Competing in Fish Shows Ultimate Beginner Guide

Competing in Fish Shows Ultimate Beginner Guide

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Entering a local, regional, or national fish show can be a great way to expand your fishkeeping hobby; win a bunch of cool prizes such as  trophies, ribbons, equipment, and money; and display your aquarium keeping and breeding skills.

If you decide to involve yourself in a little bit of friendly competition, your aquarium-keeping skills will steadily improve. After all, in order to display only top-quality fish at every competition, you will need to do lots of research on nutrition, water conditions, and other factors that influence proper growth,
good coloring, and vibrant health.

  • Knowing what fish shows are all about
  • Figuring out how to get your fish in top shape
  • Setting up at the show
  • Judging the fish
  • Transporting your fish safely

Why Competing in Fish Shows Is Good for Your Fish

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Participating in fish shows keeps your aquatic pets from becoming totally bored with their lives. (If you had nothing to do but swim back and forth in your bathtub all day, you’d probably be looking for a way out, too.) Fish are a lot like humans in that they need a little mental stimulation every once in a while.

In the wild, competing for food, avoiding larger predators that want to have them over for lunch (literally), and other factors such as unpredictable weather keep a fish’s senses alert and stimulate it into constant action.

After sitting in a home aquarium for month after month, most fish appreciate a change of pace, even if it means being carted off to a weird place where strange-looking people with large, distorted faces walk by and stare into the tank.

Getting to Know the Shows

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The great majority of aquatic competitions are organized by aquarium societies. These aquatic societies can be international in scope, as is the International Betta Congress (IBC), or can be local groups in large towns and cities. The following is a list of the types of shows you’re likely to encounter.

Small shows

Small shows (also known as bowl shows) are usually sponsored by local clubs and generally include all different classes of fish such as goldfish, cichlids, and tetras. Bowl shows are set up for only a few hours so that their paid members can exhibit their favorite wet pets.

Regional shows

Aquarium societies often enter larger fish shows that cover a broad geographic area within a marked region that can include several states.  In this type of competition, different societies compete against each other to see who is really the top piranha.

A regional show forces you to become a team player, so make sure you have several good excuses ready, just in case your entry doesn’t place very well.

Open shows

An open show is similar to a regional show, except that anyone can enter the competition.

These shows are cool because if you don’t win, you can sneak out the back door without having to answer to anyone else. Or you can tell family members that you had a flat tire on the way to the show and missed the entire competition.


One of the largest shows you can enter is known as an exhibition, or aquatic convention.

These types of shows are generally put together by tropical fish magazines and international societies. Exhibitions are massive affairs, generally held in huge auditoriums and fancy hotels.
Aquarium manufacturers are usually present to demonstrate their newest lines of tanks, food, chemicals, and equipment to people they consider prospective buyers.

Exhibitions are exciting and extremely important because they help to keep hobbyists informed on major new trends in the hobby.  If you go to one of these shows, you will probably find a lot of excellent information on new equipment and fishkeeping procedures.

Not to mention the tons of new ideas from other hobbyists you’ll get.

Understanding Competition Classes

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You need to learn a little bit about how fish shows operate so that you know what to expect when you enter your very first serious competition.

True, fish shows have more rules than cribbage, but you can still go to a competition, have a great time, and pick up some important aquarium-keeping skills.

To make sure that the competition between individual fish is fair, you have to enter your contestant in a specific class. Classes are usually grouped by similar species.

For example, if you have an oscar (Astronotus ocellatus), you don’t want to place it in a livebearer class normally intended for guppies (Lebistes reticulatus) and mollies (Mollienesia sphenops).

Your fish would be instantly disqualified simply because it was in the wrong class. Trying to convince a judge that your 11-inch oscar is really a champion guppy that has eaten too much usually goes over like a lead balloon.

Getting Your Fish in Shape for the Show

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fish in shape

At competitions, you want your fish to make the best overall impression it possibly can. If your entry bolts for the corner of the tank when the judge comes up for her first look, your entry probably won’t receive high marks because the judge didn’t have the opportunity to look it over properly.

Swimming upright and smiling

A good show fish isn’t shy around strangers and doesn’t panic every time someone walks by its tank.

There probably will be many visitors (competitors and other hobbyists) sneaking over to take a quick peak at your entry before the judging begins. You don’t want a bunch of people hanging around your tank and spooking your fish while it is trying to remain calm after being transported from its home to the show.

Placing your show fish’s holding tank in a moderate traffic area gets your entry used to people passing back and forth. How your fish reacts to people socially is known as deportment.

Your entry should always be in top physical form. Start with a good specimen and then make sure it receives proper nutrition by feeding it a varied diet consisting of commercially pre-manufactured flakes and different types of live food.

The water conditions your show fish is raised in should always be optimal, with good filtration and the proper water chemistry for the species.

The holding tank

When you spend a great deal of time, effort, and expense raising a show quality fish, you want to make sure it does not encounter any physical problems prior to a competition.

For example, if you were a professional model, you probably would not begin taking karate or boxing lessons a week before a photo shoot — the results could be disastrous.

A small holding tank is a great (and inexpensive) way to keep your show fish healthy and free from physical harm in the month or two preceding its competition.

A holding tank negates the possibility of other fish damaging your prize entry’s fins or scales by not allowing physical contact, which in turn prevents untimely fighting or breeding.

The smaller environment of a holding tank allows you to check for any disease that may manifest during this waiting period. Physical ailments can be treated quickly and easily in a smaller tank.

Solitary confinement also keeps your entry stress-free and calm until it’s time to enter competition and really show off. Being alone in a semi-bare tank prepares your pet for the same conditions it faces during an exhibition.

Exhibiting Your Fish Properly

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After you find and train your show fish, you need the guidelines for exhibiting them properly. The following tips can help your fish put its best fin forward:

  • Study the rules carefully before you fill out an entry form so that you have a good idea of the requirements for the individual competitions.
  • Fill out all your paperwork properly and legibly and submit it on time.
  • Get your show fish to the competition with plenty of time to spare.

Water conditions

Bring water with you so that your fish can remain in familiar conditions during the competition.

Discontinue feeding your fish the night before the competition to avoid water fouling (remember, it’s good for fish to fast one day a week) and change the water frequently to keep your show tank looking crystal clear. If possible, use water that is a couple degrees warmer than what your fish is accustomed to — this generally helps fish show better.

Make sure to provide an airstone, if possible, to keep the water well-oxygenated.

Tank considerations

It is important to place your show fish in a tank that correctly matches its size.

For example, a single guppy in a 10-gallon tank is dwarfed by the sheer water volume and tends to look rather miniscule. It’s better to show this type of fish in a 5-gallon container. On the other hand, an eight-inch plecostomus doesn’t look very good in a 2-gallon container.

It doesn’t have the room to display all its fins, or the other attributes that may make it a winner. If you have to use a shoehorn to cram your entry into its show tank, then the aquarium is probably too small, and if you need a telescope to spot your fish in its show tank, then the aquarium is probably too large.

Here are a few more tips for competitors:

  • If the competition allows tank backgrounds, choose a solid-colored sheet over one with a pattern that takes away from the natural beauty of your show fish.
  • The tank or container you use to display your entry should be immaculate. The glass walls should be clean inside and out. Vacuum any dirt or debris off the bottom of the tank right before the competition begins. (Or avoid this problem by bringing extra water with you.)
  • Make sure your show tank is well covered because you do not want your fish jumping out during all the excitement. A lid also prevents people’s hands and foreign objects from getting into the water.

Judging Guidelines for Your Fish

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In most competitions, judging guidelines are very strict. Usually, contestants are not allowed to be present when the judging takes place. So, if you want to do a little brown-nosing, do it before the competition starts.

For example, simply walk up to a judge, smile, and compliment him on how much he looks like Jacques Cousteau.

Each class usually has its own judge. The judge is supposed to mark your entry on its own merit, not compare it to the other fish in the competition. But judges are human, and an outstanding fish sitting in the next tank over may have a slight bearing on the outcome of your own entry’s marks.

After all fish are judged, the “best of show” is awarded to the highest quality entry of all the classes combined. This decision is usually reached by a group conference — the individual judges all get together to vote for what they consider to be the best overall fish at the show.

An important thing to remember is that the marks that your fish receives generally are from a single judge’s point of view.

So try to resist the temptation to verbally tear every judge limb from limb because of what you consider to be serious oversights and bad vision. Nobody likes a spoilsport, so keep your cool and just remember that you are enjoying your hobby at a new level.

Size and body weight

One of the main physical traits that consistently inspire judges to give a fish= high marks is its overall size. Judges generally look for a fish that has reached its full stage of adulthood and is the maximum size for that particular species.

Your fish’s body is judged on several different criteria:

  • To begin with, your entry should have all of its body parts intact.
  • Your fish should not have any unusual growths, such as humps on the head (except in the case of some cichlids, where a hump is consider normal in the males of the species) or large unnatural bends in the back, which is considered a sign of old age in most aquatic species.
  • The body of a good-quality show fish is free from deformities and is in correct proportions for its species.

Color and fins

A fish’s body color is produced by pigmentation and reflected light. In the wild, fish use these colors for defensive and mating purposes.

In competition, fish must meet the coloration standards expected of an aquarium-bred species. Especially in show species such as the discus (which is bred artificially to produce amazing colors like tangerine and numerous cobalt variations), color can be a major factor in determining points.

This practice consists of injecting colored pigments into a fish’s body and is unethical. Some species such as the glassfish develop a disease known as lymphocystis that causes growths on their fins, so never put a fish’s health at risk by partaking in cruel practices.

Fins are judged very strictly in a competition. Your entry should have all the fins that are standard for its species. If your fish should have one dorsal fin, one anal fin, two pectoral fins, one caudal fin, and two pelvic fins — then it had better have all seven fins. Some species of fish have an extra adipose fin.

If your fish falls into this category, make sure it has one. If it doesn’t, don’t enter it. If your fish is missing its tail or dorsal fin, wait until the next competition, because this physical problem doesn’t go over very well with judges.

All the fins on your entry should be in good condition. Make sure there are no frayed or ragged fins to detract from your fish’s natural beauty. The fins should be erect and of good color, not clamped or folded.

To keep a show fish’s fins in top-quality condition, keep it by itself prior to the competition so that more aggressive fish don’t get a chance to tear or damage its fins.

Overall condition

Many physical factors can have a bearing on your entry’s final point score.
Judges look for an overall picture of perfection: a combination of many individual physical traits. Even minor blemishes or irregularities can lose points for your entry.

The scales on your fish’s body should be intact and in excellent condition. In many species, scales form standard patterns. This must always be taken into consideration. Scales should lie flat against the body, have a proper mucus coating, and not protrude at odd angles. Gill covers should be straight and preferably red in color, which is an indication of good health.

Transporting Fish to and from a Show

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Transportation safely to and from a show is important for your fish’s overall health.

You want to avoid stressing out or physically damaging your entry on the way to the show so that it has the best chance of remaining happy and healthy and can display its beautiful physical attributes to the best of its ability.

The first thing to do when considering transportation is look at the distance between your home and the show area. You need to give yourself plenty of time so that you don’t have to rush to the show and hastily try to set up your entry tank at the last minute.

Always allow plenty of time in case something should go wrong. Any unforeseen delay can become disastrous if you’re forced to rush your entry in right before the judging begins.

Drive your route to the competition ahead of time so that you know exactly how long it takes and what the road conditions are like. If the roads are rough, plan on adding a little more cushioning to your packing box.

Check the predicted weather for the day of the competition, so that you’re prepared in the event of heavy rain, extreme heat, frigid cold, or snow.

It really doesn’t matter if you plan to show one fish or several fish as far as transportation containers are concerned. You should always transport your fish in a proper carrying case or tank to make sure that their journey is as comfortable as humanly possible.

Don't Forget to Have Fun

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The most important thing to remember when you go to a fish show is to have fun. Take time to chat with fellow hobbyists so that you can make new friends, learn important aspects of fishkeeping from others, and catch up on the newest trends in the fishkeeping hobby.

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