Thursday, December 2, 2010

Fishkeeping--a bit of gardening in winter

This is the first year of our keeping goldfish.  We started off with six at about 3 inches long and six at about 1 inch long--tiny little things that cost 13 cents each.  Of these initial twelve, eight survived.  And boy did they grow! We now have five large ones at about 5 inches, and three smaller ones at perhaps 3 inches, so perhaps 34 fish-inches altogether.  This is not a lot of fish for their summer home--a 1700 gallon circular tank grandly styled "the fish pond."  However, it turns out that it is a lot of fish for their winter home--a 60 gallon tank.

When I first hatched out the scheme to keep fish, it seemed sensible and easy to take them into the house for the winter.  Their summer tank could be scrubbed down and drained, and the fish would provide entertainment for the house--a sort of living collage for the living room. A filter and aerator would keep the water clean, and an ingenious German-made gravel-vac would do spot upkeep. The water would be kept fresh via a sort of a mini-ecosystem.  Every day a half-gallon watering-can worth of stale fish water would removed and used to water the plant starts and the overwintering cuttings, and one watering-can of fresh water would be put back in to keep the tank fresh.  The mild nutritive value and lack of chlorine in the fish water was a definite plus.  Yet, as the poet said, the best laid plans of mice and men oft go astray, and so it was that this little scheme turned out to be a wishful-fishful fantasy.

Oh, it didn't start badly at all.  When they first came into the house, the fish hardly ate.  They were quite cold, and warmed up only gradually.  It actually took them a couple of weeks to emerge from near-hibernation, and during this time my plan worked to perfection.  However, once their metabolisms revived, so did their appetites, and they now greet their pellets with a mob display of frenzy. More food equals more you-know what, and it now turns out that their water becomes quite foul quite quickly, despite the 300 gph filter, the "water clarifier," the gravel vac and all the other little dodges which seemed so foolproof in the planning.

It has now evolved that every week, one-quarter of the water must be removed and replaced.  That's 15 gallons of water.  At about 8.3 pounds per gallon, that's 125 pounds of water taken out, and the same amount put back in--waaaaay more water than I first thought had to be moved.  There are nowhere near enough starts to use up all this water, not so early in the winter for sure, and almost certainly never. Further, the water is actually quite fishy-smelling--not something to store for long periods. So the water has to be dumped outside, and fresh water treated with anti-chlorine chemicals, then brought into the house in a bucket.

Surprisingly, I am glad of this unanticipated manual labor.  Usually in the spring, it takes several weeks of sore back, sore knees and strained muscles to get back in shape after the winter lethargy.  Worse, every year it takes longer into the growing season than it did the year before, until I can spend an entire day outside working without feeling faint.  However, moving 250 pounds of water a week should help keep some sort of strength going--the bucket holds 3 gallons, so that's 25 pounds or so at each go, repeated 10 times in short order--strength training for the non-athletic.

So, despite the failure of my labor-saving devices, and despite the miscalculation of my "well-laid plans," I am actually quite pleased  to have become a winter fish-keeper. It brings a bit of the garden (garden labor, that is!) into the house in a way I wouldn't have anticipated.

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