A Brief History of My Life : Part 1 - A Magnificent Catfish

by 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 - Black Bullhead

Ameiurus melas - Black Bullhead


So ignorant
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 Java.

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.


Hemibagrus (formally Mystus) wyckii


A little Angel ? - I think not !
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.

Landscape artist
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.



Hemibagrus (formally Mystus) wyckii - albino specimen


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
July 2004

Photo Credits: Top & Middle : © Allan James @ ScotCat - Bottom: © Zhou Hang 


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