We're starting a new series to try and highlight some of our members with the goal of building a closer community and getting to know some of the great people who regularly attend our meetings. With that in mind, I'm excited to share an interview I had with SFAS member Jacob Montgomery, a regular contributor of amazing fish, plants, and more to our monthly auctions.
To begin, can you give us a brief background about yourself? Who are you? What are your other hobbies?
My name is Jacob Montgomery. I’m 31 years old and I live in Davis, CA with my wife and our two dogs. I work as a fisheries biologist and project manager for California Trout, a native salmonid conservation NGO. My projects for work are mostly focused on providing juvenile outmigrant salmonid fishes in the Sacramento Valley access to floodplain rearing habitat through collaborations with commercial rice farmers and the rice industry. I spend the rest of my time playing drums in a band with my friends, fishing and backpacking.
How long have you been keeping fish? What got you into the hobby? What inspires you?
I’ve been keeping fish since I was 7 years old, with a brief two-year hiatus when I first started my college undergrad. I won my first goldfish at a community event. I kept it in a bowl for a few weeks before my Uncle bought me my first 10 gal kit. From then on, it’s been meeting other fish-keepers and finding local mentors that inspire me to try new things and grow my own hobby. I’ve always been excited about getting fish to spawn and raising the babies.
How long have you been a member of SFAS? Favorite memory from SFAS?
I haven’t been a SFAS member very long - just about one year. My first event was one of, if not the first, meeting at the current location St. Cyprian’s Church. SFAS is actually my second fish club. My primary club is the Sacramento Aquarium Society (SAS). I’ve been a member there for a few years. Carlos Rodriguez from Backyard Aquatics inspired me to join the fun in San Francisco as well. I don’t think I have a single favorite memory from SFAS, but I love the diversity of plant species at the SFAS auctions and I really enjoy meeting Bay Area fish people. It is a very different demographic than the Sacramento club with distinct interests in fish and plants. Since joining SFAS, another really cool experience I’ve had a few times is getting to know the traveling speakers much better. Most weekends of the year, the speaker will do SFAS Friday night and then SAS on Saturday. And often the SAS program chair will take the speaker on a tour of LFS in the Bay and Sacramento Areas in between. On a couple occasions, I’ve gotten to meet up with the speakers informally in between Aquarium Society meetings. And I really enjoy seeing them as hobbyists browsing through an LFS chatting about interesting fish as a contrast to them being rock stars putting on two shows in two nights.
This changes as my interests change. For the last few years, my favorite fish have been freshwater angelfish (Pterophyllum scalare). I love the complex behaviors of cichlids, and the reasonable size and myriad color varieties in angelfish makes them appealing to just about every hobbyist. I currently keep a lot of the Philippine blue and Pinoy varieties. I am also really excited about a group of Koi angelfish I am currently growing out that I got from Al Louie of SFAS. They are going to be stunners! I’d also love to keep a group of Altums one day...
Again, this changes depending on the context, but I’d say Cryptocorynes are a solid favorite plant of mine. I love the natural variation of the different species and I like that the hobby is producing various ornamental strains, too. Crypts are great because they are widely available, they can handle a range of growing conditions from very basic to high tech, and a grown-in stand of them looks amazing and provides fantastic fish habitat!
Least favorite fish/plant?
I try not to hold grudges against organisms with which I can’t communicate. Having said that, fish that jump out of tanks despite full coverage really upset me. I recently lost four from a group of six killifish. I even found one of them in time to revive it back in the tank and it jumped out again a week later. So stupid! Clearly there are ways to successfully keep fish that tend to jump, but I prefer to avoid those fish for the moment.
As for plants, I had a fairly serious problem with hair algae for a while. I brought some in to my tanks via contaminated stem plants I got from a friend. Hair algae is aggressive, very difficult to remove manually, and chokes out other plants quickly. However, my dislike for that plant reduced dramatically when I got a few Florida Flagfish (Jordanella floridae). Those fish are hair algae digesting machines! I also have had good luck managing hair algae with scuds. The scuds cut up the hair algae and use it to make tunnels throughout debris/detritus. So there are at least two good ways to handle pesky hair algae.
How many tanks do you have? What’s your maintenance schedule look like?
I have about 20 tanks running. I have 4 tanks in the house and the rest in a makeshift fishroom in the garage. Everything gets fed twice per day. I feed mostly small pellets and flakes, but I add in frozen brine shrimp or blood worms or live daphnia a few times per week for my established tanks and breeders (not for grow-out). I also mix Repashy gel foods about once per month. Grow out tanks get fed more frequently with autofeeders. Maintenance depends on what’s going on in the tank. Grow out tanks have the highest demand: 1-2 50% water changes each week. But everything else is closer to 25% water change every 2-3 weeks. I probably spend 2-4 hours on maintenance per week (but much more time with the tanks if you count feeding and observing). My secret to doing maintenance quickly is a 1-inch siphon hose. It drains tanks so fast I have to be careful not to suck down small fish with it! Also filling tanks from a water line direct from the City rather than through a faucet (which typically reduces flow for water conservation) helps to speed things up, too.
What fish/plants do you currently keep? Why those fish? How/where did you get them?
For breeding, I keep angelfish, bushynose plecos, platies and endlers. They all spawn quite readily, the fry are fairly simple to care for, and the juveniles are easy to get rid of. For keeping and watching, I have rainbows, Synodontis lucipinnis, German blue rams, whiptail catfish, bloodfin tetras, and a few others. Most of the fish I keep I’m hoping to breed, but I enjoy observing them and learning their behavior patterns and moods. Because I like breeding fish, I typically only keep fish that if I were to successfully spawn them I could rehome the babies easily. So that usually means a small and either colorful or very charismatic fish. I have gotten most of my fish from other hobbyists through the aquarium societies, but I also check my favorite local fish stores as often as possible. The bloodfin tetras were one species I saw at Albany Aquarium and was blown away by their subtle body color and tight schooling. I just had to have a group.
What do your friends/family/significant other think about your hobby?
Most of my friends are fish biologists, and they are all pretty understanding. They all keep (not as many) tanks and have their own fishy projects, too. My wife is very supportive considering she’s not a fish person. But finding a balance between fish activities and the rest of the world is very important for sustaining our relationship. I take one weekend per month for the aquarium societies and the rest I reserve for us to explore other interests.
What do you enjoy about the hobby?
The thing that I enjoy most about the hobby is creating a small, controlled, unique ecosystem and observing how things unfold. Many of the species we keep together would never encounter each other in the wild. I find it interesting to watch how plants and animals from around the world interact in novel ways in our constructed environments for them. And the goal of spawning fish is like the culmination of success of that microcosm.
What’s been your greatest triumph/greatest failure in the hobby?
When I was first getting into the hobby as a kid, I learned quickly about the hierarchy and difficulty of keeping certain species of fish. Discus were spoken of as a kind of legend: expensive to purchase, difficult to keep in my local water (back then Davis was on groundwater, now we have much softer surface water), and with some of the most iconic parental care behavior of any fish in the hobby. This stigma attracted my interest and, a couple years and a couple tanks later I decided to try keeping discus. I purchased my first one from a LFS. It did well initially, so I bought four more from a breeder I met in San Francisco. After about a year, I had all five fish in a 55 and a pair formed. I moved the pair to a 29 by themselves and I had babies within a couple months. This initial success with what had been touted as one of the most challenging fish in the hobby inspired me tremendously and fueled my attitude about trying new and difficult things in the hobby.
Biosecurity has always been a challenge for me. I have spent a lot of money on medications, experienced the stress of troubleshooting sick fish, and killed a lot of fish I wish I hadn’t both treating symptoms of disease and proactively quarantining. I constantly debate with myself regarding the importance of this, too. Clearly in the wild, fish have parasites and diseases and live complete lives (i.e., surviving to adulthood and spawning). And it would seem that a fish without a parasite or disease is probably happier/healthier than a fish with a parasite or disease. I’ve had fish spawn successfully while visibly carrying internal parasites. I’ve seen fish experience growth spurts and dramatic changes in behavior after successful treatment. I’ve implemented quarantine procedures and had fish still develop symptoms post-quarantine. And I’ve killed a ton of fish by overdose, incorrect treatment, and/or other complications that arise from initial treatment. I wish I had a straight answer for this problem, but I don’t.
What are your plans for the future in the aquarium hobby?
My short term goal right now is to finish stocking a 300 gallon I bought last year. It’s been running for a couple months now, but I’m finally done with my busy work season so it’s time to get serious! Beyond that, I’m interested in changing out a couple 75s for 10s and 20s in my fish room to play with more smaller species and possibly setting up an outdoor pond(s). My long term goals for the hobby are incorporating renewable sources of energy and water recycling into my system. I’m thinking of a small solar array and both water recirculating and irrigation with wastewater as the most relevant projects, but I’m open to other ideas, too.
My dream setup is a greenhouse/fishroom. I’ve seen pictures and videos of some amazing, large systems that include ponds, tanks, plants, and fish. I’d love to create and manage a system like that and have it produce tropical fish and plant products such as ginger, vanilla, turmeric, cacao, etc.
Do you have any advice for others in the hobby?
For people who may not need advice coming from someone in no place to give it, I’d say try to stay balanced. It’s easy to get lost down a rabbit hole of collecting every species or achieving “perfect” water quality or other pursuits. I think it’s also important to give time to maintaining our bodies, minds, and social relationships. It’s fine to venture down those rabbit holes occasionally, but try to do it in a healthy way that keeps you engaged with other people at the same time.
What are your favorite sources for information about the aquarium hobby?
There is a ton of good information available on the internet if you have the patience to sift through it and the skepticism to identify good quality. Youtube is great for visual aids and personalities as well. I really like long-form content either in podcast or “fishroom tour” style videos. But I have found that connecting with people through the aquarium society is both more fun and often easier. There is so much institutional knowledge stored in our community. The information has been vetted by years of experience and success is easy to measure when you see other hobbyists’ tanks and what they bring to auction. I’ve really enjoyed meeting people who are doing things that interest me and pursuing knowledge through them and/or using others’ experience as a jumping-off point for my own projects.
Any final thoughts?
My hobby experience had gotten a bit stagnant until I joined the aquarium societies and started attending regularly. I really appreciate everything the society does including bringing in speakers from around the world and providing a social outlet for sharing knowledge and experiences. Thank you very much to the board for volunteering your time and creating this opportunity for me and for everyone who enjoys the aquarium society.
Jacob also sent some photos to share with the blog. Huge thanks to him for taking the time to participate in the interview. Come to our monthly SFAS meetings for a change to bid on some of his superb fish and plants! (And say hi!)
Jeff Jackson, SFAS Webmaster