Hobbies come in all shapes and sizes. Some like to hike in the great outdoors. Others like to try their hands at photography or golf.
But Bob and Lora Watson of Hillsboro found a hobby that keeps their fins busy, caring for thousands of rare and unique fish in their home.
“My husband has always had fish,” said Lora Watson. “Then about eight years ago, we really got into it.”
Watson said her husband saw an ad online for a fish show from the Missouri Aquarium Society near the airport in St. Louis, and the couple decided to check it out. While they were there, Bob signed up to become a member of the club.
They now belong to five different organizations dedicated to collecting and preserving rare fish, and have 60 aquariums in their basement where they care for them.
As their hobby took to the water, the Watsons began to learn more about caring for fish. Her husband was interested more in “live bearers,” which are fish that give birth to babies, instead of fish that lay eggs. Although, they do have fish that lay eggs as well.
“We learned about what temperature the water needs to be for different fish and how to treat it,” Lora said. “It’s always a learning process.”
She said they have about 50 different species of fish in their home, and caring for them includes weekly cleaning of all the tanks. Watson said it can be an all-day process on her own, but that she and her husband can do it together in about four hours.
To clean the tanks, they carefully wipe down all the exposed sides and vacuum out the “gunk,” replacing 25 percent of the water with fresh water.
“They enjoy it when I clean their rooms,” Watson said with a laugh.
The fish eat typical fish flakes like many pet fish, but also live worms and the baby fish eat brine shrimp.
“For my husband, he just really enjoys the fish and finding those rare ones that don’t exist in the wild,” Lora said. “For me, it’s just a lot of fun.”
One of her favorite parts is watching the bearers give birth. Just this week, a white swordtail had 40 to 50 babies. She said the most they have ever counted was 80 babies from one birth, and all of them lived.
Lora said one of their most unique fish is the Rio Otapa, which are originally from a river in Mexico, but are quite rare. Because of poachers in that area of the river where they live, part of the river is a “no collection” area until the population rebounds.
“However, because of people like us, we no longer need to disturb the wild ones as long as we can keep them in the hobby by raising them and sharing them with other hobbyists,” Lora said.
The Watsons have raised the swordtail fish for several years, even winning second place in an annual show from the American Live Bearers Association one year.
“That one is really special to us because it was a nationwide show and we competed with people from all over the Americas,” she said.
That plaque is displayed in their basement near the aquariums with other awards they have won. Another plaque is dedicated to an article they wrote from one trip when they took their grandson, Skyler, with them on a collecting trip, and he discovered a fish not native to that particular area.
Although breeding the fish is a hobby and not a business for the couple, they do sell some of the fish and ship them nationwide. Lora said the fish have to fast for two to three days before shipping, and are then put in a bag (similar to if someone purchased one from a pet store or won one at a carnival). The fish have to fast so they do not create waste in the bag during shipping. She then packs styrofoam around the bags and ships them. So far, all their fish have arrived safely at their destination, even though one order took two weeks to arrive in New Jersey.
At this time, the Watsons only ship fish to the continental United States because they worry about the safety of the fish in sending them afar to other countries. They are also careful to ship mostly in the spring and fall due to extreme temperatures in the summer and winter months. She said that due to the pandemic and lack of shows, their aquariums are pretty full at this time, and she hopes the shows will be able to start up again soon.
During the summer months, they host what Lora affectionately calls “fishy summer camp,” keeping a large variety of fish in barrels in their yard. Lora said they thrive in the outdoors, growing and becoming more vibrant in color. They also help to keep the mosquito population down, eating the eggs the pesky bugs lay in the water.
“It’s just become something we both really enjoy,” Lora said. “And we enjoy doing it together.”
The couple have also met lots of new friends who collect fish in Illinois and Missouri.
When she’s not caring for fish, she’s the apartment manager for Village Apartments in Hillsboro and her husband is the owner of Watson and Sons Electric. They also manage several rental properties and enjoy spending time with their children and seven grandchildren, with a new one due in November.