Many native American fish make excellent aquarium residents. In fact, for much of the first century of the aquarium hobby, with the exception of goldfish, most of the fish kept in the United States were native to North America. Our subject this month is the orangethroat darter (Etheostoma spectabile), a beautiful, widespread species found throughout much of the lower Mississippi and the Missouri River drainage basin. These diminutive distant relatives of cichlids and anabantids are easily collected in much of the Central United States. Once acclimated to aquarium life, they make excellent aquarium residents and are long-lived, easy to care for and fairly easy to breed.
The single most difficult thing about maintaining the orangethroat darter is obtaining them. In the wild, they are frequently encountered in shallow gravel-bottom streams, where they are often found in large numbers. In one stream in a park near my home, they are always the most numerous fish present. Usually all of them are perched on cobblestones on the bottom, facing into the slow current in water less than 1 foot deep. If I try to catch them with nets, they quickly dart away, but if I am slow and methodical, I can catch several pairs before they realize that the net might be a threat.
In order to obtain most native North American species, you will have to collect them yourself, as they are not available via commercial channels. Pet stores do not sell them. There are a couple of facilities that do breed North American native fish and have the proper permits to sell them via mail order, but most hobbyists do not have these permits, and depending on their state, they may or may not be able to get them. Sometimes you can trade with other hobbyists to get them, but this also varies in legality between states.
Before obtaining or going to collect orangethroat darters, know and follow all wildlife laws in your state and the state in which you are collecting. Laws for catching and transporting nongame fish vary widely from state to state. Some states require a permit to collect and keep native species. Some limit the number you can keep. Some don’t allow you to breed them. Some don’t allow catching or keeping at all, and yet others only require a valid fishing license. It is your responsibility to know and follow all wildlife laws. Failure to do so may result in hefty fines and permanent revocation of fishing privileges in your home state. In the state of Colorado, for example, the orangethroat darter is a “species of concern,” and according to the 2011 to 2012 Colorado fishing regulations, it is illegal to collect orangethroat darters anywhere in Colorado.
When collecting, never take more fish than you need – never more than a couple of pairs or trios. Always release unneeded fish immediately back where you caught them. Never transport them between streams, and never release fish kept in an aquarium back into the wild, even in their native stream.
Etheostoma spectabile is a small fish. I’ve yet to catch one more than 2 inches in size in a stream, though I’ve had a couple of males reach nearly half an inch larger in my tanks over the years. They can breed after their first birthday, and they live for four or five years. In many areas, they are found in the same streams as the similar-looking rainbow darter. The easiest way to tell the difference is that the male orangethroat has a solid blue anal fin, while the male rainbow has a large red-orange patch on the anal fin. Also, rainbows are usually found where the current is swift, while orangethroats prefer areas of slower flow.
Because they are small and claim limited territories, a 10- or 15-gallon tank is suitable for two or three males and up to six females. Cover the bottom with a shallow layer of sand or fine gravel, and add a few larger cobblestones in the current. Add a power filter at one end. I use a filter rated for twice the size of the tank with stream fish, so for a 10-gallon tank, I’d use a power filter rated for 20 gallons. A heater is not needed.
The water should be hard and alkaline with a pH above 7. Most of the time when I catch these fish, the water tests at a pH of 8 or higher, with total hardness at more than 250 parts per million (ppm) and carbonate hardness (alkalinity, KH or buffering capacity) of more than 100 ppm. Temperatures vary, but they are rarely higher than 76 degrees Fahrenheit, even in the heat of a Midwest summer. There are rarely any aquatic plants in the area of the stream where orangethroats are found.
Not too difficult
Egg-scatterer and egg-burier; spawns in pairs
A small aquarium (1o to 15 gallons) can house several males with multiple females per male. When breeding, the females will lay eggs in a bowl filled with gravel, and males will fertilize the eggs. Total hardness 250 ppm or more, temperature less than 75 degrees Fahrenheit, pH 7.0 and higher, 10-gallon tank for spawning.
Feed with frozen bloodworms, small worms and crustaceans. First foods for fry are live foods, such as newly hatched brine shrimp or microworms.
Feeding them is not a problem. Their diet in the wild is mostly made up of midge larvae (aka bloodworms). They will take smaller frozen bloodworms right from the start. Adult orangethroats also take Grindal worms, whiteworms, blackworms, frozen brine shrimp, Daphnia, Cyclops and Mysis shrimp. Some take flake foods, but many will not, so don’t plan on being able to feed them flakes.
The spawning setup is simple – just add a shallow dish (ceramic cereal bowls work well) full of larger smooth gravel (three-fourths of an inch to 1 inch in diameter) right under the outflow of the filter. This simulates the areas in streams that males seek out: shallow water over gravel with a stronger current. The dominant male will perch on the dish displaying all of his colors, and females will swim up and join him. The females can sometimes nearly completely bury themselves in the gravel as they release the eggs, and the male fertilizes them from above. Neither parent provides any further care to the young, so remove and replace the dish every few days while spawning is occurring.
Carefully remove the gravel from the dish. The nonadhesive eggs are about 1 millimeter in size and will all work their way down to the bottom. Gently swirl the water and remove any debris or dead eggs every day. Add clean water from the adults’ tank to make up for any water removed. Some hobbyists add a fungal inhibiter like Acriflavine to the water, but I try to avoid adding any drugs to the rearing setup. After about nine or 10 days, the eggs will hatch, and the fry will be ready for food a few days later. They will take microworms and newly hatched brine shrimp from the start. I move the free-swimming young to a plastic lasagna container filled with water from the adults’ tank. I add a small sponge filter for circulation and filtration. I also add a clump of Java moss and a few small snails to the container. After three to four weeks, I move the fry to a 10-gallon tank with a sponge filter for their further growth.
Keep their ranks thinned as they grow (no more than 20 fish per 10-gallon tank). They reach 1.5 inches by the end of their first year. At this size, they are ready to spawn. Because they are native fish in much of the United States, depending on state laws you will likely not be able to sell them. But if it is legal in your state, share these native beauties with your friends. If you reach this point, congratulations! You’ve completed another successful adventure in fish breeding! AFI
Mike Hellweg is a master fish breeder – one of his accomplishments includes breeding 169 species of fish in just one year. He is active in local and national hobby organizations, and owns and operates a retail fish business.