Get Out of My Tank!
Fish Removal Tips & Tricks
Removing fish from a fully decorated
display is a common headache for some and a nightmare for
others. The typical scenario involves removing every piece
of live rock and coral, followed by tediously chasing the
fish until it succumbs to exhaustion and is finally removed.
At this point, the aquarist is left with the ominous task
of replacing all the live rock and corals to their exact previous
locations because the display just looked so good before.
Inevitably, all of the pieces don't fit back together just
right - things don't end up looking the same. A lot of dirt
and detritus get kicked up in the process, and the fish suffer
a tremendous amount of stress from the ordeal. Well, fear
not, fellow fish geeks! I am going to provide a variety of
tips and tricks to help even the most novice net wielders
successfully remove their targeted fish safely and efficiently.
Helping my Friend, Scott Fellman
I recently visited
some marine aquarist clubs on the west coast. The first club
I visited was the Marine Aquarium Society of Los Angeles County
(MASLAC). My host for the weekend was fellow fish geek and
friend, Scott Fellman. He had the makings of a rather beautiful
display at his home. The aquascaping was original and interesting,
and he had an unusual and eclectic group of fishes. The only
thing lacking was enough time to permit the corals to grow
into the display. While I was commenting on his fish selection,
I remarked that he should get a partner for his black and
white clownfish (Amphiprion ocellaris). Scott said
that he had a second clownfish that he had already removed
to the sump, and he actually had been working on catching
the second one for several weeks. It turns out that this particular
pair was aggressive and had been harassing some of his other
smaller fishes. After numerous failed attempts to remove them,
he had become somewhat discouraged and remarked that this
one, in particular, was tricky. I assured him, "Don't
worry, we will get that fish out of there this weekend."
I could read the look in Scott's eyes. It was a combination
of, "Please don't wreck my display. It took me weeks
to get everything just the way I want," and,
"Yeah, right! There is no way on God's green earth that
you are going to be able to get that fish."
Photo courtesy of Carlos Chacon.
Later that same evening, I was relaxing
while watching TV and checking out the fish tank. Scott and
his wife had gone off to the kitchen to get more drinks and
snacks. While they were gone, the lights on the display began
turning off, which caught my attention. I looked up and noticed
that while most of the fish had gone into hiding, that lone
troublesome clownfish was front and center. You see, the rest
of the room's lights were on, leaving the living room fairly
bright. This fish was orienting itself to the room lights.
Being a long time fish geek and student of fish behavior,
I quickly realized that this was a golden opportunity to catch
this fish. Based upon this short observation and my experience,
I was fairly confident that this fish would stay along the
front glass, keeping toward the light, and this would make
for an easy removal. I called to Scott in the kitchen and
asked him where his fish net was. He seemed a bit reluctant
to get it for me, but also seemed to want to humor me. We
opened up the top canopy, and I made my attempt at removing
the fish. Although somewhat disappointed in myself, it took
me two swoops with the net and almost 30 seconds to catch
and remove that fish. I must be getting a little old and rusty!
Back when I was catching fish day in and day out at the local
fish store, that little clownfish never would have escaped
my first swoop. But, out he went nonetheless, leaving Scott
both a bit baffled and amazed at the same time.
The point of this story should be obvious.
First, it is possible to remove fish from fully decorated
and stocked displays. Second, the easiest method of accomplishing
this feat is to get me or some other experienced fish geek
to come to your house and do it for you. I am a friendly fellow
and get around to a lot of local fish clubs - "Have net,
will travel." All kidding aside, there are some things
to be learned from this experience. Foremost, know your fish.
Know when and where they hide at night and know how they behave
in general. Knowing where the fish are going keeps you one
step ahead of them and enables you to cut them off and scoop
Using a rod, reel and baited hook
is probably the most intimidating method of fish removal for
aquarists, but it is proven to work and, in contrast to how
it might appear, it does no real harm. This method is best
used on belligerent fish or aggressive eaters. This is no
way to catch a sick or passive fish that is being bullied
in the display. For those instances, pick another method.
But to remove a fish that has outgrown its current quarters
or has become too territorial and is hording all the offered
foods, this might be the best and easiest technique.
Pick an appropriately sized hook. Any store that carries
sporting goods should also carry a variety of hooks of most
any size, even some that are very small. Crimp down or file
the barb off to make removing the hook easier. Then, simply
bait it with the targeted fish's favorite food and wait for
the strike. Try to keep the line taut, so that the hook is
not swallowed. Once the bait is taken and the fish is hooked,
pull the fish out and remove the hook as soon and as cleanly
Photo courtesy of Greg Rothschild.
One last caveat - because this method requires the aquarist
to handle the fish to remove the hook, it is not a good method
for venomous fishes such as lionfish or rabbitfish. Also,
be careful in general when handling any fish. Surgeonfish,
for example, can certainly hurt an aquarist if they are allowed
to thrash about. Gloves would be a good idea to protect both
the aquarist and the fish. They protect the hands while also
providing a level of self-assurance in handling the fish gently,
Joe Yaiullo's Light Trick
Joe Yaiullo of the Atlantis Aquarium
passed along this tidbit of information when he was discussing
removing fish from his 20,000 gallon reef display. The key
is to make the tank as dark as possible. Turn off all the
lights at night, including any moonlights or ambient room
light. Sometimes it's necessary to cover the tank with a blanket,
depending on the situation, to make the display dark enough.
Then, sneak back in the middle of the night after the tank
has been in complete darkness for several hours. At that time,
abruptly turn on all the lights in the room and on the tank.
This temporarily disorients the fish. For the next several
minutes, any fish can be removed very easily. If it is known
where the particular target fish "sleeps" at night,
this same method can be used on a smaller scale by simply
startling the fish at night with a flashlight.
Hunting at Night
Sometimes, aquarists can even catch
fish at night without going through the trouble of startling
them with abrupt lighting. In many instances, when you know
where the fish rests in the evening, you can simply place
a net in front of its abode and goose it from behind with
a prod of some sort and drive it right into the net. This
method works best on medium to larger fish, as it is a bit
difficult to correctly "shoo" a small fish in the
right direction. But this technique works well for surgeonfish,
angelfish and others of similar size and behavior.
Leaving Them High and Dry
This is another method that astounds
aquarists, but I assure my fellow aquarists that it is perfectly
safe. All that is needed are some large barrels for holding
and mixing saltwater; a large, submersible pump and a few
lengths of vinyl tubing. Wave all the corals' polyps so they
retract; turn off the pumps, heater and lights; and then drain
the display's water into the barrel(s), leaving behind only
a shallow puddle at the bottom. The fish will all make their
way to the deepest section of water. Once there, they are
easily removed. All that is needed at this point is to pump
the water back into the display. Think of this as nothing
more than a short low tide period. This is a good method if
the tank's water volume is not too large.
A variety of commercial traps are
that run the gamut from targeting bristle worms and mantis
shrimp to full-fledged fish traps. But the design I wish to
talk about is the soda bottle (or pop bottle, for my fellow
Pittsburghers) do-it-yourself trap. These are simple to build.
Just take a rinsed-out soda bottle and cut off its top. Invert
the top, slide it back inside the base, adhere it in place
with some tape or super glue, and you are done. All that is
left to do is to bait and place the trap. These work well
for smaller fish or crustaceans.
The downside to this method is that these traps will first
capture every single hermit crab and ornamental shrimp in
the aquarium before the target animal is finally caught. It
might be necessary to temporarily relocate these captured
animals to a quarantine tank until the desired specimen is
Some Final Thoughts
I have one last word of advice. Remember
that we are just talking about removing a fish from an aquarium.
These are animals with a brain anywhere from the size of a
BB to a pea. Allowing one to outsmart you is a disgrace to
the human species. When making the first removal attempt,
it is sometimes helpful to play Wagner's "Ride of the
Valkyries" in the background, a la Robert Duvall's Lieutenant
Colonel Bill Kilgore's character from Apocalypse Now. It lets
the fish know who the boss is. I love the smell of fish water
in the morning. Da dadada da, da dadada da, da dadada da,
da dada daaa
If you have any questions
about this article, please visit my author forum
on Reef Central.