Article © Chris Ralph, uploaded January 01, 2002.
Catfish are often described as being nocturnal creatures; in other words they are most active at nighttime. In general terms catfish prefer to dwell at the bottom of an aquarium in our experiences of keeping them (or at the bottom of rivers, lakes, streams and creeks etc in their natural environments). There are of course exceptions to this general rule, as some species of catfish occupy the mid to surface water areas of an aquarium, such as the Glass Catfishes and the Upside-down Catfish. Most people purchasing catfish for the first time are probably of the opinion that they need a scavenger to clean up the bottom of their aquarium and make their choice based upon this assumption. For those of you not into catfish you can be forgiven, as you are most likely keeping some whiskered or sucker mouthed species in order to keep your aquarium clean! After all you do not see these particular fish that often because they are always hiding...or are they?
I have personally been keeping catfish for a lot longer than I care to remember. Over the years I have kept a wide range of species and have nearly always managed to encourage my fish to come out into surroundings in which they can be seen. I suppose that I really should begin by saying that in order for us to be able to view our catfish, we should first provide them with an environment in which they feel safe (this should apply to all species of fish). Let me clarify this statement a little, I mention safe in terms of providing safe hiding places and good water chemistry. This could also be taken to mean providing adequate living space i.e. it is no good keeping an 18" catfish in a 24" aquarium (I appreciate that this is a little bit extreme but it demonstrates a point).
Perhaps before we purchase our catfish or any other fish for that matter, a little research should be undertaken first, in order to find out some information about their requirements. This I appreciate is easier said than done, as I guess that we have all made impulse purchases at some time or other - myself included. There are numerous species of catfish available to the hobbyist, some are peaceful and shoaling in nature such as Corydoras and the other members of the family Callichthyidae, whereas some other catfish are predatory and totally unsuitable for keeping in an aquarium environment such as the Red Tailed Catfish. Having returned from a recent fish-collecting trip to Peru where I saw the back two thirds of a Red Tail for sale in the fish market in Iquitos, which was some 48 in length without its head! Perhaps you can now understand why this particular fish is really not ideally suited to an aquarium. Anyway I digress.
Why do our catfish like to hide from us during the daytime? This is partly due to the fact that in most cases their eyesight is poor, and the fact that they are not comfortable with bright lighting. In the wild most catfish are to be found in deeper water, although again there are exceptions to every rule. Most catfish rely on their barbels to detect food instead of using their eyesight. If using bright fluorescent lighting it is important to provide shady retreats for your catfish to hide in. When lighting my own aquariums I tend to use spotlights, which will allow sufficient light for plant growth, but also allow the aquarium to have some shady areas as well. In some cases I do not provide individual lighting for an aquarium and rely on room lighting for me to be able to observe my fish. I do not attempt to grow aquatic plants under these circumstances for two reasons:
- That there would not be sufficient light for plant growth.
- That I have tended to be keeping larger species of catfish that would end up pulling any plants out of the substrate.
I have heard of fish keepers, who have used red coloured lighting on their aquariums in order to observe their fish, although I personally have not used this form of lighting. Perhaps some of you reading this article might have some views on this subject.
We could all of course keep our catfish in bare tanks with no hiding places, and then we would see them. The problems being that firstly this is not really how I would recommend anyone to keep fish, and secondly you do not get to see the fish at their best as their colour tends to fade, and they also tend to be very nervous and twitchy when you approach the tank. In my experiences of keeping catfish I have found that providing hiding places for them is of utmost importance. With careful planning of your aquarium layout you can not only provide your catfish with hiding places, but you will actually have the benefit of seeing them as well. Suitable materials to use for hiding places include bogwood, rocks, clean plastic pipe and aquatic plants.
When choosing bogwood and rocks, select pieces that are both functional and pleasing to you. We must all at some stage or other been into our local retailers, and spent some time picking out pieces of slate and other rocks and positioning them on the floor, to try to imagine whether or not they would be suitable for that new set-up. Slate is an ideal all round rock, which can be used to give a roof to a cave, made up of two other lumps of rock. Some aquarists that I know have siliconed pieces of slate together in order to make a stack of caves to position at the back of their aquarium. This gives the catfish that added sense of security whilst you the aquarist can clearly see your fish. In a similar way I know plenty of fish keepers who use plastic drainage pipe (myself included), and whilst I appreciate that they are not natural catfish seem to like them. When using plastic pipes I would suggest that they be sited towards the back of the aquarium so as not to look too obtrusive, for those of you who like to have nice looking tanks. What you have to keep considering here is the welfare of the catfish. I have actually found using plastic pipe advantageous when moving catfish from one tank to another. Using two nets one at either end of the pipe you can lift the fish with its home out of the tank and into its new accommodation without damaging your fish! When using bogwood always select pieces that you are happy with and position them in the aquarium so that you can view any fish that may choose to hide behind it. I mentioned the use of plants earlier, when keeping small species of catfish in a community style set-up; they can provide excellent foreground cover for your catfish to hide amongst. In particular I have found that Corydoras and the smaller Doradid catfish like to take cover under Cryptocoryne sp. and Anubias sp.
It is also important when selecting catfish to choose a suitable substrate upon which they will be comfortable. It is a good idea to use smooth substrates in order to avoid your catfish damaging their barbels. Personally I would recommend the use of suitable aquarium sand such as BD Aquarium sand (although if you are using under gravel filtration this would not be suitable), or rounded fine gravel. Catfish with damaged barbels do not tend to fair very well, and inevitably do not live for too long.
So what tricks do I use in order to see my catfish? As mentioned earlier I use plastic pipes positioned so that one end is up against the back of the aquarium, which means that whilst the catfish is hiding I can still see it. I use rocks that are positioned so that the cave that I have created has only one means of entry and escape i.e. via the front! I choose bogwood that is both interesting for anyone looking at the aquarium, but that provides a home to the catfish where they are comfortable and I can still see them. I have also come across some fish keepers who have mirror backed tanks in order for them to view any fish that tends to hide away. So you have your chosen set-up and your catfish hides away, and you can see it, but it doesn't come out! I have nearly always encouraged catfish to come out, which tends to coincide with feeding them. It is probably a good suggestion at this point to say that you should provide an open area within the tank. It is in this open area that I would suggest that you feed your catfish. Eventually when they are hungry enough they will venture out for something to eat. Initially I would offer granular foods or sinking catfish pellets, which give off a strong smell in order to prise them from their retreats. Once accustomed to the fact that this is the area to obtain a meal they should over time venture out for all kinds of foods, and should eventually recognise the hand that feeds them.
I hope that this article has been of use to you, and that it will encourage you to keep some catfish in the future if you are not already doing so. My aim was to offer suggestions as to how to overcome the problems with catfish that are shy and retiring, so that you the aquarist can see them and appreciate them. If my suggestions work for your catfish then I have succeeded.
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