


The field guides should give you reference to possible collecting spots or at least what type of biotope the fish can be found in. You can utilize the description of the biotope and set out on your own in search of a suitable creek that may harbor the fish you are after. Once you have decided what you're going to look for, then there are a few items you must have. Some are optional, depending on your collecting experience.


The very first thing that you must do before loading up the car or truck is to make sure that your plans are legal. Funny thing about the United States - no matter where you go or who you talk to, you end up with different rules or total misinformation. This simple fact has always caused me to verify the legality of collecting wherever I go.


Because I collect all over the U.S., I have acquired a variety of different types of licenses and permits from many states. Almost every state has laws protecting its fish and wildlife. With these laws comes the probability of a licensing requirement for collecting or fishing. Many states will have no problem letting you collect nongame fish with a standard fishing license or permit, but some states require another permit just for collecting nongame fish (sometimes referred to as bait fish).


It is in your best interest to check in with the local department of natural resources (the agency name may vary from state to state) in your area and ask for a copy of the rules. You may also have specific questions of your own to ask. Do not be surprised, however, if the person behind the desk develops a blank look on his or her face. It may seem a bit strange to them that anyone would want to collect bait fish for an aquarium.


Once you are certain that your planned activities are legal, go out and start accumulating some of the equipment you'll need. The list is not long, but the items are essential:


You will need buckets - one, two or several of them. The number depends on your motivation and stamina.


Also, nets and traps are necessary (there are many different types, which I will explain later in the article). You will also need plastic bags and small containers to isolate those really rare finds and to protect the smaller fish that you collect. Don't forget a first aid kit, with a snake bite kit. You will be amazed at what you encounter while tromping through a creek. Be especially careful if you do encounter a snake. Most of the time they are non-venomous, but occasionally there will be a cotton mouth or rattlesnake laying close to the water. Never try to kill the snake. I know a number of people who have ended up in the hospital because of bad aim. If at all possible, let it go on about its business. Remember, you are the intruder, not it. Other items include an extra change of clothes, socks and a towel (sometimes you do encounter that unexpected turn for the worse). If you can't swim, take a life vest or an inner tube. You can shop around for waders and boots, but I usually go out in swim trunks and old tennis shoes. If there is a lot of underbrush, or if I am unsure of what lurks below the surface, I wear an old pair of jeans. A field guide is always handy, as well.


Those are what I might consider the basics. You will have to deter mine your own needs while in the field. Always stay alert for danger, and always clean up after yourself if you have lunch or refreshments while collecting.


Advice on nets and traps was promised, so here it is. There are hundreds of different types of nets that you can use while collecting. It will take a while for you to determine what type suits your collecting practices the best. If you are like me, you will have a specific type of net for each collecting locality. When collecting in open streams with very little brush or snags, it would be advisable to pull a two-man minnow seine. You can cover a lot of area with this device, and after a little practice you will become very proficient with it. These nets come in various lengths, so check at your local outdoor store for what is available. Also, verify the legal size limits for the seine in your collecting area. The standard size for me is 10 feet (3 meters).


I also like to use minnow baskets or traps. I generally make them myself from 2-liter soda bottles, but you can buy wire baskets for about $10 each. These are the perfect thing for those elusive fish like darters and various Cyprinidae. You can place a small piece of bait in the bottle to attract the fish and come back a couple of hours later to see what you've caught.


As noted earlier, collecting is a sport, but it's also an art. It takes practice and planning. Mother Nature has to be on your side for a successful collecting trip. Many times I have collected in foul weather due to bad planning on my part.


What To Do With The Fish


As you're collecting, you will have to cull everything you catch. You do not want to remove fish from their natural habitat that you can't care for. And you want to make sure there are plenty of individuals left in the stream (or pond) to carry on the species in that location!


As you collect, put your catch in buckets for later inspection. Any real small fish or exceptionally rare finds must be separated to prevent an accidental release back into the stream or aggression from the other captive species.


Collect for an hour at a time and then go to the buckets and cull. Net the fish out a few at a time and observe them in some sort of viewing tank to determine which specimens are going home with you and which ones will stay in their home.


Select the most vibrant individuals for the trip home. Some fish are more susceptible to stress and may die within a few hours in captivity. They should be released back into the stream.


If you planned your trip properly, you will know how many fish you need. Don't keep them all. Some times you encounter a fish you don't expect, but you don't really have room for it. The law of substitution comes into effect here. Do you really want this fish? Will it coexist with your others? Which ones do you have to return in order to keep this one?


After you have selected your fish, put them in a take-home bucket and return the rest to the stream where you found them. Then move on to a new spot.


Preparing for the trip home, make sure the buckets have tight lids or bag the fish individually. Make sure there is enough air in the bags for the trip if in a bucket, do not crowd them. Stressed fish have the habit of dumping their internal contents, thereby polluting the water. Ammonia will start to build up in the water, a distinct problem because stream fish are not used to this kind of toxicity. A good-quality ammonia neutralizer, such as AmQuel, will help control the problem.


Make sure the bags or buckets are not in direct sunlight. The heat will stress the fish even more and can kill them when the water becomes too warm.


Once the fish are packed, gather up your gear, collecting partners and trash and head home. You don't want the fish in buckets or bags any longer than necessary.


Once you arrive home, there will be this feeling of laziness that comes over you. Don't deny it - I know all about it. You must carry through and get the fish into their new homes right away. Siphon about 2 gallons (7.5 liters) of water from the intended aquarium into a 5-gallon (19-liter) bucket, dump the bucket containing the new fish into it and let it sit for about 30 minutes. This will allow the fish to acclimate to their new tank water. After this time has passed, net the fish and place them in the tank. Never mix water from the creek with water in the tank. Otherwise, you will encounter all sorts of unexpected in habitants within a few weeks. Hydra is one that can become a real nuisance.


The fish should acclimate easily if the water is fairly close to the water chemistry found in the wild. The addition of NovAqua or a similar product will help ease the stress.




There are hundreds of native fish that would be suitable for the aquarium. I will try to cover most of them, but I'm sure I'll miss some along the way.


When you encounter a native fish hobbyist, you will probably discover that he or she specializes in one or two types of natives - usually families of native fish. For instance, my specialties are native killifish, Cyprinodontidae, and native gobies, Gobiidae. There are many others who specialize in darters, Percidae, or shiners and chubs, Cyprinidae. Sometimes you will encounter a cichlid keeper who has a fancy for natives and keeps Centrarchidae because of their uncanny resemblance to the Cichlidae in behavior and appearance. Catfish enthusiasts are not left out either. The U.S. possesses several interesting species of catfish, bullhead and madtom.


With so many commonly encountered families of fish to choose from, there is room here for mentioning only a small number of them. I will cover those that are most suitable for the home aquarium.




The native killifish are among the most sought after species of North American fish in the hobby today. Within the ranks of the American Killifish Association, as well as several other foreign clubs, the membership has started showing a strong interest in keeping, breeding and collecting these unique fish.


When it comes to "bait" fish, the killies are usually among them. Members of this family, such as Fundulus grandis and Fundulus chrysotus, have made there way into the bait bucket on many occasions. They are not exactly beautiful, but most fish in this family are very hardy, with the exception of perhaps four species: Lucania goodei, Lucania parua, Leptolucania ommata and Floridicthys carpio. Although not as hardy as their Fundulus counterparts, comparatively speaking, they do exhibit the tough qualities of the family as a whole.


Other members of this family can be found in the deserts of Texas, California and Nevada. Although the Cyprinodon, Eperichthys and Crenichthys species are, for the most part, endangered, native fish hobbyists have been propagating domestic strains in their tanks for years. The survival of the species can be attributed to hobbyists as well as environmentalists.


Another reason for the strong interest in this group of fish is the fact that they are easily spawned and raised in captivity. Killifish, in general, can be very easy to breed with the addition of spawning mops and daily harvesting of the eggs. Unlike their smaller tropical cousins, however, native killifish produce larger eggs, which makes the harvest that much easier. After the killifish lay eggs in the mop, the eggs can be removed by hand - thanks to their hard shell - and placed into the appropriate incubation container.


Most of the Cyprinodontidae collected in the U.S. originate in brackish water environments. Make sure you sample the water for salinity and temperature if you collect them yourself. If you acquire them from another hobbyist, be sure to ask about the water conditions the fish came from.




One of the more liked, but least understood, families of fish is the gobies. Gobies have a select following of aquarists who like strange, rare fish. The U.S. has a number of species of Gobiidae within its boundaries.


Very little is published on the Gobiidae populations of the U.S., but once I started researching and collecting them, I was surprised at exactly how many different types there were. A lot of work is needed in cataloging this family. When these fish are encountered in the nets and seines of collectors, they can cause a bit of excitement.



In the aquarium they make wonderful inhabitants. Usually a species tank is best for them because other fish can be aggressive toward the docile goby. One of my favorites is the local brackish inhabitant Gobionellus hastatus. If you try to find a reference listing on this fish - complete with picture - you may fail in the attempt. I am sure that if this fish was ever to reach the aquarium market, it would be a hot item. However, because it is found in relatively low numbers, it has never been seen in pet shops.


The male of this species possesses a dorsal fin that stands about 3 inches (7.6 centimeters) high when expanded, and resembles a Cockatoo's headdress. I have dubbed this fish with the common name Cockatoo goby, and it is always very high on my collecting list. This fish spawns relatively easy in the aquarium, but care must be taken to provide a suitable female for the male. A male can reach a total length of 5 inches (12.7 centimeters), but the poor little female will barely exceed 2.5 inches (6.4 centimeters). If provided with plenty of small clay pots, the pair will deposit about 100 eggs along the bottom of them. The male and female take turns guarding the eggs, and at hatching time the male will protect the fry.


There are many more species of goby out there - you just have to find them. Once you do collect a few gobies, I am sure you will have an enjoyable time observing them in the aquarium.




This family will usually be the most commonly encountered when collecting. Cyprinidae in the U.S. are represented by the shiners and chubs, which are often seen in the bait tanks at most fishing shops.


However, these fish account for only four or five of the species that can be found in the wild. Notropis species can be some of the most colorful and attractive fish in an aquarium. Notropis welaka, the blue nose shiner, is one of my favorites, an assessment shared by most other native fish enthusiasts. I have traveled up to 200 miles in one day just to hunt for these elusive but beautiful fish.


Almost all of the Notropis, or shiners, are attractive fish and make excellent fish for the native community aquarium. They will peacefully school and coexist with almost any thing that won't eat them.


The chubs are better known as bait fish, but all will make good inhabitants of an aquarium. Although not as peaceful as shiners, some of the smaller species can be added to a native community tank.


These fish can be readily spawned in captivity by using the egg-trap method employed by tetra and barb breeders. All species spawn basically the same way.




This is another well-known family of fish, most of which are associated as edible game fish. In general, these fish become too large for most aquariums, particularly the bass species. Nonetheless, there are hob byists who do keep them.


One word of warning - some states require permits to keep game fish in the aquarium, and almost all members of this family are considered to be in this category. The one exception is Elassoma.


The most commonly kept members of this family are the Lepomis and the Elassoma species. The Lepomis are all the sunfish or bream that you may remember fishing for as a kid. Right tasty little fish, but I think they are more pleasing on display in an aquarium rather than on the dinner plate. They do have an aggressive disposition at times, and therefore have drawn the interest of some cichlid keepers as suitable dither fish or companion fish for their cichlids.


As a rule, these fish do require a great deal of live food, especially relishing crawfish and small minnows. You can supply feeder goldfish as a staple, but a well-balanced diet would be more appropriate.


The Elassoma are known as the pygmy sunfish. The two most commonly kept species of this genus are E. evergladei and E. zonatum, the Everglades pygmy and the Banded pygmy respectively. A full-grown adult male of the larger species, E. zonatum, will seldom exceed 2 inches (5 centimeters). With the smaller species, E. evergladei, the males grow to 1.5 inches (3.8 centimeters) and exhibit extravagant colors during breeding.


The Elassoma are easily bred in the aquarium as long as small breeding colonies of at least three males and five females are kept in a species tank. They usually require live food.


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