Eric is an aquarium enthusiast with over two decades of experience caring for a wide array of tropical fish.
Can You Keep Wild Fish In Your Home Aquarium?
You can keep wild-caught fish in your fish tank in certain situations, and many people do. It is an easy way to create a distinctive and low-cost aquarium setup featuring the same fish you’d find in your local lakes and streams. Many freshwater, North American fish can be quite beautiful when kept in a well-managed aquarium with the proper lighting.
However, you have a lot to think about before you decide to build such a setup. The same advice that applies to a tropical aquarium applies to a native tank. Just like with a tropical freshwater tank, you’ll need to figure out the correct tank size for the native fish you intend to keep, as well as their temperaments and care needs.
This article can get you started with a few things to think about if you intend to stock these fish in your home aquarium. As always, I suggest you do as much research as possible and absorb many opinions before undertaking a project like this.
You’d also be wise to read up on your local and state regulations for catching and keeping wild animals. In fact, let’s start with that.
Is It Legal to Keep Wild Fish in a Tank?
If you live in the United States, your state game commission manages and enforces the regulations on what you can and can’t do regarding wild animals. If you intend to keep native fish, it is worth your while to learn the law.
In my state, the regulations currently boil down to this: If you are taking game fish out of the wild, you are fishing. It doesn’t matter if you eat them or keep them in a tank. You must have a fishing license and you must adhere to the regulations on the season, size, and limit.
The full regulations are, of course, much longer and more complex than this synopsis. There are separate sets of rules for baitfish, reptiles, and amphibians. The regulations for your state may be similar to this or very different.
Remember that the regulations set by your state game commission are intended to maintain the health of the wild fish populations. Sure, you may get away with skirting the rules, but by doing so you aren’t helping fish or their natural habitat. You also risk a hefty fine if you get caught.
Also realize that your state probably has specific rules about releasing captive animals back into the wild, even if they started out in the wild. Usually, these laws are intended to prevent the spread of disease in wild populations. They may even have laws about transporting fish.
In short, do yourself a favor before you start your aquarium and learn your local laws, then stick to them.
Note: If local laws make it impossible for you to legally catch local fish for your aquarium you may be able to purchase them. This is also true for people in states like mine who wish to start their tanks with juveniles.
Choosing the Right Tank Setup for Native Fish
Just like tropical fish you’d buy in a store, your local, native fish require the proper tank setup in order to thrive. Consider the adult size of the fish you intend to keep. Here are a few examples of the common and max length of freshwater North American game fish: 1
- Largemouth bass: 15.7 inches (largest on record: 38.2 inches)
- Smallmouth bass: 12-16 inches (largest on record 27.2 inches)
- Bluegill: 7.5 inches (largest on record 16 inches)
- Yellow Perch: 16.1 inches (largest on record 19.7 inches)
- Channel Cat: 22 inches (largest on record 52 inches)
Looking at the numbers above, the question becomes not whether you can keep wild fish as pets, but whether you should. These fish would outgrow all but the largest home aquariums.
Also, consider their care needs. What do they eat? Some, like largemouth bass, will do best with live foods such as worms or even small fish.
Do you know which fish will get along? Just as with smaller fish in a tropical aquarium, this is a concern in a wild fish tank.
I do not mean this to dissuade you from your dream of building an awesome native aquarium. Just be aware of what you are getting into and prepare accordingly. You have a lot of research ahead of you if you intend to keep any of these fish.
Adding Native Fish to a Tropical Aquarium
You may be tempted to add locally caught minnows or small game fish to your established tropical aquarium. This is a bad idea, for the following reasons:
- Tropical fish require warm water temperatures in the 75-80 degree range. Most freshwater fish species in North America thrive in water fifteen or twenty degrees cooler.
- It is hard enough to guess which tropical fish will get along, even though there is a lengthy history of fish keeping to draw information from before we stock our tanks. It is impossible to know what to expect when adding wild fish to a tropical tank.
- Adding wild fish to your established tropical tank can introduce disease. Quarantining them helps but doesn’t completely eliminate the risk.
Your wild-caught fish will do much better in a tank made especially for them. Just as it is not wise to combine African cichlids with tropical community fish, you’ll want a separate setup for your local fish.
Is It Ethical to Keep Wild Fish as Pets?
I have no issue with people keeping wild-caught fish in their own personal aquariums, as long as they follow the laws and regulations. The fish they bring home may have ended up as dinner for some other angler, or it may represent a fish never purchased from a pet store. If a person wishes to have an aquarium, the fish has to come from somewhere.
This raises a conundrum, though. Many fishkeepers, me included, try to avoid tropical fish taken from wild populations. In those cases, people are taking a great number of fish from the environment intending to resell them, and often this threatens the sustainability of the wild population.
That’s very different from people taking a few fish and keeping them as pets. (If you do wish to sell and/or breed local game fish or baitfish there is another set of licensing regulations you have to follow.)
This is only my opinion. You’ll have to decide for yourself whether it is ethical to keep wild fish.
How to Keep Wild Fish as Pets
You can keep native, wild-caught fish as pets if you follow the rules and make the right choices. However, as you can see from this article, it is no easy feat.
In my opinion, only the most experienced fishkeepers with very large tanks should attempt to keep native fish at home. It would be a shame to take a fish out of its natural habitat only to have it die in a poorly maintained tank that doesn't meet its needs.
If you still think you want to give it a try, here is a summary of everything you need to think about:
- Learn and follow your state and local regulations that govern what you can and can’t do when it comes to catching and keeping wild fish.
- Research the fish you intend to keep and make sure you have the appropriate tank setup for their needs. This includes water temperature and feeding.
- Learn about the temperaments of the fish you wish to keep so you can be reasonably sure they will get along.
- Have a plan if things go wrong. This might mean moving your fish to different tanks, or bigger tanks. In most cases, it does not mean returning your fish to the wild.
- Following the same protocols with tank maintenance and water changes as you would with a tropical tank.
- Do not add wild fish to a tropical tank.
Finally, as I always say, do as much research as you can before making a big decision like this. I consider it a great responsibility to care for any animal. In this case, I would be taking one out of its wild habitat. That makes it even more important to be sure I did everything I could to ensure its wellbeing.
I hope you see it the same way. Remember, you can stock your tank with easy-to-manage tropical fish if you aren't sure a wild fish tank setup is for you.
Good luck with keeping wild fish as pets in your home aquarium!
- Freshwater Fish of America, fws.gov
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.