A Brief History of My Life : Part 1 - A Magnificent
|Daphne C. Layley
n my sixth birthday, a dear and well-meaning aunt (who,
with the benefit of hindsight had a lot to answer for, but
to whom I shall be eternally grateful),
gave me half-a-crown (12½ new pence) and told me
to go along to the local pet-shop and buy a goldfish as
a present. At the shop, the goldfish did nothing for me
compared with the wonderful little creature that lurked
at the back of the aquarium. It was about 2 inches long
and looked like a black tadpole with whiskers. The label
read “Scavenger – 1/9d”. To me, it was
the most beautiful and fascinating thing I had ever seen
and, needless to say, it was soon resident in a small angle-iron
tank in my bedroom, and it rapidly became the sole object
of my attention and affections. I was even happy to be sent
to bed early because of some minor misdemeanour in order
to watch it swimming about in the half-light. The only food
you could buy were dried ants’ eggs, which it ignored;
but it never refused the earthworms that were dug up from
my father’s vegetable patch!
My world temporarily ended when it died, and it’s
solemn burial in the garden in a little cardboard box lined
with cotton wool and toilet paper, was accompanied by hoots
of derisive laughter from my older brother and floods of
tears from me…
Ameiurus melas =
In those early days, books on my chosen subject were almost
non-existent - there was nobody to turn to for help or advice,
and that little black bullhead was not the last to be sent,
ceremoniously, to “The Big Fish Tank In The Sky”.
I sadly admit that I probably killed as many fish as those
that were lucky enough to survive – not through negligence
I hasten to add – I probably loved them to death –
but through plain ignorance of their basic needs!
Christmas brought me a ’Montrose Minor’ air
pump and a tiny booklet on fish keeping called ‘Ditchfield’s
Little Wonder Book’ (which I still have) and thereafter
the fishy funerals became less frequent.
That was just over 50 years ago and during all the intervening
years – ponies, teenage traumas, acne, the “birds
& the bees”, boyfriends, mini-skirts, mascara,
the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, vodka & lime, cigarettes,
flower-power, marriage, divorce, re-marriage, motherhood
and grand motherhood, I can honestly say that I have never
been without at least one aquarium and one catfish!
Fortunately for the fish, we now have modern technology
and I realize how lucky I am when I stand in my fish-room
and look around at all the high-tech gear, computerised
gizmos and self-priming wotsits that keep my tanks and their
inhabitants clean, happy and healthy.
A long-term obsession
From that first little bullhead, my love has always been
catfish, the bigger, uglier and more predatory the better.
Over the years I have developed a special interest in the
family Bagridae, of which one species in particular, Hemibagrus
(formally Mystus) wyckii, has been
the subject of my study and total obsession and has held
pride of place in my fish room ever since I saw my first
specimen nearly 30 years ago. It was described by Bleeker
in 1858 and comes from the rivers of Thailand, Sumatra and
For me, this fish is the absolute ultimate symbol of both
beauty and evil in equal proportions. Its body is a stunning,
velvety jet black with just a white flash on the top and
bottom rays of the caudal fin. However, it’s the eyes
that are really spooky – they are like little crystal
balls and you get the feeling that you can see right through
them and also, scarily, that they can see right through
you! Not many freshwater fish have eyes like this, but anglers
will know that Zanders’ eyes are the same. Wherever
I go in my fish room, they watch me. Where H. wyckii
are found, they are called the Crystal Catfish because of
their eyes, and the people of the region regard them with
a mixture of superstition and awe because they believe that
the fish are inhabited by the spirits of their ancestors.
(formally Mystus) wyckii
A little Angel ? - I think
Apart from its striking looks, the other thing that must
be experienced to be believed is it’s bad temper.
It is the ultimate killing machine par excellence and
no other livestock bar none is safe with it. It is totally
fearless of anything and will instantly attack any foreign
object introduced into its tank. Many years ago, one of
my specimens crushed an old style aluminium-cased heater
in its jaws like a sledgehammer. It is not given to paranoid
bursts of speed like some of the larger South American
Pimelodids, but its feeding modus operandi and its reactions
are lightening-fast and very deadly. I once experimented
and dipped the handle of a large wooden spoon into the
tank and it was wrenched from my grip within seconds with
a frenzied power which was awesome …a carelessly
dangled finger would no doubt receive similar attention
Needless to say, this is not a fish to be treated casually
and, particularly with large specimens, all in-tank maintenance
requires 100% attention if an accident is to be avoided.
By large, I mean anything over 12 inches (30cms) and,
although various catfish books give differing maximum
sizes, the largest specimen I have owned measured 24 inches
(60cms) from snout tip to caudal fork. This fish, named
Pagan, eventually became quite famous and was originally
obtained for me, in the early 1980s, by Dr. David Sands,
to whom I shall be ever grateful as no one else in the
country could get one at the time.
Keeping Hemibagrus wyckii is not difficult provided
you have a large tank of at least 2 metres, preferably
3, and a large external filter to cope with the waste
– if finances stretch to a filter with a built-in
heater so much the better as it means that there will
be less in-tank hardware to be attacked or smashed. A
close fitting cover glass is vital as this fish is an
accomplished jumper. Substrate should be soft –
I use an inert silver sand. Any rocks or boulders must
have no sharp edges, and again, should be inert. One or
two large bore clay or plastic pipes should be provided
to give security and somewhere to spend the daylight hours.
Be prepared for the substrate and any moveable décor
to be ‘re-landscaped’ occasionally. Dusk heralds
the time to go cruising for food, which should consist
of earthworms, prawns, cockles, mussels, lance fish, cod
or coley steaks, small trout etc., in fact all the usual
predator fare, provided it comes from a non-infected source.
It is not necessary to feed live fish simply because anything
dropped into the aquarium is attacked instantly –
H. wyckii does not waste time waiting to see if it’s
meals can swim !
Water should have a pH of 6.8 –
7.2 and should be regularly monitored for any increase
in nitrite or ammonia levels due to the type of food and
subsequent excreta. Temperature should be about 75F or
24C and water changes of 20% should be carried out at
least every 2 weeks, but more often if necessary. Be prepared
to pay about £60 for a 6inch (15cm) specimen and
much more for a larger one. It goes without saying that
this fish must be kept as a solitary specimen.
Mystus) wyckii = Albino version
This is a beautiful creature but not one for the faint-hearted.
You must be 100% dedicated and you must think hard before
buying one. If you cannot meet all of the criteria for
its welfare as outlined above, please leave it in the
shop. I personally don’t believe that we ever really
“own” these fish, we are just lucky enough
to be guardians of them for the duration of their lives
with us and it is incumbent upon us to do our best for
them and to give them the quality of life they deserve.
My thanks must go to Chris Ralph of The Southern Counties
Catfish Rescue Society, Richard Hardwick of Wharf Aquatics,
Nottinghamshire, and to Dr. David Sands for their help
in the preparation of this article.
Daphne C. Layley
Credits: Top &
Middle : © Allan
James @ -
This article first appeared
in an abridged form under the name “Through The
Ages” in Practical Fish Keeping magazine 2004.