Fish Vet Adventures – Learning to Catch Fish

My time spent volunteering at Mystic Aquarium were some of the best times in the beginning of my career. I annoyed the staff endlessly with my requests for more work and projects. To start out, I would arrive early, smack dab in the middle of their lunch. Looking back now, I can see how this would not be appreciated. So, they needed to stick me in a relatively low-responsibility task that would allow them to finish their lunch in peace. That task turned out to be cleaning the backup octopus tank.

Like many popular aquarium exhibits, there are a few backup animals waiting in the wings just in case the main star gets sick. Think of them like an understudy. My new buddy, Squirt, was the Giant Pacific Octopus on deck while Squid took the main floor. Well, little Squirt still needed to get his tank cleaned every week, so it was up to me to take care of her tank.

Armed with my gravel siphon and scrub brushes, I’d happily clean every inch. Being a feisty little octopus, Squirt would often try to impede my progress and take a ride on my gravel siphon. After cleaning, I’d play with her a little, giving her toys or having her try to climb my arm. I always had to be aware of her beak, however. Octopuses may look cute and squishy, but they have a big, sharp, pointy beak that they use for cracking open hard shells. Human flesh is very easy for them to bite. Thankfully, I’ve never had that particular pleasure.

And that was where I started at Mystic. I’d arrive early, in the middle of lunch, clean the octopus tank and then move on to jellyfish tank skimming, another monotonous chore. I moved up the responsibility ladder pretty quick, always asking the various aquarists what they needed help with. No project was too big or too messy for me! If you want the fun projects, you have to do the grunt work first. Getting down and dirty opened up so many doors for me in the aquarium. I got to participate in lots of special projects, like shark physicals, just because I was willing to do all the menial labor. I learned so many things that would help my career before I even knew what it was going to be.

One of the greatest skills I learned while working as a volunteer I use every day in my job: how to catch a fish. You can be the greatest veterinarian and know everything there is to know about every part of fish health and disease, but it won’t do you much good if you can’t catch your patient. Very few owners even feel comfortable with trying to catch their own fish, so it’s usually up to me. With all the practice I got at Mystic, working with all sorts of fish in all sizes of exhibits, I am proud to say that I am an expert fish catcher. With the hundreds of ponds I have visited, only a handful have escaped from an exam. Black fish in deep, dark ponds are the absolute worst. If he’s got a speck of white somewhere on his back, or the pond gets direct sunlight, I can get him. I have a whole arsenal of nets that work for any size pond. Sometimes, it may take a few attempts, but I will catch that sick fish.

With my favorite fish catching net

With my favorite fish catching net

Not many people realize how crucial that one skill is. The trick is to go slow and be patient. Going slow is easy to learn, but patience takes hard work. This past week, I caught an 16″ koi out of a 8′ deep, 10′ wide by 18′ long pond, with only one net. Usually, the bigger the fish, the less maneuverable they are and therefore easier to catch. I’ve built up considerable arm and chest strength just from moving nets around ponds. Don’t need a gym when I have hundreds of pounds of water to push. Sure, it’s dirty, sweaty work, but at least I’m out of my office. Being out in the field, seeing and treating patients is the best part of my job. The ability to help owners at their homes with me doing all the hard work gives them so much more value for my time. Catching that elusive fish in just a few attempts almost always brings astonishment.

If I had not worked so many hours at Mystic, I would not be a very good fish veterinarian. A skill some people completely overlook in my career is undoubtedly the most important. Back when I first started at Mystic, I had no ideas about becoming a fish veterinarian. I was around creatures that I loved and taking great care of them. It was the work at Mystic that inspired me to attend veterinary school. It was my love of fish that made me a fish veterinarian. It was my all-consuming passion for taking care of fish to the best my ability that made me open my own veterinary practice specializing in aquatic medicine. It was a lot of hours doing exactly what I needed to do in order to become the person that I am today.

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