The Native Tank

by Tom Pallas

The natural water systems of Virginia and Maryland offer an abundance of water life suitable for the aquarium I have collected various fishes, algae, invertebrates, and plants from local freshwater streams and creeks. Not only have I filled an aquarium with a widespread collection of animals, I have learned more about the ecosystem in our area.

At the first glance, the typical stream or creek seems to be rather lifeless. A more detailed look, however, reveals a world within itself Minnows, trout, crawfish, and aquatic bugs scurry about through thick strands of green algae In the spring, the frogs gather and lay eggs, which soon give way to many tadpoles. Collecting native fishes and keeping them in home aquaria is an enjoyable aspect of the hobby.

Before you begin to collect, we must first deal with the law. Many parks have restrictions on collecting, and many regions require that you must have a permit before collecting Always know the rules on nets, seines, chemicals, etc., before you go out to collect. Contact the park service for more information.

Good supplies will help you collect more and better specimens. One of the most handy tools is a large fish net tied to a long broom handle. This gives you more area when collecting with a small net. Nets used in fishing are also helpful, but make sure that the netting is fine enough to catch smaller specimens. Seines are also very helpful. These large nets can be spread across a body of water and dragged to collect specimens — although this normally requires more than one person to accomplish. A bucket with a source of aeration is a must for preserving specimens — more than one are helpful, a separate container for more aggressive specimens.

Observe the water carefully before you begin to collect. Gather some of the sand and rocks and put then1 in your tank to make the tank as natural as possible. Use your own water Decide on an area rich in diversity of life. First, check the current. Is it strong, or is it gentle? Areas with strong currents should be recreated by adding a powerhead and a "downstream" effect. Next check the water parameters — most importantly the water quality and hardness. I have found water in my area to be acidic and soft — but it does vary from region to region.

Finally, before you collect, decide on what specimens you want. Be wary of large game fish (bluegill, trout, etc.) and large, pugnacious crawfish. Small fishes, minnows, small crawfish, snails, tadpoles, and newts are all desirable. Also, be realistic in terms of your filter’s bioload. Keep a rough layout of the tank’s inhabitants during collection.

Here are a few pointers for collecting fishes. Minnows swim in small groups, and should be kept that way in the aquarium When you approach with a net, the minnows will disperse in all directions, so swoop swiftly at a school with a large net Crawfish generally arc found in semi–strong current waters under rocks. Gently lift the rock and observe Small crawfish are desirable in a tank with larger fishes If you plan to keep these, then gently guide them into the net. Most other fishes can be found in 2–5 feet of water, this is where the seine comes in handy. Gently drag along the stream and check occasionally Release specimens that you do not wan l Some native fishes turn out to be very pretty, so keep your eyes peeled!

At first you should only collect a small amount of livestock and learn the basics of keeping native fishes, but after that more can be added. Just remember to be realistic and respect the population and diversity of our native aquatic animals.