If you were to call and ask me what my favorite fish is, I would quickly reply, “The Clown Loach.” If you were able to stop by my house and see my tanks, you would always find a school of Clown Loaches swimming around at least one of the tanks.
The Clown Loach
Officially known as Chromobotia macracanthus, its native habitat is found in the Malay Peninsula, Borneo, and Sumatra. While this freshwater fish is usually available for purchase at about 1 ½” to 3” long, the adult size can reach over 18” and should be housed in large aquariums. The Clown Loach also does best in groups of at least 5, with significantly more natural behavior (and enjoyment) in even larger groups. They enjoy fast moving water and will usually rest under rocks, driftwood, or ornaments, often taking unusual orientations. I had a piece of driftwood with a 6” hole through it, and my one group of Clowns seemed obsessed with seeing how many of them could jam their way into the hole. They would fill it up, then another would start to swim in from the back, and suddenly, one would pop out the front. Of course, it immediately swam around to the back and would push its way back in, and someone else would pop out the front. They would do this for hours!
In addition to their stunning orange body with black stripes, the Clown Loach has bifurcate subocular spines that can be used during fighting and possibly help in capturing some types of prey. It is not unusual for the Clowns to make quick, “clicking” noises when some sort of a dispute occurs among the pack. While they are very social, there is definitely a pecking order in the pack, with a large female at the head. Unfortunately, breeding is rarely reported in aquariums. It is reported that, when spawning, the males almost reverse their colors: the yellow/orange parts become dark and the black bands lighten up. I once saw this phenomenon in a 300 gallon tank I had set up in my store. We had a really nasty storm front moving in, and I think the atmospheric change caused the Loaches to go into spawning mode. Two males totally changed their colors and started to lip lock each other and viciously roll and click along the bottom of the tank for about a 30 minute period. I never saw any females releasing eggs, but there was a fair amount of cover in the tank, so it is possible. I have never seen my Loaches behave like that since.
My Actual Favorite Fish
Having waxed poetically about the Clown Loach, I have a confession to make: it is not my favorite fish. It is my favorite fish to own, and I always have a school at home, but my actual favorite fish, the one I distinctly remember the first time I ever saw one, is the Royal Plecostomus (Panague nigrolineatus). This very elegant native of South America has a stocky body with what appears to be too big of a head. The gray/white striping runs through the body and fins, and there is no way you can miss the brilliant red eyes that stare back at you (when you can see the fish!). The first one I saw was about 6” long and was attached to a piece of driftwood in the display aquarium AND WAS NOT FOR SALE! (I later learned as a store owner that the fastest way to sell an expensive fish was to label it “not for sale”.) The Royal Plecostomus just sat there staring back at me as if to say, “Check me out, and now go away!” With its armor plating, it was impervious to the other fish in the aquarium. It is a fish that is actually fairly territorial, so be sure to always have a hide out or large piece of driftwood for it to claim. The Royal Plecostomus is a bit misnamed. It will eat some algae, but is one of the few fish that can actually eat and digest wood. The sucker mouth with large rasping teeth can grip the wood and slowly shred it as it eats. Royal Plecos have specialized symbiotic gut bacteria that aid in digesting the wood.
The second Royal Plecostomus I saw was about 9” long and was a giveaway as a store raffle. With every purchase, you got a ticket to go into the jar. I must have visited that store three times a day for over a week. I just KNEW I was going to win the fish. As it turned out, I did but didn’t win the fish. My name was drawn by the owner with the help of the manager and one of the regular customers, but since none of them knew who I was by name, they decided I could not win and kept drawing names until they pick another “regular” customer they all knew! Strangely, I would eventually become the manager of that store, and the current manager later became my business partner, and the customer is one of my best friends. About a year later, they admitted to their guilt in not allowing me to win the fish. Nevertheless, I did manage to buy a 6” specimen and placed it on my 150 gallon. I had a very elaborate, delicate piece of driftwood in the tank that in the course of 2 years, the Royal managed to eat enough of it that it collapsed of its own weight.
The last Royal Plecostomus I bought nearly put me out of the aquarium hobby. I purchased a small, 2” long fish and did not quarantine it; instead, I placed it in my 150 gallon display tank. The next day, I noticed that my school of Clown Loaches looked a little weird. On the morning of the second day, the Loaches looked stressed, and I decided to bring home some medication for the tank. When I got back home, all of the Loaches were dead, all 14 of them, ranging from 6 to 10” long! The Royal Pleco must have brought something into the tank. The Angelfish, Royal Plecostomus, and a few other miscellaneous fish were all fine. Just the Clown Loaches were affected. I was so devastated that I completely lost interest in the aquarium, and the poor fish that survived this plague were pretty much ignored (except for feeding) for several weeks. It was only after my lower level was flooded and I had to move the tank to replace the flooring that I got back into the swing of things and bought more Loaches, and all was right again.