By Marvin England

What’s the difference between a fish breeder and a fishkeeper? I discovered the answer to that question the hard way.

On Christmas Day, 2000, a major ice storm struck Texarkana and the surrounding area. Three inches of freezing rain causing power outages the likes of which had not been seen in many, many years, if ever. We lost electricity at our house at approximately 3:45 p.m. We quickly shut off the 3 bedrooms and stuffed towels under the doors to prevent drafts, then hurried to turn up the propane heater in the fish room. I ran out to the storage shed to uncover disposable propane bottles and the propane camping stove while Kathy scurried around gathering up all the candles, oil lamps, lamp oil, flashlights and matches she could find.

Christmas night was spooky. By the light of two oil lamps we managed to be able to read, just barely. I made a pallet on the floor with the dog while Kathy sacked out on the couch with the cats. Neither of us got any sleep due to CRACK-WHAM all night long–the sounds of tree limbs snapping and hitting the ground. Thank goodness we had trees cut last year. One would have surely uprooted and struck the middle of our house, as it was already leaning that way. Another would have taken out the fish room because it was rotten and dying, and thus very susceptible to the ice.

My greatest worry was the fish. Could I keep them alive? Heat was not a problem, thanks to a propane heater previously set up specially for them. I couldn’t do water changes because there was no power to run the well pump or the hot water heater. Aeration was also out of the question for all practical purposes, as I only had a couple of battery-operated air pumps. “Battery-operated” being the key words. Naturally we had no “D” batteries stockpiled. This necessitated a trip to Albertson’s, which was one of only a handful of stores open for business Wednesday morning. After standing in the check-out line for about 30 minutes, I managed to get sufficient batteries to power the air pumps and a couple of flashlights. As far as getting any lamp oil, wicks or disposable propane bottles–forget it. Those items could not be located anywhere in Texarkana or the surrounding area.

Now I had minimal air, but not nearly enough. What to do? I began “tumbling” the water, dipping up some in a large container and pouring it back into the tanks, to help with the oxygen/carbon dioxide gas exchange. Kathy took a wire whisk from her kitchen tools and “whisked” water, which helped some. but not nearly enough. Fish were dying and the remainder were greatly stressed, breathing hard, even though they had not been fed since Monday. That was another concern–we had fry that hadn’t eaten since the power went out, and we were afraid they would starve. I put tiny bits of fry food in each tank and held positive thoughts.

Thursday dawned partly cloudy with a promise of more freezing rain, so that afternoon, after wearing myself out tumbling water, we made a quick run to a local pet store and borrowed some battery-operated air pumps as their power had been restored. We also dropped by Wal-Mart Supercenter. While Kathy was on the phone with her office, I ran upon some disposable propane bottles and a 5000 watt Coleman generator. Eureka! I quickly loaded everything into a cart and headed for the check-out line. We got the generator home, unloaded it, gassed and oiled it up and it cranked immediately. With it I had enough power to run the bare necessities in the fish room, plus keep our refrigerator and freezer running sufficiently to prevent defrosting and spoilage.

What’s it like babysitting a generator in the middle of the night, with temperatures in the teens and ice and snow on the ground? Just ask me–I can tell you all about it. I was hesitant to let the generator run completely out of gas, plus the oil had to be checked frequently, so I was up every couple of hours. I only let it run enough to sufficiently aerate the tanks, three or four hours, and then I would turn it off.

There was plenty of heat because by this time the small kerosene heater was glowing. I also put large candles underneath the more sizeable tanks to assist in keeping their temperatures within an acceptable range. The bedrooms were cold, though, but Kathy insisted on sleeping back there, using the excuse that the couch made her back hurt. The real reason, whether she will admit it or not, was that her cat missed sleeping on our bed, so she felt sorry for it. She told me that one morning it was so cold that condensate had frozen on the bottom of the windows on the inside. BRRR!! But the cat was happy.

By Friday evening and Saturday morning the casualties had greatly slacked off. I had lost a few cyprichromis and a male pelvicachromis taeniatus, but mostly the larger Zaire black Altolamprologus calvus. For some reason the lack of aeration seemed to affect them more than any of the other species.

Sunday was a beautiful day, although very cold, with a low of 18 degrees. The wind really would get up your pants legs if you were not careful. Monday’s low was also 18, and Tuesday’s low was 15. Not temperatures that were particularly conducive to successful fishkeeping under normal, full-power circumstances. By Wednesday the power guys were actually working on our street. We drove by and asked them “when” and they said hopefully that day, but surely by Thursday, because 11 transmission towers had been downed by the ice and they were having to bypass them. However, everything was still powerless when we arrived back home that night. As I got out of the truck and shut the door, the only sound was coming from generators running at various houses up and down the streets in our neighborhood.

Power finally came on at noon on Thursday, and I immediately left work to come straighten things out, replug things, move air pumps back to their proper places, and begin cleaning soured filters. I turned on the water well pump and was pleasantly surprised to find no burst water pipes. As the water warmed up I began preparing it for use in topping off tanks.

Kathy and I were in the living room Thursday evening, having just watched a movie, when the power went off again. Oh, @#$%! I immediately began scrambling to find flashlights and candles. I also refueled the kerosene heater and lit the candles that were still underneath the larger tanks. Then I went to bed and tried not to think about it. That bedroom was cold, but I snuggled up with Kathy and the two cats, and everyone was comfortable.

Friday morning, January 5, 2001, the power suddenly returned at 7:49. I was getting dressed to go out and crank up the generator when I heard a noise and lo and behold everything was running. Wonderful! I finished cleaning filters and then did major water changes on all tanks. By the time I took an inventory, I was missing only a few cyprichromis, the pelvicachromis, the calvus, and another fish or two here and there. Everything else survived, even seemed to thrive, especially all the fry I was so worried about. They were a little thin, but they seemed to be doing great.

I did learn a couple of things from this experience. First, never underestimate the power of sponges and sponge filters in your tanks. The tank I lost the most fish from had only one sponge in it. All the others had several, and I lost only one fish here and there from them. A friend in Atlanta, Georgia, told me that when he experienced a power outage last year his hatchery was wiped out because he lost his biological filtration and his tanks cycled. He lost fish for months afterwards. I credit the bacteria buildup in the sponges with allowing me to have enough backup biological filtration to save my fish.

The second thing I learned was that the old wives’ tale of plecos liking nasty water was true, at least in my case. The first tank I worked on when the power returned and I began making water changes was the baby pleco tank. Talk about smelling like a sewer! They hadn’t eaten much of anything over the previous 10 days, but that water was positively stinky. None of them died during the outage; in fact, they looked like they had even grown a little. Thus I now believe it when I am told that plecos like dirty water, and the dirtier the better.

I now consider myself more than just a fish breeder–I am a true battle-hardened fishkeeper. Anyone who can maintain numerous tropical fish with no electricity, no filtration, and no water changes for over 10 days, while the temperature outside fluctuates from the teens to the thirties, is truly worthy of that title. And I acquired it the old-fashioned way–I earned it!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *