Helping you keep your aquarium beautiful and healthy


A Catfish Dinner for Jack Dempsey

by Robert W. Bly, founder,

In 1962, a panel of 40 boxing writers voted Jack Dempsey the greatest heavyweight of all time. Known as "The Manassa Mauler," this heavyweight champion retired with a record of 32-0.

You'd think the cichlid named after the champ, the Jack Dempsey, would also be a brawler in the aquarium. But they are actually one of the less aggressive of the larger cichlids and extremely easy to keep.

I've had a 29-gallon tank dedicated solely to a few Jack Dempsey fish, and I've also kept a single Jack Dempsey in a 92-gallon tank with an Oscar and other cichlids.

While Jack Dempsey fish can do well on flakes, they seem to ignore sinking pellets. The Jack Dempsey also enjoys a variety of live food, including black worms, brine shrimp, and feeder fish such as guppies and goldfish. The favorite treat of my Jack Dempsey fish was a live earthworm dropped into the 29-gallon.

In the 29-gallon, the 3 or 4 Jack Dempsey fish I kept got along well, with a minimum of chasing and no nipping I could see. This despite the fact that one was significantly bigger than the others, and one significantly smaller.

The lone Jack Dempsey in my 92-gallon tank of large cichlids was medium-sized - smaller than the Oscar, the same or slightly larger than the half a dozen other cichlids. He didn't pick on any of them and, with one exception (a fancy cichlid larger than himself), they didn't bother him.

The large fancy cichlid eventually killed the Oscar. But the Jack Dempsey held his own against it, and after getting nipped up a bit, was left alone.

The Jack Dempsey fish has a pleasing color scheme, highlighted by bright green iridescent spots. There is a beautiful new variety, the electric blue. The blue is so vivid, the fish seems to be almost glowing. They are a bit pricey, though.

I always heard that other fish in the tank won't bother catfish and other bottom-feeders. But one day, I looked into my 29-gallon and got a shock: the head of a small catfish was sticking out of the mouth of the biggest Dempsey.

Neither one looked pleased about the situation. The catfish had a look of puzzlement and distress. He seemed to be unhappy but also, so far, unharmed.

The Dempsey fared worse. The catfish was stuck in his mouth; he couldn't spit it out, bite it in half, or swallow it.

The Dempsey seemed distressed, and his body seemed to turn darker. He looked like he needed the Heimlich maneuver, and so I gave it to him.

I reached into the tank. Normally fish move too fast for you to grab with your hand, but in his distressed state, the Dempsey was sluggish and slow.

I grabbed him around the middle and, not knowing what else to do, squeezed gently, treating him like a fragile tube of toothpaste.

To my amazement, it worked. The Dempsey's mouth opened a big wider, and the catfish popped out and quickly swam away to a corner of the tank.

The Dempsey was slower to recover, but after a couple of minutes, his color returned to normal. A few more minutes of recovery and he began to swim tentatively around the tank.

He never tried to eat the catfish again. And the ungrateful fellow never thanked me either. Perhaps he thinks I robbed him of a delicious catfish dinner instead of saving his life.