BACK TO BASICS
BREEDING WILD DISCUS
By Jim E. Quarles
I think we have now just about come full circle in the discus hobby, and it's time to
get back to basics. Back in yesteryear when all we had were wild discus and angelfish
learning to keep the fish alive was a full blown job. We had no idea what the best food
was for these truly beautiful fish. Little was known about water requirements, other then
that the Amazon water systems was acidic in a wide range of ph.
The discus craze in the United States got a rather late start compared to trying to
breed and produce angelfish. Both were " problem fish " and many people who
tried just gave up after repeated failures. After all the expense of obtaining stock was
not cheap based on the then current value of the U.S. dollar.
Dr. Herbert Axelrod, was one of the first to ship to the United States angelfish and
discus in numbers large enough to bring the price within reach at the time. Even so they
were expensive fish to play with. I will never forget the first half dozen angels I bought
and what I learned in trying to care for them. While they would peck at dry fish foods, it
soon be came painfully obvious that this diet was not going to be the answer in keeping
them physically in good shape, much less get them to spawn. I was not married at the time,
or I am sure my fish keeping would have ended at that point in time.
For you see the next thing I tried was catching live foods, in my nimble brain I
hatched the great plan to collect live mosquito larvae. And it worked, the fish loved
them. They would really pig out when feeding time rolled around. But it was just a short
time that I was made very much aware, that the fish were not catching all the mosquito
larvae, and the darn things were hatching out and eating on me! I was living in a large
apartment house at the time in Redwood City, California and I am quite sure some of my
neighbors were becoming meals for the mosquitos as well. So that ended that source of live
Next came the maggots of house flies, which was another of my brain storms! They were
easy to produce and I figured if chopped and fed they would be great fresh meat for the
angels. Well it worked somewhat, the fish would eat them and seemed to fatten up ok, but
let me tell you the smell or rotting hamburger meat in a small apartment takes some
getting used to! I noticed that when I would see people pass my apartment door then
would speed up and hold their noses. Well that ended that source of food as well.
I suppose next were the red worms? But somewhere along about that time I started
buying fish worms and chopping them for the fish. Washing them was really messy but it
worked a lot better then the other meaty ideas I had up to that point.
I had no idea how to tell male from females, So how do you pick a pair? Purely by
ascendent that's how. I had managed to obtain ten fully adult silver discus, (about two
weeks wage worth). I had placed them in a forty gallon home made tank, ( who could afford
a store bought tanks and own fish as well? ) Well after about two or three months and five
or six ich cures four of the fish paired off. At first being the really stupid,(
That was the easy part ) I moved them into a couple of ten gallon tanks and put slate in
each as I was told to do via reading all about others success with angels. Of course all
the tanks had under gravel filters, and live plants.( I had no idea it could be done any
You must bare in mind that this was way back in history the Wright bothers were still
learning about gliders! Well maybe not quite that far back but it sure seems like it
Well all is well that ends well right? If only that were true! But in the case of
the wild angels progress to success came in little bits the hard way. Even after I learned
to feed them and was able to get two pair and they laid eggs, they seemed to have this
enormous appetite for angelfish caviar. ( they really loved their own eggs.) Or now and
then once the little fry hatched out it was time for a fast feeding by the spawning on the
poor little fry.
Over time I learned to hatch the eggs away from the adults and feed the new fry green
water stuff, and later newly hatched brine shrimp. All this took time to figure out and
learn, ( about two months pay for each step.) Or another way to put it is three steps
forward and slide back two! It was about this time that I discovered Gordon's Formula in
the only real textbook source of information at that time. A book that I still value today
for good basic information. The title " Exotic Aquarium Fishes, by Dr. William T.
Even today with all the advances we have made understanding the fundamental information
sited by Dr. Innes should be studied and understood by all tropical fish keepers. At any
rate once I learned how to mix the formula, and make changes to it as I went along the
feeding problem for angels and later discus was pretty much solved.
SUCCESS WITH ANGELFISH was only the beginning, for it lead to my wanting the outstanding
Discus I had see photos of. I think the very first pictures I saw were wild brown discus
and the story and photos were published in a copy of Dr.Axelrod's Tropical Fish Hobbyist
Magazine in 1954.
I wrote to D r.Axelrods when he owned Gulf Fish Farms, and shortly there after he sent
me some adult wild browns discus. ( free of charge shipping prepaid.) I guess he was
impressed with my over joyful desire to own these wonders of nature. I had learned
enough with angles that I did not kill them as soon as they arrived. In fact they lived
four more years and later two pair formed and supplied me with a small number of fry that
I was able to keep alive using egg yolk as a first food once they were removed from the
breeding pair. By that time we had learned about feeding newly hatched baby brine shrimp
so some small degree of success was possible even with limited knowledge about the
requirements of discus in home tanks.
Development came fast after about 1960 and soon we had a wonderful new addition Jack
Wattleys outstanding Turquoise. This fish alone started the stampede to develop the discus
trade as we see it today. Another person greatly assisted in the on rush of the new discus
craze. Dr. Axelrod started printing information in both the magazine form and in a few
books on what was known and being learned about discus.
Some outstanding breeders in Germany helped push the craze even faster and their
success greatly improved out knowledge in giant steps.
Now we come to the efforts of the tropical fish hatcheries in Asia. The Asian
hatcheries were never slow to see the development of the tropical fish hobby world wide.
And for a long time they started breeding and shipping a very wide assortment of tropical
fish. It was not long before they over shadowed the fish farms in Florida in volume sales
to the retail market world wide.
With almost perfect water and conditions for most tropical fish and as the ease of
breeding angelfish developed they became prime breeders, importers and exporters of these
fish and the newer types or hybrids only added to the rush into this market development.
While it must be noted that at least in the angelfish, most of the new hybrids were not
developed in Asia but United States. But the breeding and refinement of large
numbers was strictly Asian in concept and development.
Next great push has been the great expansion of discus production and the constant
"so called" improvements in these fish from wild species. It is truly amazing
some of the hybrids that have come from the mass production of discus, some of them are
outstanding developments involving great skill on the part of the breeders.
But like almost anything else the chasing of the $$$$ has lead to a system of crazy
names that bares no relationship to what the fish actually are. Plus I must say the use of
hormones and color feeding has not been one of their better points. As time has passed
along with the great color changes on side effect as been smaller and weaker discus do
mostly to a limited genetic selection of breeding stock and the practice of line breeding
for many generations. While I know there are some great fish coming out of this source of
discus, I also must state the standards certainly could stand some up grading.
So why full circle? I have worked with both the wild fish of a lot of species angelfish
and discus have always been the largest part of that effort. And I have enjoyed and
learned a lot working with both types. But for me it's time to go back to basics I don't
find much joy or challenge in the cookie cutter types anymore. So it's back to the
beginning for me. I will hopefully find the joy once more of seeing real fish
thriving and spawning in my tanks. It that is not to be, then I guess I will just fill the
tanks with colorful plastic fish on weighted strings and be done with it.