Juan Miguel Artigas Azas,
Cichlid Room Companion

Interview with: Rusty Wessel, Apr-02

By , 2002. image

Classification: People and associations.

" Rusty Wessel from Louisville, Kentucky, is a well known specialist in Central American cichlids. Rusty has visited Central American habitats for countless occasions. Rusty is a well known cichlid author and speaker. Much involved in the organized hobby, Rusty has taken many positions in several aquarium fancier associations, both local and national, and has been rightly awarded the highest honor of the American Cichlid Association, the fellowship status, for his many contributions to the cichlid hobby. Rusty is also a frequent contributor to the Cichlid Room Companion. This interview took place during April, 2002 "

Rusty Wessel from Louisville, Kentucky, is a well known specialist in Central American cichlids. Rusty has visited Central American habitats for countless occasions. Rusty is a well known cichlid author and speaker. Much involved in the organized hobby, Rusty has taken many positions in several aquarium fancier associations, both local and national, and has been rightly awarded the highest honor of the American Cichlid Association, the fellowship status, for his many contributions to the cichlid hobby. Rusty is also a frequent contributor to the Cichlid Room Companion. This interview took place during April, 2002.

Rusty Wessel

Rusty Wessel taking underwater pictures of cichlids in Rio Grande, Coatzacoalcos river system, México, in February, 2002. Photo by Juan Miguel Artigas Azas.

Rusty, this is an obligated question, in fish keeping as I guess in any other discipline, some people develop such a passion at an early age that stays with them through their lives. I know this is my case and yours, but what is your history, how did it all begin?

Well, it all began at the age of 7 when my mother abandoned her 10 gallon aquarium and I adopted it. It was one of those old plastic tanks, rectangular shape and narrower at the base. The incandescent light was built into the hood and I remember the entire tank set in a plastic base. The color was blue. I remember it well. The tank contained a few black mollys and gouramies. By the age of 10, I had expanded my fish collection to about 10 tanks, mostly learning by trial and error (mostly error). Woolworth (a local, chain discount store) provided most of my hardware and fish as wells as a local pet store, Shively Pet Center, owned and operated by the late Martha Anderson. She was such a great lady and took me under her wing and many times never charged me for items that I wanted to purchase. Because of the mess associated with the tanks and the fact they were all spread out across the house, my father built me a state of the art fish room. A basement cellar converted to a two level fish room housing 24 aquariums of various sizes, complete with built in shelves, florescent lights and a small compressor providing air. I remember it was quite a noisy compressor and was placed in an adjacent room next to the fish room. I quickly expanded to the maximum tanks of 24 and joined a local fish club (The Louisville Tropical Fish Fanciers). In the early 1970's I became involved with a specialty African Cichlid group that met once a month at members homes. The invitation came from Mike Coleman (PCCA member - still active with fish today). Some of the others involved with that group include Bill Schardein (still keeping fish today and still involved with my local club), Joann Greenameyer (former Mesco Malawi and Tanganyikan Salts) and Dee Coates. Although Joann and Dee are no longer active in the hobby, they were instrumental in my long term involvement with the hobby. They sort of pioneered the African Cichlid craze of the early 1970's and accomplished much. I remember they were the first to breed fish like Cyphotilapia frontosa, Cyrtocara moori, Tremanocranus jacobfrybergi and the list goes on. Joann's husband, Art, was an airline pilot and he ran a charter back and forth from Louisville to Newark. During most of the trips he would visit African Imports and pick up the newest and rarest imports that were arriving in the country and money was of little concern. I remember the purchase of a pair of "lemon Zebras". I received two beautiful yellow male Pseudotropheus lombardoi on one week (bought as a pair of lemon zebras) and lucked out with a purchase the following week of a new blue zebra morph (which turned out to be the blue females Pseudotropheus lombardoi. This clearly demonstrates how the new fish were just coming in by the plane full and really no one knew what exactly what went with what. The African Craze eventually led me to the American Cichlid Association and I became active in the conventions in the mid 1970's and Chair of the BOT in 1990. Because of the ACA and its contacts, I eventually started collecting my own fish, primarily from Central America and found my true passion of keeping and breeding Central American Cichlids and live bearers.

I know you like all fish, but you are better known as a cichlid expert, how did you become interested in cichlids, and what other fish have a special attraction for you?

Well, be careful with referring to me as an expert. Expert is a pretty powerful word. (grin) There is no doubt that my favorite species are Cichlids. Parental care separate cichlids from all other fishes. Parental care is second to none when dealing with cichlids. Just to watch a pair of cichlids defending a nest of fry is something really special in life and it is something that everyone should experience (In a native habitat as well as the aquarium). Although Cichlids are my passion, my next favorite fish would be the live bearers. There is such a great diversity and assortment of live bearers out there and of course, Central American is just full of them, so its is natural that I am interested in them.

You have made countless collecting trips to Central America, could you tell me about one of your favorite localities and why?

That's a difficult question, because I have so many favorite spots. I guess if I had to pick just one it would be the Rio Belleaire in Jutiapa, Honduras. Actually, the junction where the Rio Belleaire dumps into the Rio Jutiapa in North Central Honduras. This spot is just a few minutes walk from the beautiful blue Caribbean Sea. This area has escaped (as least for now) deforestation and the river is crystal clear with tropical, exotic plants lining the shore. Fast moving water moves between the large and small boulders that dominate the stream. The fish inhabitants include the Rhamdia sp., Astyanax aeneus, Poecilia sphenops and P. mexicana, Alfaro hubberi, Astatheros robertsoni, and Theraps wesseli. No doubt one of the most beautiful places in all of Central America.

How do you collect and transport your fish?

As far as collecting goes, I am proud to say that I have never used poisons or anything that would damage the environment. We use hand nets (like the kind we all have in our fish rooms), cast nets (a circular net which is thrown and encircles the fish in the water and traps it) and a large sein measuring 40 feet long and 6 feet tall with ¼ inch mesh. We transport the fish with the use of breathable bags. Kordon has a plastic bag that actually breaths. The fish is placed in these bags with no air space (only water). The wall of the bag forces carbon dioxide out and allows oxygen to penetrate the water. Hence, the bag breaths and the fish inside does not need an electrical air pump. We generally place a small piece of poly filter to soak up any toxins from the fish.

You are one of the best known persons in the aquarium hobby, and through the years I am sure you have come to known many interesting people involved in it, could you share with us any history that comes to your mind in the interaction you have had with them?

I attribute all of my success to the people and friends I have surrounded myself with. They all deserve the credit of my success. Anyhow, Ross Socolof, has to be mentioned as one of the key people when it comes to the history of me and of the hobby itself. Ross has done so much for this hobby of ours and he is the guy who got Herbert Axelrod into the hobby. He sold his first fish farm to him. Ross is the first to use tranquilizers in shipping fish out of the Amazon and the first to use (the inventor) of the styrofoam shipping box. Ross tells a story about when he received yellow Neolamprologus leleupi in the early 1950's from a one time shipment of Pieree Brichard from Tanganyika. The N. leleupi were placed in dirt ponds and eventually were lost until their reintroduction in the late 1970's. I am amazed at this story and only imagine how this could have changed the entire African Cichlid craze of the 1970's. It could have sped the clock up some 20 years or so. Ross is the reason I still collect fish today from the wild. He was instrumental in giving me the knowledge and guidance. I can't thank him enough for his companionship and help over the years.

Ross Socolof and Rusty Wessel
Ross Socolof and Rusty Wessel in San Miguel Allende, México, April 200. Photo by Juan Miguel Artigas Azas.

You have been very involved with the organized hobby, and have taken many positions at aquarium associations. You have even been honored the fellowship of the American Cichlid Association for your contributions to the aquarium hobby, please tell me how do you see the ACA nowadays in the face of the internet and the apparent decrease of popularity of hobbies like aquariums in favor of computers and Internet.

Well, first I would like to Thank the ACA for without it I never would have had the same options in respect with my fish life. ACA provided much and I am appreciative of that. ACA is very special to me and it will always be close to my heart. Still today I am amazed at how skilled individuals use their talents to better the ACA ­ all on a volunteer level. Just take a look at any major slick magazine today and you will find many of the authors began with the ACA.

I firmly believe the future of the ACA is good. Its core members will keep it strong and in good financial condition. It has weathered many a storm and even with the trend of a decreased hobby ­ the ACA is strong and it will persevere.

What are the good things the aquarium hobby has brought to your life?

Travel and friendships. Friendships being number one!!

Tell me about one of the most exciting moments for you in fish keeping?

There are a couple of them. First, the first time I found black molly babies hiding in the plants at the surface of my 10 gallon aquarium when I was age 7. Second, the time I stripped a Metriaclima zebra and found 3 Synodontis multipuntatus fry in the mouth of the female. This occurred before anything was in print on how the fish actually bred.

I have visited your aquarium setup and it is one of the most impressive I have ever seen, could your describe it and talk about your future plans for it?

My set up consists of about 65 tanks and 3000+ gallons of water that are all tied together and is run by a central system. I have a sand filter to remove solids, bio balls and a commercial grade Aquaria Bio Wheel to keep the water clear. An automatic water changer is installed that changes water twice a day. As a matter of fact, while sitting here at my computer, I just changed about 200 gallons. (grin) The new water is run threw a hot and cold mixing valve then a canister filter filled with Carbon to remove any chlorine and then dumped into the tanks via a timed valve. The system works great and allows me time to travel and collect. All I have to do is bribe my daughter Morgan to feed the fish for me.(grin)

Any favorite fish, and why?

This one is easy. Thorichthys. The main reason is these mildly, aggressive animals can be housed in comparatively small tanks (like a 40 gallon) and colonies of them do exceptional well together. The parents tend the fry in the tank and even live bearers do well with them.

Any final thoughts?

Thank you for allowing me to share this information. Also, I would like to personally thank you, Juan Miguel for all your help with my Mexican adventures. You are unarguably the guru when it comes to Mexican fishes. Not only have you taught me much, now you have my passion set for underwater photography. I guess I will just have to return to all those old collecting spots one more time to take underwater pictures. (grin) Thanks again !

Thanks Rusty!

Ross Socolof and Rusty Wessel
Rusty Wessel collecting fishes at Laguna del Chairel, Pánuco basin, Nov-01. Photo by Juan Miguel Artigas Azas.


Artigas Azas, Juan Miguel. (Apr 03, 2002). "Interview with: Rusty Wessel, Apr-02". Cichlid Room Companion. Retrieved on Dec 04, 2022, from: https://cichlidae.com/article.php?id=274.