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The Creature from the Aquarium

Mostly the things in the author's fish tank—and those of his friends—stay put, but sometimes they escape

I forget why I overimbibed one night some 14 years ago, but I vividly remember the incident that occurred the next morning. I toddled downstairs somewhat the worse for wear, eased myself into a chair at the kitchen table and then suddenly shot into the air in horror as a creature about the size of a soft-ball lurched toward me across the floor.

Was I imagining what I was seeing? No, this was no apparition. It was a real creature waving its antennae and claws in hostile fashion. Was I about to be killed in my own kitchen?

I backed away cautiously so that no sudden movement on my part would prompt an attack, and then, when the creature stopped moving, I slowly circled around to examine it from the rear. Its coat was both prodigious and peculiar. Thick tufts of multicolored fur sprouted from the body and from one of its claws, while covering the other claw was glistening black hair.

I wondered if this creature could be new to science. The house in which I then lived—I was a widower at the time—was a converted barn, built four feet into the earth on its back side. There was no cellar, so the interior of the first floor at the rear of the house was composed, in part, of a stone wall that was below ground level. In the past, I had seen salamanders peering at me from small holes in the wall. Perhaps this netherworld creature had likewise emerged from the inner earth.

Then I realized what the "thing" was. It was a five-inch-long crayfish, one of several that I had put in my 120-gallon aquarium in the living room, and it had undoubtedly escaped by clambering up an air hose with its claws. I picked up the crayfish by the tail to give the multicolored fur and hairs closer scrutiny. From my examination, I deduced that the crayfish had crawled into the kitchen via the connecting furnace and laundry rooms, and while on the trek its still-wet body and claws had picked up dust motes, lint balls and a clawful of hairs shed by my black Labrador retriever.

This incident comes to mind because, after a long lapse, I am again keeping crayfish in an aquarium. They will serve as live models for ultrarealistic fishing flies that I have in mind to tie for smallmouth bass. For most of the last 30 years I have been keeping freshwater fish and invertebrates in aquariums. Not for me, though, are the swordtails, kissing gouramis, neon tetras or other pet-shop exotics kidnapped from the tropics. Instead I revel in observing what I have brought back alive from lakes and streams near my home.

Frankly, I am puzzled that other anglers do not do the same. They could gain insights about their quarry: for example, why fish strike (or why they don't), or how best to simulate the wiggle of, say, a mayfly nymph or a wounded dace when fishing with imitations of them.

Anyone interested in keeping native creatures alive in the living room would do well to consult Dr. Axelrod's Mini Atlas of Freshwater Aquarium Fishes, put out by TFH Publications. Despite its title and heft, this 992-page book by Dr. Herbert R. Axel-rod and several colleagues contains a most helpful section on basic aquarium setup and maintenance. I first met Dr. Axelrod, a world-renowned authority on fish, shortly after I started keeping largemouth bass (up to 3½-pounders) in my living-room aquarium. Very much a private person, Dr. Axelrod said that the only reason he met with me was because "you're a nut, too."

With that, Dr. Axelrod went on to say that when he once lectured at a state penitentiary in Indiana, he was intrigued to learn that some lifers had circumvented the prison rule against pets by keeping guppies in vials strapped to their bodies. Generation after generation of guppies had been born in that slammer, and so Dr. Axelrod, reasoning that the prisoners had nothing but time on their hands, asked them to start recording the fishes' behavior in their own tightly confined prisons. To his dismay, his pen pals let the record-keeping slide but began experimenting with keeping their fish in smaller and smaller vials to see how much confinement they could take before they expired. He was somewhat chagrined to be able to add to scientific knowledge the fact that a guppy can survive in an inch-long vial the diameter of a pencil.

Personally, I make it a rule to avoid overcrowding as well as overconfinement, because some species offish are decidedly territorial in close quarters. This is especially true of largemouth bass. In an aquarium, they establish a pecking order within a couple of days. Almost inevitably, the biggest fish becomes the boss bass and claims absolute sovereignty over the tank. On only one occasion did another species of fish displace a boss bass, and that was a plump 10-inch brown trout I added to the tank toward the end of one season. After getting acclimated, this terrible-tempered trout went on the attack, harrying and nipping at the fins of any fish that crossed its path. Eventually it drove the boss bass—and the other bass, all bigger than the feisty trout—to one end of the aquarium. After four or five months of undergoing daily attack, all the bass had died.

A 120-gallon aquarium allows enough Lebensraum for five or six largemouths to live together in relative peace. Aside from their pugnacity, they are easy fish to keep. They are hardy, and there is no need to deal with aquarium heaters because they do well in water kept at room temperature. They thrive on a diet of live shiners and earthworms, and they quickly become conditioned to being fed. When I would appear with a minnow bucket, the largemouths would come to the front of the tank, face me, wave their tails like dogs and erect their spiny dorsal fins to mark all systems go. Their eyes would take on a bright reddish glow, as if they had been plugged into a power socket.

In time the bass were taking food from my hand. Naturally, that led to some less-than-scientific experimentation—specifically, how did the bass react to various hookless lures or flies I had tied (on hooks with the barbs snipped off). For the fun of it, I would sometimes dangle a plastic worm over them. A bass would seize it, and we would play tug-of-war until one of us let go. If I let a bass take the worm, it would spit it out. One time, however, a bass seized a purple worm and, to my astonishment, swallowed it. I kept checking the aquarium for the worm, and two weeks passed before I found it floating on the surface, bleached an albino white.

Freshwater sunfish, which belong to the same family as largemouth and small-mouth bass (Centrarchidae), are also quick learners. Dery Bennett, the executive director of the American Littoral Society, once caught a bluegill sunny, put it in an aquarium and started feeding it houseflies. "It got to the point where I'd just pick up a flyswatter and that sunny would get excited," Bennett says. "When people came over to the house, I'd say, 'Do you want to see my fish swim?' and I'd pick up the flyswatter."

Unlike largemouths or sunnies, smallmouths are difficult to keep. Simply turning on the aquarium lights can frighten them because they are photophobic and avoid light whenever possible. In an experiment that a couple of scientists conducted, smallmouths and largemouths were taught to control the light falling on their aquariums. The largemouths kept the light on 60% of the time, while the smallmouths kept it off 96% of the time, which helps to explain why largemouths will venture in a lake shallows on a sunny summer day while the smallmouths prefer to hang deep or in the shadows of rocks and ledges.

Only one smallmouth I kept in my aquarium wasn't skittish. A neighbor caught the fish and brought it to me stuffed headfirst in a pail. The fish was badly beat up about the flanks and mouth, where it had been hooked, but this small-mouth was well worth saving because it was huge. It weighed about seven pounds and had the deep-bellied sunfish silhouette that older bass assume. I wet my hands, gently picked up the fish and lowered it into the 120-gallon tank. The bass proved to be as placid as it was outsized during all the time I kept it, the better part of a year. It was so laid-back that it never even went after the half dozen blacknosed dace minnows that I added to the tank as food a few days after the bass revived. Instead, the smallmouth allowed the dace to clean its mouth and flanks of small growths of fungus where it had been injured, much as rhinos permit birds to perch on their backs and feed on the insects they find there. But whenever I dropped a crayfish into the aquarium, the smallmouth flashed over and inhaled it, tail first.

In the past, I also maintained aquariums with brackish water (a third the salinity of seawater) so that I could keep fish, shrimp and crabs from the tidal portion of the Hudson River, which flowed near my home. I never had much success with those fish. White perch were boring, first-year bluefish inevitably died of shock (the longest one lived was two days), a three-foot-long Atlantic sturgeon steadfastly refused to eat (I returned it to the river), and juvenile striped bass were easily stressed and rarely survived more than a month. Moreover, some of the stripers carried a parasite anchored like a small worm on their sides, and within a confined space, these worms soon infested other fish. I would then have to sterilize the aquarium, which meant removing every fish in the tank; hunkering down on the floor and, using a length of garden hose and my mouth, starting a gravity flow to siphon off 120 gallons of water into eight-gallon buckets; running and emptying the buckets outside; removing all the sand and rocks; scrubbing the inside of the tank with formalin (a lethal mixture of formaldehyde and water) to kill off any remaining parasites; rinsing the tank; refilling it; and, finally, catching new fish. I did this two or three times before I gave up on stripers.

I did have luck with juvenile jack crevalles, a beautiful semitropical species that sometimes enters the Hudson in late summer, when the water is at its warmest. One September, I netted half a dozen jacks. They proved to be real showstoppers. They never did stop swimming, and they schooled closely, as if trying out for a video on MTV. They also grunted like pigs, and they were as quick as sunnies at figuring out when it was feeding time. When I entered the living room to feed them grass shrimp, happy little oinks would come from the aquarium.

Alas, the jacks all died five months later during a prolonged power failure. I had foolishly failed to have a battery-powered aerator on hand as a backup.

Grass shrimp are fascinating. They are transparent (they're sometimes called "glass" shrimp) and can change color to adapt to the background. However, they must be kept in an aquarium by themselves because all fish love them and gobble them up. The shrimp will eat just about anything, from bits of an earthworm to fragments of canned tuna or sardines, and because they're transparent, it is easy to track what they eat. The stomach of the shrimp, which is located in the head, turns orange when the shrimp is fed smoked salmon.

Grass shrimp will also eat other shrimp when they are molting and have no hard exoskeleton. In October I usually put about 40 or 50 of them in a three-gallon aquarium to provide fish food through the winter. By spring, I'm usually left with two very large grass shrimp warily eyeing each other.

Lest you get the wrong idea, I should point out that maintaining an aquarium is not all mayhem and stupid pet tricks. In 17th-century England, another species of transparent shrimp proved to be of tremendous benefit to humanity because of research done by Dr. William Harvey. As a result of studying those shrimp, Harvey discovered that the heart is a muscular pump responsible for the circulation of blood in man and other animals.

I know only one other angler who seriously collects for his own aquariums. He is Seth Rosenbaum, a computer consultant and a bachelor. He maintains 10 aquariums, from five to 160 gallons in capacity, in the spare bedroom of his Queens, N.Y., apartment, the floor of which he had tiled to stop his downstairs neighbors from worrying about leaks.

In my experience, when it comes to keeping saltwater fish, Rosenbaum is without peer. He has kept more than 40 species alive and well in his apartment, among them orange filefish (which swim upside down), remoras that he removed from white marlin (the remoras use their suckers to hold on to the glass and don't move except to feed), and moray eels, including one that Rosenbaum netted on the island of Culebra near Puerto Rico when the moray slithered up on a rock to attack him. Morays generally refuse to eat anything that is not alive and moving. When Rosenbaum has a moray, he takes no chances with its mouthful of wicked teeth. He feeds them cut shrimp impaled on needles, which, in turn, are lashed onto long sticks.

Similarly, Rosenbaum used a stick to feed a three-pound Ridley turtle and a like-sized loggerhead turtle. But they proved to be such messy eaters that their leavings polluted the tank, and he presented the turtles to the New York Aquarium. (See above, regarding tank-cleaning procedures.)

Of all the creatures that Rosenbaum has kept, his favorites are octopuses. They are highly intelligent animals, and Rosenbaum has had three so far. His alltime favorite was one he found inside an empty conch shell while fishing at Dry Tortugas, at the very tip of Florida. "I had my collecting gear and battery aerators with me," he recalls. "So I put the octopus in a bucket to bring him home. When I took him on the plane, he got out of the bucket and started going down the aisle. I had to retrieve him, and that was the most success I've ever had at socializing with stewardesses."

Back in his apartment, Rosenbaum placed the octopus in a 65-gallon tank. He rejected suggestions that he name it Octopussy—"been used"—or Octopus Rex, and he simply called it occupant octopus, no capitals. "After a few weeks," Rosenbaum says, "occupant octopus got into a pattern of being fed at night when I came home. He'd be just up at the waterline of the tank, holding on to the side with his suction disks. If I didn't feed him right away, he'd start turning colors. He was getting mad. And if I then didn't feed him soon, he'd squirt water at me with his jets. He could actually train the damn things like guns. You could see them move. I would say at least a half a cup of water would come out of him.

"Once that happened on a regular basis, I often made it a point to bring guests in at feeding time. Occupant octopus would be sitting there, and after a minute or two, these purple waves would start going through him, and he'd bring these two turrets to bear. He hit the targets every time. I got wet, too, but it was worth it for the surprise factor.

"Somewhere I read that octopuses like to eat hard-boiled eggs. I would peel a hard-boiled egg, close my fist over it, put my hand in the tank and occupant octopus would come over and try to open it. I could feel the pressure, but he couldn't open it because his head was about the size of my fist. Then he'd start pulsating colors, a sign of anger, and I'd let him have the egg. But what I could never figure out is how anyone ever figured out that octopuses like hard-boiled eggs. Who was the first person to discover that an octopus will eat a hard-boiled egg?"

Occupant octopus was just doing what comes naturally in Rosenbaum's aquarium, but he was to meet a most unnatural end. "I was doing a lot of out-of-town work, and I had a maid come in twice a week to clean," says Rosenbaum. "I always covered the octopus tank with glass and put a weight on top of it because he would come out of the tank on occasion. In nature, an octopus will actually run up on land to chase a crab, grab it and take it back into the water, so it's used to being out of water. I came home one weekend, and occupant octopus wasn't in the tank. I couldn't find him. On Monday when the maid came, I asked her if she had seen the octopus, and she said that when she went into the bedroom to clean up, she found occupant octopus on the floor. I asked her if he was alive or dead. She said that he was dead—at least he was after she hit him on the head with a broom."

To take Rosenbaum's mind off the loss of his alltime favorite, I told him that I was once again keeping crayfish. With that he brightened, and, recalling my encounter with the escaped crayfish from years before, Rosenbaum said, "Do yourself a favor and get a Mexican hairless instead of a Labrador."



Let a wet crayfish crawl through lint balls and dog hair, and you've created a monster.



Feeding a moray is no fun for an aquarium keeper—even less fun for a shrimp.



Occupant octopus was seeking new vistas when the cleaning lady arrived.