Reference Aquarium - the ultimate in carving reference!

The best reference for wood carving is live reference. Those of you with an empty aquarium in your attic, there is your library, go catch your books. Most warmwater, and some coldwater fish thrive well in captivity and offer unlimited study (check you local and state laws on captivity first).

Itís easy to spot a carving from somebody who has studied a live fish at depth, they always seem to capture the fishís spirit in their work. This cannot be done from a photograph or a taxidermy mount. Aquariums offer the best in habitat study as well. Plant reference, driftwood shape, and stone coloration questions are quickly answered with in-house stock.

For the fish carver committed to taking his or her work to the highest level an aquarium is a necessary and enjoyable investment. One fish in captivity can answer more questions than a ten foot stack of reference pictures. Studying fish in their natural environment will help you understand things you would have never noticed from pictures. Things such as; how are the fins positioned on a trout holding in steady current? Their position while in pursuit of a bait fish or lure? At what point does the fish open itís mouth to inhale a bait fish? These are all questions that can only be answered from studying live fish.

How many times have you seen a carving or mounted fish chasing a school of bait fish with every fin on the fish flared in an open position? I am sure you will agree this fin positioning is used more often than not. Is it correct? No, when a fish is in hot pursuit they are very streamline, bullet like in appearance, the dorsal, pectoral, pelvic, and anal fins are collapsed and full forward power is developed from the body and caudal fin. Pelvic and pectoral fins are used for quick directional changes only.

What many fish carvers fail to realize is fin position is as critical as wing position in a duck carving. When a duck takes to flight from a floating position on water the wings are opened, pushing down compressing the air trapped between the lower wing surface and the surface of the water lifting the bird off the water and into the air, an appropriate action for the desired result. Would you display a duck carving open winged floating at rest on the water? Even if I could show you pictures of ducks with their wings spread? No, because we all know ducks donít normally float like that. You would never use reference pictures of ducks in flight for a carving of a duck at rest in the water. However many fish carvers continue to use pictures of fish held in hand, fins flared, as reference when creating a carving displaying in pursuit of quarry.  Drop a minnow into a aquarium full of hungry fish and in three seconds or less you will know how to position the fins of a fish in hot pursuit.

Which brings me to another question. At what point does a fish open itís mouth to inhale a bait fish? We often see carvings of a large fish chasing a school of bait fish, itís mouth opened full, ten inches behind the bait. In reality this would never happen. A fish opens itís mouth a split second before inhaling the bait fish. They use the vacuum generated from quickly opening their mouth to suck in the bait fish. If they were swimming fast with their mouth wide open, the trapped water in their mouth would push the bait away instead of drawing it in. At the moment of attack the gill covers are closed and the mouth opens quickly sucking in everything immediately around it. The gill covers open and the mouth closes in one fluid movement. The water is pushed out the gill covers and the bait stays in the mouth.  Mother natures landing net, of sorts.

So why is the pike carving displayed with flared fins and an open mouth chasing a carved perch six inchís away? The carver has not studied live reference, the minnow experiment above would have answered this question as well. This is the type of information you wont get from a picture in a magazine or a stack of reference photos, you need to see the real thing, in action. This alone makes an aquarium a priceless source of reference.

When it comes to aquariums, bigger is definitely better. With large fish come problems that are difficult to manage in small aquariums. They require more space and tend to pollute the water faster with waste products. Overcrowding in small tanks make it tough to keep water conditions and health problems under control. A good starting size for a panfish collection would be a 55 gallon aquarium.  I wouldn't bother with anything smaller.  This will provide ample space for a half a dozen small panfish and still have enough room as they grow, provided territorial tempers remain in check. If you want raise a couple of 12" trout then a 125 gallon long or larger is a good choice. Keep in mind fish grow quickly and often become territorial so purchase an aquarium as large as your space and budget allow. Coldwater fish will need a chiller operating to keep the water at a cold temperature so they can survive.

Warmwater and some coldwater fish are very easy to raise in captivity. They are not as fragile as some of the tropicals found in most pet stores. These type of fish will require a large aquarium to thrive in captivity. Larger aquariums hold a consistent water temperature better, and if used indoors will not need a heater to warm the water. Panfish, warmwater gamefish, and some cold water fish can handle a wide temperature range from 40 - 80 degrees with ease, except trout that need it a little cooler, 50- 65 degrees is ideal but most will tolerate temperatures as high as 70 degrees for a short time if water circulation is strong. If keeping trout is your preference consider making a water cooler by circulating the water (from your filter) through a copper coil positioned inside a small refrigerator, three cubic feet or smaller. These little refrigerators do a great job of cooling the water to 55 degrees and keeping it there at a low cost. The colder the water the longer it can hold oxygen.

Try to keep all tank habitat natural, live plants, sand and gravel common to the fishís natural habitat. Leave the blue plants, bubbling treasure chests and swimming scuba diver toys for the goldfish. When fish are uncomfortable with their surroundings, they become scared, losing color and darting about the tank wildly. Imagine how you would react if somebody dropped you into a new house with florescent carpeting, and neon colored plastic furniture that squirted water every 15 seconds while your pink dog floated around the room by his leash. Would that cause you to dart around the house in a panic or appear a little flush?

Position your aquarium near filtered sunlight, fish need the same exposure to sunlight in captivity as in the wild. Fish kept under artificial lighting only, often exhibit washed out coloration, providing poor paint reference. Sufficient sunlight will also allow live plants to thrive and algae to grow, both are a necessary part of a fishís diet and the aquariums ecosystem. If placement near a window is not possible than consider purchasing a florescent light bulb designed to simulate natural sunlight conditions. Grow lights are strong in the blue / red spectrums, necessary to support plant life.  Figure on enough lighting to supply 2-3 watts per gallon of aquarium water.  This type of light should be on 12 hours a day. Many aquarists use an inexpensive timer to control the on / off cycles of the lights. Any disturbance in the on/off cycle duration will confuse your live plants causing poor growth and possible algae problems.

When setting up your aquarium NEVER use lake or stream water. This water contains bacteria that may upset or destroy the working bacteria in your aquarium filter. Many people feel a gallon of this water will jump start their new tank and begin the cycling process sooner. Avoid the temptation, this will not work and should not be attempted. If you want to speed the cycling process of a new tank use a small amount of water from a healthy established aquarium to seed your bacteria growth. An old filter pad or a gallon of water vacuumed from the gravel of an established aquarium is often all that is needed to seed a new aquarium with beneficial bacteria. Newly setup aquariums should be run at least six weeks with a few goldfish before any reference specimens are added. This will allow the bacteria colonies to grow and become established before new fish are added. Larger fish generate more waste products, this may shock a newly set up aquarium and over power the working bacteria causing health problems from the start.  Add to your new aquarium slowly and let bacteria colonies grow to accommodate the need.

Try to create a balanced ecosystem to maintain a healthy chemical free environment for your study fish. Refrain from using chemicals as much as possible. Donít rush to poison a problem, cure it naturally for best results. Add missing pieces to the puzzle until a balance is reached. If algae gets out of control add snails to consume the algae, they will reproduce quickly providing a steady food source for your bluegills and sunfish. If the water appears cloudy add freshwater mussels to clear the water, they feed on micro organisms that cloud water. If bottom wastes become a problem add bottom feeders such as small catfish or crayfish.

If your live plants begin to die from lack of carbon dioxide donít pour in chemical fertilizers and wait for a miracle. Add carbon dioxide to the water. In a large sealable bottle add sugar, water and yeast, cap the bottle and vent it into your water with a length of plastic airline. When yeast consume sugar they give off carbon dioxide. The gas will escape the sealed bottle through the air line and bubble off into the water of your aquarium. This set up will produce carbon dioxide for weeks Water absorbs carbon dioxide very quickly and small amounts will be all that is necessary to maintain healthy plants. Keep in mind most plants thrive in swamp type conditions where vegetation decomposes giving off gasses that help feed other growth. This is a difficult environment to duplicate in an aquarium, spend the time necessary to learn how to balance the cycle and you will be rewarded with a self running aquarium requiring little maintenance.

Feed your fish foods they would normally eat in the wild, if possible. Altering their diet may cause health problems, color changes and poor growth. There are many great sources for live food, bait shops, pet shops, your own backyard. Leave a 4 foot fluorescent light on in the backyard after dark and you would be surprised at the amount of live insects you can collect on a warm summer evening. Collect night crawlers and store them in a large cooler filled with mulch They will keep for long periods if kept cool. Feed them corn meal and keep their mulch damp and they will continue to breed and grow providing an endless supply of fish food. 

If you are looking for bulk insect feed head to the nearest lake in the spring when the mayflies hatch. During the night they cling to anything that is lit up, gas station pumps seem to be their favorite around here. You can scoop them up with a shovel during a hatch there are so many. Place them in freezer bags in your freezer and save them for year long use.

Large fish require more food, increased water filtration and aeration. Constant monitoring of water quality is a must. Visit your local pet shop for advice on equipment needed to maintain a healthy environment for your study fish.  There are many newsgroups on the internet dedicated to helping people raise fish in captivity. Some of them to visit are rec.aquaria.freshwater.misc., rec.aquaria,, alt.aquaria, and sci.aquaria. 

Once your aquarium has been operating for at least three days you can begin adding small fish. Start with a few small fish to begin the bacteria cycle and slowly add more after six weeks. Monitor your water quality closely as you stock the aquarium, overloading will cause high ammonia levels that will harm your fish.

When collecting fish care must be taken to ensure a safe transition from the wild to captivity. The ideal transport container is a large insulated cooler with a water circulating pump (the type used to keep bait alive). Coolers help keep the water temperature consistent during transportation. To avoid injury to the fish during transportation line the inside of the cooler with 1" foam rubber. Cut four pieces the size of the cooler inside walls and glue them in place with aquarium silicone days in advance. Silicone adhesive will not leach into the water once cured and cause harm to the fish like most adhesives will. The wet foam rubber will pad the walls of the cooler and prevent injury to the fishís skin and eyes as they dart around wildly in the cooler. The plastic flashing and mold imperfections on the inner walls of the cooler will scratch the eyes of your study fish as they swim around trying to escape. A soft foam liner will prevent any lasting abrasions. Fill the cooler to a depth of at least twice that of the fish with water from the lake or river.

The use of marine drugs can be helpful. There are tranquilizers available from most pet stores that can be added to the water to calm the fish down and prevent injury while contained in the cooler. Some fish require sedation to calm them, some donít. Another good chemical to add to the transport water is a stress coat. This chemical covers the fish in a protective coating to help them avoid abrasions and damage to their skin and eyes while being transported. This coating will dissolve several hours later when protection is no longer necessary.  It can be purchased from any tropical fish store or pet shop.

If you have concerns as to the fishes health upon capture release it, don't contaminate your aquarium with sick specimens. Inspect each fish for any signs of flukes. Flukes are small worms that are ingested by fish. Flukes live off the flesh of fish as they burrow out through the stomach of the fish. Obvious signs of fluke infestation are sores or small holes in the skin of the fish. If your fish show any questionable spots or sores when caught, release them. Flukes can wipe out an aquarium of study fish in short order if gone unnoticed, or untreated. The chemicals used to treat many illnesses often kill helpful bacteria and algae necessary to cycle your tank. Introducing sick or weak fish may destroy the delicate balance that you have worked months to achieve.

Once home acclimate the fish to the water in the aquarium by adding small amounts of aquarium water to the cooler until you have a 50:50 mix, leave fish in this water for 15 minutes or more. Compare the temperature of the water in the cooler to that of the aquarium, slowly raise or lower the temp of the cooler water as necessary by adding more water from the aquarium to the cooler. Once the temp is the same between both remove the fish from the cooler and release it into the aquarium.  Turn off the lights and allow the fish time to adjust to the water without being harassed by the resident fishes.  After a while turn on the light.

If you have a large community tank consider setting up a small quarantine tank for your new arrivals. Treat the water with medication designed to kill internal and external parasites and quarantine new fish for 7 days in this water. If after 7 days the fish appears healthy introduce him to the main aquarium. This is the safest method of keeping healthy specimens.

I know once you spend a little study time with live reference the trouble involved with setting up and maintaining an aquarium will reward you ten fold with results in your next carving.






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