Introduction (updated April 2013)

My Road to Discus  by Vern Archer

Hi, my name is Vern Archer, I am retired and have been dabbling in the fish hobby for most of my life. I have created this website to improve the quality of life for tropical fish (specifically discus) by passing my experiences and key learning's along.  I hope you enjoy.

A
t an 
early age, I
would catch fish at a nearby lake for my back yard pond, a converted children's  swimming pool.  I soon saved enough money to buy my first aquarium, a metal framed tank, an antique by today's standards.  I acquired a few more aquariums, over the years, as my interest in fish grew.  I was soon keeping and breeding the more common varieties of tropical fish, angel fish, gouramis, barbs, and tetras.
In 1981, I visited a master fish keeper, Peter Naef, who had converted his garage and basement into a fish store with an impressive display of fish and plants. I told Peter I was looking for a new challenge,  so he led me to a room next to the store where he kept a huge, majestic pair of wild Green Tefe Discus.  I was  instantly hooked. Over the coming weeks, Peter provided me a number of  wild discus of my own, along with his beef-heart discus food. He guided me through my early  challenges with the many internal and external parasites that accompany a wild discus. Parasites multiply quickly in the confines of an  aquarium and cleaning the discus proved to be difficult and quite time consuming.  Today, despite what store staff tell you, wild discus have parasites and should only be purchased by serious discus hobbyists with access to a microscope and the appropriate targeting medications. 
In 1984, I saw an advertisement in the T.F.H. magazine for Jack Wattley's Turquoise discus and I soon arranged a visit to see Jack at his home in Florida. This was the first of a number of meetings we would have over the years, always an enjoyable experience.  Jack was very gracious, allowing me into his hatchery to see his stunning Turquoise  pairs as well as his method of artificially raising fry. I purchased a number of his  legendary Turquoise Hi body Hi fin Discus fry.

JWVAHatcheryJack and I 
In my Garage Discus Room 1989.


In
1985,
inspired by so many amazing discus
now in my possession, I decided to convert 
my double car garage into a discus room and
try my hand at breeding discus.  I utilized wet
dry filters, central filtration, UV, Ozone and an
automated water change using a 500 gallon
water reservoir. 

Jack_and_VernJack and I 
At his home in sunny Florida 
1992.

J
ack Wattley,
one of the truly great discus
pioneer's of all time. Jack's development of the
Turquoise Discus; His methods of artificially
rearing fry; In addition to his enlitening book
"Handbook of Discus", inspired myself and 
millions of discus hobbyists world wide. 
 

By the
late 1980's, 
I was producing more than 5,000 discus fry annually, shipping all over the world, while still maintaining my day job. Yes, but it was a much simpler time, shipping  was much easier, water and hydro much cheaper, and I was much younger.
In 1986, a number of local discus enthusiasts, myself included, decided to attend the North American Discus Society's annual Discus convention in Florida. It was a great event, we shared stories and knowledge with Discus breeders and enthusiasts from all over North America.  For the next few years it became an annual event and I soon found myself involved  with the N.A.D.S.'s newsletter, "Our Discus" serving as the editor and publisher for a number of years.    
In early 1987 a deadly discus disease appeared; Biologist's in Chicago and Florida concluded it was a virus.  They studied discus specimens from across the U.S. and found five different  viruses present including a herpes type virus in the liver.  World wide, tens of thousands of Discus were killed and it quickly received the name "Discus Plague".  We had never experienced anything that killed so quickly. A single drop of water, unwashed hands, cleaning hose or fish net is all it would take for the disease to spread and within a day the discus were impacted.  

Jan92YoungWattleyHiFinIn 1992,  frustrated with the constant virus issue in the
hobby, which seem to make it's rounds every year like
the flu,  I decided to shut  down  the  hatchery taking a 
long break, maintaining  just a few of my adults.

This is one of my young Wattley crosses dubbed the  "EE"  by fellow
hobbyists, which was the parent's tank number.  Eventually the lines
fill  in becoming a solid  fish, except for the face mask.   This strain
originated from a Wattley Hi Fin male and a Lo Wing Yat female that
I bred in 1987.
 
This picture was taken in 1992.

Jan92redfemale
This Red fish,  I purchased from Walter,  a local hobbyist.  It's an F1 
from  Alenquer wild stock.  Walter had received several of these red 
fish as  fry from his good friend Dr. Schmidt-Focke, a famous discus
breeder in Germany.   I was able to convince Walter to sell me one, 
which was the runt of the litter. She looks pretty good for being a runt.
After growing her out, I paired her with a Wild Royal blue Male and the
pair produced many thousands of fry. Some of which made it back to
Germany.
No Hormones or colour enhancing with these fish, the real deal!

This picture was taken in 1992. 


I
n
2007, I decided to retire from my "Day Job" to pursue my hobbies and on a small scale, return to breeding discus. I sourced new domestic and wild stock to provide a variety of genetics to work with. Once I made my purchases, any new purchases were carefully scrutinized and quarantined.  Once fish left the hatchery they could not return.
I also decided to create this website; After visiting local "chain stores" and spending many hours on the various discus forums around the world, I discovered a need for more accurate and consistent information on discus keeping. The "newbie" discus keeper, seeking help from a forum, is overwhelmed by the many "well meaning" opinions, some good and some bad. The confused "newbie" would often lose their fish, not from disease but from over medicating. Discus keepers asking questions, were  ridiculed, made to feel stupid by some discus forum dwellers, resulting in a reluctance to ask important followup questions. Some forum's promote freshwater foods, against the opinions of leading authors and experienced discus keepers, with the potential for disease.  The novice discus keeper thinks it's Ok to feed these fresh water foods since the supplier is after all a sponsor, a clear indication some  forums care more about revenue then the hobbyist and their discus. I don't claim to know everything about discus, however I do have a life time of experience keeping fish and an extensive library on the subject.  The website does keep me busy, helping discus hobbyists from around the world, which if it helps the animal in some way I am glad to do.
In 2009 once again a deadly virus hit, this time it was confirmed to be a form of "Herpes virus",  it too killed many thousands of discus world wide. Stores had imported fish from Asia that looked fine on the outside but were carriers of the virus, infecting the unsuspecting hobbyist's  existing discus.  
Presently in 2013, we sell our discus to serious hobbyists on a limited basis, I am after-all retired, not wanting to work full time breeding and growing discus. 
Discus are relatively easy to keep if you "Keep it Simple" and are dedicated to addressing their basic needs. This website is dedicated to educating the hobbyist.  


Why go to this much trouble, after all, it's only a fish?
As a discus friend once told me; there are people that just "keep discus" and there are people that are "discus keepers".
Once you have worked with discus, you start to appreciate the intelligence, beauty and individual personalities they display, especially in a relaxed state and as they become older. 
Unfortunately, "becoming older" is a rare event for the discus these days.  

Do Fish feel Pain?
I recently read an interesting article on the Scientific studies of fish. I thought it would be appropriate to quote a portion of the articles conclusions;
- "In the scientific community the question of whether fish are capable of experiencing stress, pain and fear is nearly undisputed" the "Food Empowerment Project" states. 
- "Fish feel pain too" agrees Discovery News Jennifer Viegas in her analysis of Penn State professor Victoria Braithwaite's book on the subject, "Do Fish Feel Pain?"  
- A 2009 study published in "Applied Animal Behaviour Science" also concluded that fish feel pain and that even when the pain is over, they alter their behavior in response to their memory of it.  
- A 2003 study found "profound behavioural and physiological change" akin to those that higher mammals exhibit in response to pain.

My Rant, for what it's worth!
Do today's fish stores have the knowledge for the proper care of discus? 
The customer assumes they do. The reality
, the vast majority of "chain store" staff are not "experts",  just employees with one goal, to sell the "rookie hobbyist" expensive equipment and aquarium "package deals", running into hundreds, if not thousands of dollars. It doesn't matter whether the equipment is compatible for discus. They don't even sell the proper food, promoting  bloodworm or black worm, which in time will make your discus sick.  This ensures the frustrated hobbyist returns to spend more money, buying medication or replacement fish. The end result, the vast majority of young discus under their care and direction, do not survive.
 
Years ago, "Ma and Pa" family run pet stores would ask questions prior to your purchase and provided honest information on the requirements of the fish purchased.  Many were owner operator  hobbyist's, experienced at fish keeping.  They understood the importance of a satisfied customer, as it meant  future business.  Discus were treated with respect and kept in separate tanks to limit exposer  to dangerous pathogens from other species of fish. They would sell the proper food, a beef-heart mix, usually made by the store owner.

The "chain stores" have a flawed business plan of not feeding their fish, or just feeding the bare minimum to save money. Their excuse, a hungry fish will be more "active" attracting the customer as it begs for food. This information I received from frustrated store employees, yes more than one and from different stores.  Unfortunately, for young discus and many other fish in their care, the amount and quality of food they feed is not enough and starvation leads to a quick decline in health, disease  and eventual death.
 
I once spoke to a local "chain store" manager, as I was concerned about their young discus, about 8 to 10 weeks of age and paper thin.  I told him he was starving his young discus and he needed to feed them a good high protein food 3 times a day.  He didn't reply just walked away. Sadly, a week later most of the fry were dead lying on the bottom of the tank. 
I have trouble understanding, why a store would spend the money to acquire discus only to let them die?  Once they realized the fry were not going to make it, they should have been humanely euthanized. 

I recently was told the local "chain store" was selling wild caught discus.  I have a fair amount of experience with wild discus and it takes expertise, targeted medications (utilizing a microscope) over many weeks to get them parasite free.  So I can assure you these fish will have parasites as these stores do not have the time, expertise or desire to clean them properly. So the unsuspecting hobbyist, purchasing these discus and adding them to their aquarium, will infest all existing fish.  Parasites like gill and body flukes, which are very common in wild discus, can be a nightmare for the hobbyist to get rid of, as their is no known medication to kill and eliminate them other than a complex formaldehyde treatment.  
 
"Breeders" and "Brokers" need to be more responsible as well!
Provide a good quality food, with the sale, helping the fry make the transition to their new surroundings. You need to provide the store with information and support on their proper care; I.e. bare bottom tanks that are not on central filtration systems, separate nets and cleaning hoses, the correct temperature for the age of the fish, appropriate lighting and the amount of food to be fed daily.  
If the store doesn't want to listen then don't sell!  Long term it will put you and more importantly your name as a "Quality Discus Supplier" in a better position in the court of "Popular Opinion".  I know first hand, when I confront a store, they are always quick to name and blame "You", the supplier or breeder,  the store never takes responsibility.  Over the years I have witnessed many breeders and brokers come and go, they fail primarily do to the lack of for-site and customer focus.  So, reward the stores that do listen by making them exclusive to your product.  Discus enthusiasts will travel many miles to find quality discus at a quality store.  Don't allow yourself to be involved in this type of abuse. Sacrificing these animals, inhumanely, for short term profit is not the answer and can only damage the hobby, your name and your long term business. 

In closing, w
hen I talk to hobbyists and they tell me of abuse, I always ask;
"Did you speak to a manager?" 
Most hobbyists tell me no, they just walked away in disgust, or they buy the fish because they felt the need to rescue it from the store.
Every time you spend a $ in this type of store you are contributing to abuse, the store lives on and the cycle of abuse continues. You are their customer, the stores have to listen or they go out of business, it's that simple. Take the time and talk to the store manager. The alternative is to purchase your dry goods elsewhere like "mail order", even if there are shipping costs it's still cheaper. Buy your fish from small reputable stores, or from other hobbyists, or your local fish clubs.
End of my Rant, for now, send comments to archer@rogers.com.


The Planted Aquarium
by Vern Archer January 2013
The pictures, seen below, were sent to me by a Hobbyist.
The aquarium looks amazing with numerous plants and a beautiful landscape, but take a closer look at just the discus. You can see a slight clamping of the fins, dark body colour and clouded over eyes,  these are all indicators of some very unhappy discus. Possibly caused by high nitrates from the plant fertilizers or low water temperature. 

What should discus look like?
For those that are not sure, the fins should be erect, the body colour bright not dark, eyes crystal clear and they should be active, swimming throughout the aquarium, not huddled together.  They are cold blooded animals, meaning the temperature impacts their metabolism, and to low a temperature will make them sluggish. Discus are like "mood stones" they change colour by going dark when stressed or unhappy. The exception, the popular Pigeon blood strains which are not genetically capable of changing colour, camouflaging their mood.  

The hobbyist was concerned, his fish were at the surface, breathing hard? 
I suggested a large 50 to 60% water change to lower the nitrates and to stop using fertilizers as it was clearly a lack of oxygen causing the issue. The hobbyist indicates his fish are doing much better since the water change and raising the temperature. However, he will have to modify the aquarium's setup, raising the temperature and lowering the nitrate will now start to impact some of the plants.  
Intro_1
Intro2











Hobbyists wanting this type of appearance should focus on warm water plants that are more compatible with the requirements of discus.  Keep the temperature above 84F 29C and nitrate levels should never exceed 20ppm.  Plant fertilizers will add nitrate to the water so I would avoid them altogether. Very few hobbyists have the "knowledge and time" to maintain the delicate balance between plants and discus, a serious challenge for only the true "plant" and "discus expert".  

"No Aquarium Ground Cover" if you have Discus fry
The food required for the proper growth and development of young discus fry, must have a rich protein and vitamin content to ensure maximum growth and body development. Discus fry are fed 3 to 4 times per day and require daily water changes to keep ammonia and nitrates to a minimum.  Any uneaten food, trapped or hidden by the ground cover, will turn the water bad. Discus are very sensitive to high ammonia and nitrates. 
 
Discus Keeper's that have a good understanding of
 water chemistry and can recognize a small change in discus behavior, may use a sand ground cover for a more natural look.  These hobbyists will use adult discus in this situation and have another bare bottom aquarium that can be utilized in an emergency or for medicating.
  
To Create a "Natural Discus Habitat" in your Aquarium;
Y
ou
 need to first review their "Wild Habitat".  
Wild Discus are found in the shaded, calm waters of the upper tributaries and lakes of the Amazon river in South America. The discus home is in the shallow waters near the river bank among fallen tree stumps and branches. The waters pH is commonly found to be in the acidic range which helps to combat bacterial issues and is quite soft with a low T.D.S. (Total Dissolved Solids) indicating a lack of minerals. The river temperature varies by season and location; From the cooler shaded heavy jungles where sunlight is completely blocked out, too the smaller pools of water or lakes that heat up in the hot humid summer months.  I have studied discus for many years and have found that discus are definitely more comfortable and responsive at the warmer spectrum of the aquarium hobby. I keep my adults at 84F or 29C and fry a little warmer at 86F or 30C. 
Temperature is hotly debated;  The controversy is created because discus are capable, at least for a short time, of withstanding extreme temperatures whether they be cold or very warm.  So many "rookie"  observers will say their fish are fine at the cooler aquarium waters. Those that promote the cooler temperatures also promote medicating the discus every couple of months with metronidazole.  Why is that?  Flagellates? Over time stress from the cooler aquarium water, in itself, can bring on disease and specifically flagellate issues.  This results in the need for ongoing metronidazole treatments every few months, shortening the life of the discus.  
It's well documented and from my experience, raising the temperature for a few days on adult discus to 93F or 34C will help cure discus with flagellate issues, as flagellates are unable to survive at these extreme temperatures. Discus can tollerate extremes in pH as low as 4.0, killing most if not all bacterial issues.  However, you must make temperature and pH changes gradual, over several days with "Good Water Quality" and extra air-stones to maximise oxygen levels.  
Discus, over thousands of years of evolution, have developed the ability to survive these pH and temperature extremes in the Amazonian environment. Does this help combat pathogens?  I believe the answer is, Yes!  Warm water is required to rejuvenate the discus, increasing its metabolism and fight of infestations sensitive to heat, like flagellates. The weak argument of warm water increasing bacterial issues is countered by the lower pH which is normal to their habitat. If you doubt what I say do your own experiment and see how they react by gradually changing the temperature first to cold water say 80F or 27C and then gradually raise the temperature over a few days to the warmer temperatures. Watch how they respond, monitor activity, playfulness, colour and appetite over the full range of temperature.    
Plant Fertilizers and CO2; Why does every reputable discus book promote "the water change" as being a necessary and frequent requirement for discus keeping?  "The water change" is primarily to remove nitrate and unwanted gases like CO2. So why are you adding nitrate back with plant fertilizers and carbon dioxide with a CO2 injector.  It makes no sense!
  
Water plants;
Very few, can survive the extreme variation in temperature, especially in combination with lower light conditions, dramatic swings in pH and mineral free water.   
Those that have visited the discus habitat in the Amazon region, inform me, if I was to duplicate an "Underwater Discus Scene", there would be very few plants, if any, a sandy bottom, with fallen tree limbs, driftwood, a river bank appearance.

Plants for the Discus Aquarium;
A very good book called " The King of all Aquarium Fish"  written by Eberhard Shulze, whom I had the pleasure of meeting and spending some time with many years ago, has an excellent chapter on plants suitable for the Discus Aquarium.
 
A Quote from Eberhard's "P
lant chapter", 
The Introductory Paragraph;  
"Of the many kinds of aquarium plants that are to be found, only a few are suitable for the Discus fish Aquarium.  Even if we adjust the water somewhat away from the condition ideal for the fish, to a degree of hardness of about 8 to 10 and a pH value of between 6 or 7, only a limited number of plants can be used, because of the high water temperature needed by the fish." ..."When an aquarium is to contain both Discus fish and plants,
a choice has to be made at the outset whether the well being of the fish or the cultivation of the aquarium plants is to be important."
Eberhard lists a number of plants 
That can be tried as they are better suited for Discus water conditions.
Aponogeton crispus and undulatus; Barclaya; Ceratopteris; Crinum thaianum and natans; Echinodorus bleheri the large Amazon Sword; Hygrophilia difformis; Microsorium Pteropus, Java Fern; Nymphaea Stellata.
I emphasis, for success, one has to be familiar with both plants and discus in order to put the two together. Plants need nutrients, some more than others, but creating a fertilizer soup of your aquarium water will hurt your discus. Placing your plant in a clay pot, much like a household plant, allows the plant to get the minerals it needs from the planting soil, without slowly poisoning your discus. Although Eberhard's book has been out of print for some time, it's well worth the effort to hunt it down. 


To set up a "Natural Discus Habitat" in your aquarium:
1) You require a large 100 gallon, or more, shallow aquarium (18" to 24" in height)ideally with a water overflow which skims the surface protein to an external wet dry filtration system.  The wet dry filter is excellent for gas exchange and the addition of oxygen, and may be equipped with a UV (ultraviolet) sterilization unit.
2) Utilize a large, no sharp edges or points, piece of driftwood as your center piece and just one or possibly two high temperature, low light potted plants like the Amazon or Brazilian Sword. The potted plant, in its container, is buried in the sand and camouflaged by some decorative stones or driftwwod to provide a natural looking Eco system. 
3) For lighting use a small single Philips LED spot light supended a few inches above the aquarium glass lid, directly over the plant, providing a natural shade for the rest of the aquarium.
4) Under no circumstances should the use of CO2 or plant fertilizers be used when discus are in the aquarium. Once the tank is set up and planted and before any fish are added, run the aquarium for a couple of months with the addition of fertilizers. This will give the plants a boost, especially in the absence of any fish feces. It also allows the filters to be seeded and established before the introduction of fish.  However large water changes, to remove nitrates, before any fish are introduced is a must!
5) Next we introduce a large school of cardinal tetras and catfish that can handle the warmer water of 84F or 29C, and have been "quarantined" and "wormed" prior to the introduction to the aquarium. Cardinals are generally wild caught and notorious for carrying intestinal worms that will impact your discus, so worming is a must. It's much easier and more effective to worm before their introduction.
6) Next we add the adult Discus, the number should be limited so as not to place a burden on the fragile Eco system. I suggest one discus per 15 gallons especially if you are adding other fish like cardinals and cat fish. You must use young adults, a year old minimum. The adult discus can handle a slightly cooler water of 84F or 29C and only requires one to two feedings a day which will not tax your water chemistry and filter. Temporarily varying the temperature will not harm your Amazon or Brazilian sword plants as they can easily, once established, handle a gradual temperature increase for a few days or week to 86F or 30C.
7) Finally, the advanced hobbyist will do frequent maintenance on the sand and monitor water quality and the discus.

NOTE; 
If you don't understand the chemistry behind good water quality, or are unable to recognize unhappy discus as seen in the pictures above, then I suggest staying with a basic no ground cover aquarium. The majority of hobbyists lead busy lives and if you fall into that catagory and don't always have time to clean the sand and monitor water quality, "Keep it Simple".  It will minimise your maintenance time, ensuring a healthier discus resulting in a more enjoyable hobby.  The planted  aquarium is impossible to treat for disease and a second bare bottom tank is necessary.
Note: Always remove your fish to a separate tank when performing a major disruption of the ground cover, especially in a mature aquarium.
So in closing, I hope I have enlightened you on some of the challenges with the planted aquarium and you keep the animals "well being" a priority. 


We do not sell to Stores or Brokers,
Or to Inexperienced Hobbyists that are not able to provide a good environment to keep discus.  
For example;
 small aquarium size, a "Community tank" or utilize Ground cover.

Why? 
1) We are primarily hobbyists, not motivated by money, and care about the animal's survival.
2) The inexperienced hobbyist using ground cover in a "community aquarium", has little regard for the animal and we become frustrated dealing with their inevitable issues.  We would sooner spend our time helping  serious hobbyists, whether "newbie or experienced", it's much more rewarding then arguing the pros and cons of gravel or temperature requirements for example.
3) Unfortunately we have not found a store that will ensure their proper care and placement. We only produce a few fish a year and would rather deal direct with the serious hobbyist. 


The Following Books I recommend you add to your Library; 

Unfortunately, I don't agree with everything written in these suggested books. However, overall they have great information.
When I started with discus there were very few books specifically on "discus keeping". 
Jack Wattley's book "Handbook of Discus" was first released in 1985 by TFH, it revealed major insight on discus care, breeding and of course his beef-heart formula. Our present food formula is based on Jack's early formula and Jack, many years later, suggested the addition of banana. 
I find Jim Quarles book "Discus...as a hobby" the closest  to my present discus beliefs, especially when it comes to temperature and the long term health of the discus. 

The Recommended Books;
* A 1994 book by Jim Quarles called "Discus...as a hobby" is an excellent inexpensive book that explains the basics very well and is generally regarded as one of the best introductory books written on Discus.  
* Jack Wattley's book "The Handbook of Discus" is a great book, unfortunately very hard to find. 
* An early book by Eberhard Shulze called "The King of All Aquarium Fish" a very detailed and informative book.
* Either book by Andrew Soh, his new one "Problems and Solutions" and his first book "Naked Truth" available in the UK at Plymouth Discus.
* "Discus Health" by Dieter Untergasser especially useful if you purchase a microscope, which I highly recommend.  I believe this book has recently been re-released, available at
www.mops.ca




 

 

 

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