NANFA-- My intro to natives

Christopher Scharpf (
Sat, 02 Jun 2001 08:26:46 -0400

This has been a fun thread. I've enjoyed reading others' experiences. Here's

I grew up next to a tiny spring-fed creek in Baltimore County called Bread and
Cheese Creek, so named because it was where American soliders camped and ate
their rations of bread and cheese during the Battle of Baltimore in the War of
1812. (One section of the creek flowed through elementary school property; I
remember our class going down there and digging up muskets and shot.) There were
no fish in the creek, but it was loaded with crayfish and I quickly established
myself as an expert crayfish catcher. Other kids liked to put the crayfish on
the street and watch cars smoosh them, but I preferred to take them home and
keep them as pets. Unfortunately, at my then decidedly primitive stage of
development, I did not understand the concept of chlorinated tap water, and was
frustrated why none of my crayfish survived the night in a bucket of clean,
fresh water straight from the garden hose.

My dad frittered with aquariums before I was born, so there were some empty
tanks in the attic. My brother at this time (early 70s) had been keeping
saltwater fish, back when the marine hobby was in swaddling clothes. He was
drafted during the Vietnam "conflict" and sold his stock back to the pet shop.
My father didn't want me keeping fish tanks for reasons only he understood, but
I did convince him to build me a small cement pond in the backyard. He took me
to the pet shop to buy some goldfish, but I was enamored with a big, ugly
catfish in one of the tanks. "Oh, that's just some bullhead from Bear Creek" [a
nearby tidal creek], the shopowner said. He had caught it fishing; indeed, the
fish had a hook scar on its mouth and a mangled caudal fin. We bought it (along
with some goldfish) and I threw them all in the pond. I still had not quite
gotten the handle on the chlorine thing; I killed many a goldfish doing 100%
water changes, but that tough, ugly bullhead survived them all and grew and

Winter was coming and I knew the shallow pond would freeze over and kill the
fish. So my dad was forced into setting up my brother's old saltwater tank in
the basement to give the pond residents a winter home. Slowly, but surely, I
started to grasp the art of fishkeeping. Around this time I started to read
Tropical Fish Hobbyist magazine, and began pestering my dad for more aquariums
so I could keep tropical fish.

In one issue of TFH there was an ad for a reprint of Jordan & Evermann's
4-volume 1900 magnum opus *Fishes of North and Middle America* for the whopping
price of $25. I convinced my dad to buy it for me as a Christmas present. I
remember it clearly: Christmas 1974, I was 13 years old, and I was teaching
myself to use the diagnostic fish key in Jordan and Evermann. I pulled the
bullhead catfish out of the aquarium to count its fin rays. It was Ameirus
catus, the white catfish. My first native fish. My first native fish I.D. I was

(I still have that copy of Jordan and Evermann and have just turned to the white
catfish page, page 138. It's crinkled and stained from holding it with wet
hands, Christmas 1974.)

Eventually my fish collection grew with store-bought tropicals. It wasn't until
a high school aquatic biology class in 1977 or 1978 that I learned that there
were other streams in Maryland where one could catch minnows and darters and
suckers and madtoms, and that there was a fun and easy way to catch them (called
a seine net). I've been keeping natives ever since, and have returned to that
same spot where Gunpowder Falls flows under U.S. Route 40 in Joppa, MD almost
every year since. (Stream quality and fish abundance/diversity has declined
noticeably over the past 20+ years.)

In 1991 I joined NANFA. A few years later I got a call from a fellow named Bob
Bock asking if I wanted to go collecting with him and some other local NANFA
members. Until then I had always gone collecting by myself (or with my brother).
It was great to discover other grown-ups who had not outgrown their childhood
fascination for catching aquatic critters and taking 'em back home. Although I
had a couple of tropical tanks, and had started traveling to the Amazon to
collect my own, I always thought the natives were more "exotic" -- exotic in
this sense meaning rare, unusual, special, unique. Heck, anybody can go to a
store and buy a discus. But a satinfin shiner, caught from a local river, pulled
from underwater obscurity and showcased in a shimmering tank -- now THAT'S
something special.

Christopher Scharpf

"The secret of life is to have a task....And the most important thing is -- it
must be something you cannot possibly do!"
Henry Moore, sculptor

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