by Robert W. Bly, founder, AquariumDetective.com
When I was in high school, I was insanely jealous of my friend David Madison for two reasons.
First, he had a 55-gallon tank, and the largest tank my parents would let me keep was my 29-gallon.
Second, he had a pair of large Oscars in the tank - something I coveted. Since David's last name was Madison, I called his fish Oscar Madison 1 and Oscar Madison 2. David wasn't amused.
In my quest for big cichlids, I kept in my 29-gallon three or four nice-sized Jack Dempsey fish, which I loved. But somehow, a Jack Dempsey wasn't quite as good as an Oscar.
Back then, I couldn't afford Oscars, because Oscars were hard to get - and when you could get them, they were expensive.
Route 4 Aquarium in Elmwood Park had, for the longest time, a pair of large Oscars for sale, for which they were asking $300. Today you can buy Oscars at almost any fish store, and small ones can be purchased for as little as $8.99 each.
David Madison told me that he had trained his Oscars to ring a bell for their food. When we went to his house to see his tank, no bell was in evidence.
David said they were also trained to come for their food when the tank light was turned on, which they did. But most fish in aquariums that are fed when the light is first switched on in the morning perform the same trick.
Since we were boys, we of course wanted to see an even better trick: feeding the Oscars live goldfish. David was happy to oblige, and the Oscars cooperated, eating the small goldfish in one or two bites.
Opinions of aquarium hobbyists concerning Oscars seem to be split right down the middle. About half think Oscars are fun to keep and have either had them or want to get them. But the guy who services my tank said, "I hate Oscars." And other hobbyists have expressed similar disdain or disinterest in these big fish.
Until recently our 92-gallon corner tank was populated with large cichlids. These included a Jack Dempsey, an Oscar, and an assortment of other cichlids.
Our local fish store expert said he thought large parrot fish could live with the cichlids, but he was wrong: the cichlids picked on the parrots mercilessly, and within a week the two parrot fish were dead.
The Oscar was the biggest fish in the tank, and his biggest enemy was himself: He spent long periods staring at his reflection in the tank glass, taking an angry stance to fight off his doppelganger, mouth opening to its full width, occasionally charging forward to bump the glass.
But even though he was the biggest, other cichlids are more aggressive. We had a fancy, colorful cichlid that grew quickly, and when he was about three-quarters the size of the Oscar, began nipping at him. The Oscar did not fight back.
We had no other tank to hold the Oscar, and we hoped the bullying would abate. But it did not. The Oscar grew ill, until one day he was swimming feebly at the bottom of the tank on his side.
A couple of days later he was dead. You can flush a lot of tropical fish down the toilet, but not a full-grown Oscar.
Tired of the cichlid violence, we sold back the remaining cichlids to the fish store, and applied our small credit toward acquiring the population of our current tank - peaceable community fish including tetras, gouramis, barbs, and rainbows.
Surprisingly, I am enjoying the smaller fish more than I would have thought. With the big cichlids, you can only have half a dozen or so fish in the tank.
With smaller mixed fish, you can have 20 or more. I enjoy the greater variety and watching the fish swim peacefully without seeing one fish constantly chasing or nipping at another.
My fascination with the big cichlids is gone. I'm glad I kept them for the years I did. But no more Oscar Madison for me.