Biggest Fish in the Breeding Pond

John Noltner

BRAD SWANSON'S BASEMENT is bright and antiseptic, white floor tiles reflecting fluorescent light. In the middle of the main room, an island of small aquariums rises to the ceiling, identical glass panels crowded together like a bank of video monitors. Three racks of larger aquariums stretch the full length of the back wall. A 135-gallon aquarium dominates another wall. On a third wall, eight shelves support miniature makeshift aquariums: flat Tupperware tubs with plastic tubes through their lids. A 55-gallon drum on which the letters "RO" have been stenciled squats in a corner beside its twin, "Waste." Narrow doorways afford glimpses of still more aquariums in adjacent rooms. Each tank bears a label printed with the Latin names of fish: Chalinochromis brichardi. Cichlasoma coryphaemoides. Lamprichthys tanganicanus. And behind the labels are the corresponding fish, in all the variety that warm freshwater can offer: hulking or streamlined, languid or quick, fins stubby or flowing, red, blue, green, gold, and black and white. There is a faint humming of machinery and, of course, a quiet but incessant gurgling.

Swanson is a hard-core tropical fish hobbyist, president of the Minnesota Aquarium Society, and--by consensus of other hobbyists--the owner of more aquariums than anybody else in the Twin Cities area: 215, including the Tupperware. A wiry man of 34 with a small mustache and a bald head, Swanson spends roughly four hours every weeknight and all day long on weekends in his basement tending fish: "If you can't treat them with respect," he says, "you shouldn't keep them."

As Swanson describes his methods, his tone becomes professorial. "The two most important things in fishkeeping are water quality and a good feeding program," he says, exhibiting a hose, on the end of which is fixed a club-like cylinder. This, he explains, is a reverse-osmosis filter, a series of concentric membranes with microscopic pores through which tap water is forced in order to remove contaminants. The purified water goes into the drum marked "RO," and from there, directly into the aquariums. The dregs of this process are treated biologically, by bacteria that eat toxic compounds, in the drum marked "Waste" until that water, too, is purified.

Between water changes, groups of Swanson's tanks are served by a second set of filters, linked by an intricate network of white PVC pipes. Pipes drain water out of the tanks through holes drilled in the glass. These pipes join larger pipes, which take the water to multichambered devices in acrylic housings--more filters. Still more pipes return the water to the tanks. A second system of pipes and flexible tubing, originating at a 1.8 horsepower blower, delivers air to the tanks. Every pipe, every piece of tubing, has its own shut-off valve. And everything in the basement has been lovingly assembled and installed, over the past six years, by Swanson himself. "I've been called the gadget king," he admits. "I've been called the PVC king."

Swanson keeps his fishes' food chilled in a full-size refrigerator next to the utility sink. A small tub appears to contain a tight mass of wriggling threads. "Blackworms," he notes. "Sewer worms, basically. Anywhere there's a sewer, you can find 'em. I get these shipped in from North Carolina." He picks up a wad of worms and lets them drip through his fingers, back into the tub. Other tubs hold live mail-order microworms and vinegar eels. Two-liter plastic soda bottles contain clouds of translucent specks, home-grown baby brine shrimp suitable for the tiny mouths of infant fish.

Swanson closes the refrigerator and strolls among his tanks, tossing in blackworms and pellets here and there -- not his usual, rigorous program of feeding, just a few treats. While the fish gobble or pick at these unexpected morsels, he ticks off the categories they belong to: rainbowfish, "pistos" (dwarf cichlids of the genus Apistogramma), large South American cichlids, small cichlids from Africa's Lake Tanganyika, and killifish. At present, he estimates, he's breeding 70 to 75 different species, about 50 of which are "killies."

"It's a specialty thing. Rainbowfish people are the same way. Guppy people. Catfish people. Discus people." He drops a few brown pellets into a tank. "This is the best dry fish food money can buy," he says. "Here, smell it. It's stinky."

His own lunchtime has arrived, and Swanson still has hours of work ahead of him, feeding, changing water, rigging some new gadgets. He pauses at a 70-gallon tank in which a pair of brown-and-black fish, shaped like 10-inch barbell weights, patrol a wasteland of rocks, slate, and gravel. "These are some of my favorites," he says, bending close to them. "Uaru. Rare cichlids from South America. They're not colorful, but, well, they're interesting."

He straightens up. "We had a joke at an aquarium-society meeting not too long ago. Fishkeeping has a high turnover rate. If you're in the club two years or longer, you're an old man or an old lady." He waves an arm, indicating his basement kingdom. "But obviously, as you see here, I have a little too much stuff to be a fly-by-night person." Behind him, the uaru slowly open and close their mouths.

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