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Sleeping with the fishes


How a retired plumber turned his home into an aquarium and became Southern Indiana's biggest name in tropical discus.


On any given weekday, Al Johnson will rise no later than three o'clock in the morning to awaken his discus fish, a schedule they've grown accustom to. Johnston takes the same care in rousing them from slumber in their aquariums as a father would children from their beds, slowly turning on lights one by one as he works his way through the three bedrooms he converted into "breeding rooms." He feeds them once he arrives at the hatchery, a 24-foot screened-in porch lining the side of the Inglefield home he shares with his wife, Carolyn, and their two dogs and two cats. He does not keep fish of his own as pets, nor does he ever name the ones he sells, but they all seem to recognize him, racing past one another at the edge of their tanks to greet him as he approaches. When Al skims his fingers through the water, they affectionately brush past him. "They're like little kids playing," He says, his accent falling somewhere between a Midwestern drawl and a Texas twang. "If you set back and watch 'em when they're not focused on you, they'll chase each other around, and kind of tug of war with their lips. Each one's an individual; they all act differently. It's just difficult to explain. You just don't expect that from a fish. They're known for being very personable. People just fall in love with 'em."

After all the fish are woken and fed, the real work begins: changing water, filling orders for fish medications and most significantly to his business, shipping discus across the country. It's not every day you receive a bag of live fish in the mail, but Johnson, a 20-plus-year veteran, has perfected his own method: He seals each fish in a plastic bag filled with one-third water, secures it closed, and places in an otherwise plain insulated box, one-foot square and labeled with yellow stickers reading LIVE FISH -- KEEP WARM and PERISHABLE -- HANDLE WITH CARE in bold red letters. Just as he makes sure the fish have time to adjust to light as they wake up, Johnson gives strict instructions to the new owners to allow four to five hours for the discus to adjust their eyes to light. He works throughout the better part of the afternoon before retiring to bed around seven in the evening.

"Of course, the fish keep me really busy, but that's not all that I do. I see some people that just become what they do, but that's not who I am. This is what I do." In his spare time, Johnson enjoys gardening (right now he's learning to grow roses in his backyard), reading (his favorite book is the Bible), and fishing-- "but I'm not killin' 'em or cookin' 'em," He is quick to add. "I release 'em after I catch 'em. I'm not eating my fish, but if I go to McDonald's and get a fish sandwich, I don't feel bad about that, no." Every Sunday he takes his two granddaughters to breakfast and church.

It's not a traditional existence, but it's not a life he expected either. A plumber by trade, Johnson retired from the business at age 35 to undergo double knee surgeries. He'd always been fond of fish, but never expected his hobby would become a full-time job. If you were to ask him about it, he would tell you it's just something he fell into, but the answer may be in Johnson's childhood roots. "My mother was a school teacher while I was growing up in Texas. She had a fish tank in her classroom -- goldfish -- and she would let me feed and take care of them. I guess it really started from there," he explains. Johnston spent every summer fishing and helping on his grandparents' farm. "I'd help my grandparents feed all the animals: horses, doggies, milking the cows, that sort of thing. They were the ones that really taught me to respect and love the animals."

Around 10 years ago, Johnson began to raise animals of his own when he rescued a baby raccoon in his backyard and named him Toby. "He was house trained and thought he was a puppy. He ran around the house and played with the kids and the cats. When we rescued him, he was tiny and his eyes weren't even open so we had to bottle-feed him. We fell in love with him, and he never wanted to leave, so we got a special state license in order to keep him." He raised him as part of the family until Toby passed away three years ago from kidney failure. It is perhaps this sense of caring, nurturing, goodness -- particularly towards animals -- that led him to breed discus in the first place.

When he moved to Colorado in the early 1980s, Johnson rekindled his passion for tropical fish full-time and established Rocky Mountain Discus, deciding to keep his the name following a move to Indiana in early 2001 once he was already established. As Southern Indiana's only all-natural and state-licensed discus fish hatchery, Johnson gets customers from all over the nation. "Anybody that lives and breathes discus as much as Al does should be recognized as one of the premier true discus breeders in the world today," says Al Withall of Kalispell, Montana, who flew to St. Louis and drove the rest of the way to buy fish for his tank. That night, a tornado hit Johnson's home and tore off part of his roof, yet the man still picked up Withall from his hotel the next morning to help him select a fish. "That's just the kind of guy he is to go out of his way to take care of an unknown customer at a time when his own house was damaged and the power was out."

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Discus fish are exquisitely colorful, and navigate their way through water with a grace one wouldn't associate with fish. In one of Johnson's aquariums a light blue fish with an otherworldly neon glow glides past another that looks like its been stamped with coral. Another tank houses a school of fish with eyes that fade from blues to reds to yellows like an infrared camera, a row of perfectly-aligned fins arranged across their bodies like a mane.

Their beauty perhaps helps to explain why despite their demanding upkeep and high cost, discus have remained the most popular breed of tropical fish, even surpassing the koi. Even though they aren't a household name to those outside of the aquarium set, they have more websites, books, magazine articles, clubs, inventions and symposiums devoted to them than any other breed. The discus, so called because of its flat, round body, is part of the Cichlidae family, a close relative of the angelfish, and was discovered in 1840 by Johann Jakob Heckel, who named the first fish after himself. The breed has a long and rich history beginning in the Amazon, where it can still be found in its natural habitat, surrounded by tree roots. Its shape is ideal for navigating a physically constricting environment, but when the discus was imported into the States in the mid-1930s, breeders and hobbyists found it difficult to reconstruct its natural environment in captivity.

As Johnson and anyone who's ever tried raising them can attest, the discus is not a beginner's fish. Part of the reason the fish are so difficult to raise is that the hobbyist's fish tank must closely mimic the environment in their native region. "They wouldn't survive in most tap water," Johnson says. "It has to be really right for them to be happy and healthy, which means usually adding distilled water or osmosis water to the aquarium. The tank requires constantly warm, "soft" water above 80 degrees that falls between four and seven on the pH scale.

The aquarium filter must become "established" with nitrifying bacteria before it's ready for discus fish. The tank must be large enough to accommodate a school (discus are a social fish) but not too large as they have a tendency to become skittish with too much room. Each adult discus grows to approximately 10 inches from dorsal fin to ventral fins and requires approximately 10 gallons of water each. If the fish is properly cared for, it can live for over a decade. Discus fish must live in groups for their behavior to be friendliest, and they'll quickly form a pecking order, with the largest and most dominant fish first to eat and breed. Their diet is a whole new set of requirements.

"The fish wouldn't do well with a simple flake food you'd give a guppy or a goldfish," Johnson says, which is why he feeds them a hearty diet of beef heart he makes himself. That's right, beef heart. It's part of a recipe from the 1950s when people first started bringing in wild fish from the Amazon. Though it's become commonplace in most pet shops, Al makes his own, a concoction of three pounds beef heart, two pounds raw shrimp, a pound of white fish, a pound of beef liver, two pounds frozen plankton, two boxes frozen spinach and a box of peas, all run through a food processor and enhanced with egg yolks, kelp powder, vitamin C powder, brewers yeast, wheat germ and spirulina powder, which comes from blue-green algae. Dedicated hobbyists in the 1980s, according to tradition, would demonstrate the cleanliness of their aquariums by drinking a cup of water from the tank and testing homemade fish food on a cracker.

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Johnson doesn't exactly know how many fish he sells annually anymore, but is glad to have stopped counting. "I first started breeding [discus], I would wear out the females. When they were three years old, they were old. I'm so opposed to that type of stuff now that I know better. To me it's not about a numbers game anymore. It's just about the quality of fish I sell," he says, and buyers seem pleased with his philosophy as well, as evidenced by the dozens of glowing reviews from customers on his store's website. As the only discuss breeder in Southern Indiana, Al can allow himself to be "very picky and particular with my fish. The impulse buyers aren't gonna wait-- that's not my target audience, really. I've even refused to sell fish to people who explained their aquarium and I knew they wouldn't survive." A discus fish can cost anywhere from $40 to several hundred. The average order is typically between six and eight fish. Although discus fish lay between 50 and 150 eggs at a time, they are extremely difficult to breed, and their rarity drives up prices.

One of the most unique aspects of the discus is the way the parents raise the fry. Both parents secrete a nourishing slime on the side of their body to feed their babies during the earliest weeks of their lives. "That's a natural way to breed the fish and that's the way I do it. I mean, it's not a haphazard thing; it's very coordinated. The babies will spend maybe five seconds grazing on one parent, and then that parent will flip their tale slightly, and it continues back and forth like that. The pairs have to work very closely together." Johnson is sensitive to this closeness, and tries to be conscientious of keeping pairs together-- which is no easy task considering the hundreds of fish Johnson looks after. "I've had male and female fish that I thought needed to be separated because they were bickering. As soon as I moved them apart, the male pouts and lies down and won't even swim. He wasn't gonna have it. I was afraid he might die of loneliness or something."

It's no small feat to stand out in a school of fish wholesalers and pet shops, which offer what, to the novice fish buyer, seems like the same product at only slightly differing prices. Yet most of Johnson's clients travel long distances to acquire his discus for their aquariums. Al explains his approach to breeding compared to a wholesaler to that of a dog breeder versus a puppy mill. "A puppy mill might sell a lot more dogs than the breeder but the quality doesn't compare. One of the reasons I have such a demand is that experienced hobbyists want that type of discus and they're willing to wait for it. There's some people that sell a lot of discuss, but they don't sell quality fish." Hobbyists are also more partial to breeders because discus found in stores can often be of poorer quality, carry disease, and average higher prices to offset costs incurred by importing from wholesalers.

"I'm winding down in my career, but I'm certainly enjoying it. It's hard to explain to someone that thinks, 'Well, it's a business, isn't it?' but I'm past chasing the dollar. I'd rather have the nicest fish get into my customers hands, that I know they aren't gonna find anywhere else." For now, Johnston is content with keeping a pace that allows him to pursue his many other interests and still have fun with his job. "I really get a lot of satisfaction from people getting these fish and knowing they can take care of them. It's almost like playing Santa Claus; you can get excited along with the customer. I just love each fish and that's why I do it. At the end of the day, I'm all about the fish"