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I forget why I overimbibed one night some 14 years ago, but I vividly remember the incident that occurred the next morning. I toddled downstairs somewhat the worse for wear, eased myself into a chair at the kitchen table and then suddenly shot into the air in horror as a creature about the size of a soft-ball lurched toward me across the floor.
Was I imagining what I was seeing? No, this was no apparition. It was a real creature waving its antennae and claws in hostile fashion. Was I about to be killed in my own kitchen?
I backed away cautiously so that no sudden movement on my part would prompt an attack, and then, when the creature stopped moving, I slowly circled around to examine it from the rear. Its coat was both prodigious and peculiar. Thick tufts of multicolored fur sprouted from the body and from one of its claws, while covering the other claw was glistening black hair.
I wondered if this creature could be new to science. The house in which I then lived—I was a widower at the time—was a converted barn, built four feet into the earth on its back side. There was no cellar, so the interior of the first floor at the rear of the house was composed, in part, of a stone wall that was below ground level. In the past, I had seen salamanders peering at me from small holes in the wall. Perhaps this netherworld creature had likewise emerged from the inner earth.
Then I realized what the "thing" was. It was a five-inch-long crayfish, one of several that I had put in my 120-gallon aquarium in the living room, and it had undoubtedly escaped by clambering up an air hose with its claws. I picked up the crayfish by the tail to give the multicolored fur and hairs closer scrutiny. From my examination, I deduced that the crayfish had crawled into the kitchen via the connecting furnace and laundry rooms, and while on the trek its still-wet body and claws had picked up dust motes, lint balls and a clawful of hairs shed by my black Labrador retriever.
This incident comes to mind because, after a long lapse, I am again keeping crayfish in an aquarium. They will serve as live models for ultrarealistic fishing flies that I have in mind to tie for smallmouth bass. For most of the last 30 years I have been keeping freshwater fish and invertebrates in aquariums. Not for me, though, are the swordtails, kissing gouramis, neon tetras or other pet-shop exotics kidnapped from the tropics. Instead I revel in observing what I have brought back alive from lakes and streams near my home.
Frankly, I am puzzled that other anglers do not do the same. They could gain insights about their quarry: for example, why fish strike (or why they don't), or how best to simulate the wiggle of, say, a mayfly nymph or a wounded dace when fishing with imitations of them.
Anyone interested in keeping native creatures alive in the living room would do well to consult Dr. Axelrod's Mini Atlas of Freshwater Aquarium Fishes, put out by TFH Publications. Despite its title and heft, this 992-page book by Dr. Herbert R. Axel-rod and several colleagues contains a most helpful section on basic aquarium setup and maintenance. I first met Dr. Axelrod, a world-renowned authority on fish, shortly after I started keeping largemouth bass (up to 3½-pounders) in my living-room aquarium. Very much a private person, Dr. Axelrod said that the only reason he met with me was because "you're a nut, too."
With that, Dr. Axelrod went on to say that when he once lectured at a state penitentiary in Indiana, he was intrigued to learn that some lifers had circumvented the prison rule against pets by keeping guppies in vials strapped to their bodies. Generation after generation of guppies had been born in that slammer, and so Dr. Axelrod, reasoning that the prisoners had nothing but time on their hands, asked them to start recording the fishes' behavior in their own tightly confined prisons. To his dismay, his pen pals let the record-keeping slide but began experimenting with keeping their fish in smaller and smaller vials to see how much confinement they could take before they expired. He was somewhat chagrined to be able to add to scientific knowledge the fact that a guppy can survive in an inch-long vial the diameter of a pencil.
Personally, I make it a rule to avoid overcrowding as well as overconfinement, because some species offish are decidedly territorial in close quarters. This is especially true of largemouth bass. In an aquarium, they establish a pecking order within a couple of days. Almost inevitably, the biggest fish becomes the boss bass and claims absolute sovereignty over the tank. On only one occasion did another species of fish displace a boss bass, and that was a plump 10-inch brown trout I added to the tank toward the end of one season. After getting acclimated, this terrible-tempered trout went on the attack, harrying and nipping at the fins of any fish that crossed its path. Eventually it drove the boss bass—and the other bass, all bigger than the feisty trout—to one end of the aquarium. After four or five months of undergoing daily attack, all the bass had died.