The rope fish (also known as the African rope fish or reed fish) is a very unique freshwater fish that adds a different dynamic to the aesthetic of your tank.
While they’ve gotten a little more popular in recent years, the rope fish has had an avid following in the freshwater aquarist community for quite some time.
They’re visually stunning (both in color and body shape), peaceful, and easy to care for. This makes getting on a no-brainer for anyone looking to switching things up a bit!
In this guide, we’ll cover everything you need to know about rope fish care. Info like tank mates, diet, lifespan, and size are all in here!
Table of Contents
The rope fish (scientific name: Erpetoichthys calabaricus) are a long freshwater fish that are often confused with an eel or snake. They originate from Central and West Africa in countries like Cameroon and Nigeria.
They prefer standing or slow-moving water that’s on the warm side. They thrive in both fresh or brackish (although most owners keep them in pure freshwater tanks). The Chiloango River and Ogun River are where you can find a high concentration of reed fish since these rivers perfectly meet their required water parameters.
Because of their location and unique appearance, a lot of owners assume that rope fish are tricky to care for. This couldn’t be further from the truth. These fish are kind, hardy, and a treat to care for.
One interesting thing about rope fish is the fact that they have both lungs and gills. This combination allows them to get oxygen in varying levels of water quality (and is partly why they’re so hardy).
As an owner, you likely won’t see them go to the surface to breathe too often since they only do that when the water quality is poor. This should never be the case as long as you’re doing your job.
The average rope fish lifespan is 15 to 20 years in captivity. This is a very impressive length of time which means you’ll likely have yours for a while!
It’s important to note that this is assuming that your rope fish is getting proper care. If they live in poor water quality or have an insufficient diet then they won’t live nearly as long.
Author Note: This is one of the traps that new owners fall into when they get a hardy fish. They think that they can be a little lax and everything will be fine. While your rope fish won’t die immediately in subpar conditions, it’s not fair to the fish and will impact their lifespan.
The appearance of the rope fish is one of the main things that makes this fish so unique. They look like an eel or a snake and are often mistaken for them by people who’ve never seen one before.
This is why the name rope fish (or reedfish) is so fitting. When you see them swimming it’s exactly what they look like! They have a slightly oval shape to them when you view them from the front, but it’s very subtle.
While most people get caught up on their long and thin body type, we’re big fans of their coloration and patterns. Rope fish have scales that are easily visible and create a very textured look. It has a very neat effect while they’re swimming too!
These fish tend to be an earthy/dark yellow color that can help them stay hidden in their natural habitats where the substrate and surrounding vegetation shares a lot of the same color properties.
Rope fish do have tiny pectoral fins, but not much else. They technically have dorsal fins but that presents itself as more of a small ridge than anything else.
The average rope fish size can reach just over two feet in length when fully grown. This makes for quite a sight while they swim and means that you’ll need to provide them with ample space to keep them comfortable (more on that in the following section).
Author Note: For some reason, the size of rope fish is something that a lot of new owners underestimate. Make sure you do your research and are prepared to handle a fish of this size.
Rope Fish Care
Rope fish care is something that any aquarist can manage, no matter how experienced they are. A lot of people think that because of their interesting appearance that they might be high-maintenance, but it’s really the exact opposite!
These fish are calm, peaceful, and hardy. In fact, assuming you have a large enough tank, we think they make great beginner fish.
However, you should still familiarize yourself with the basics of rope fish care before getting one. Even though they can handle a wide range of parameters and environments, your goal should always be to help them thrive and live the best lives possible.
The minimum recommended tank size for one rope fish is 50 gallons. These are large fish and need enough room to stay comfortable and live a stress-free life.
If you decide to keep multiple rope fish in the same tank you should add another 10-15 gallons for every extra fish. This will make sure they all have their own space and can stay out of each other’s way when necessary.
Rope fish care is pretty forgiving when it comes to water parameters. With that being said, we always recommend aiming for the “sweet spot” to maximize their comfort and lifespan.
- Water temperature: 72-82° F
- pH levels: 6-7.5
- Water hardness: 8-22 KH
You should always make sure to perform regular water level checks to ensure the conditions are suitable for your rope fish. While these fish are hardy and can handle a wide range of levels, they can be sensitive to shifts within that range.
Find your spot and do what you can to keep it as consistent as possible!
What To Put In Their Tank
The basic requirements of what to include in their environment are pretty straightforward. Rope fish aren’t a species that needs a perfect combination of things to function, but you should try to make them as comfortable as possible to keep their stress levels low.
Having a decent amount of plants in the tank is something that we recommend. In their natural habitat they’re used to navigating through vegetation and using it as a hiding place, so having it in their tank is a good idea.
You’ll also want to make sure they have a fair amount of rocks and hiding places available to them. Rope fish like to wedge themselves into thin spots for protection. Rocks, caves, and other decorations are all a good idea (without making things too crowded).
Lastly, go with a sandy substrate in their tank. The rivers and slow-moving waters where they’re from always have a nice soft bed. Anything hard like gravel can scratch or irritate their underside.
Common Possible Diseases
Rope fish are a hardy animal and aren’t burdened by any species-specific diseases. With that being said, there can get a lot of the usual illnesses that affect other freshwater fish (like ich).
It’s smart to periodically inspect your rope fish to make sure you don’t see any warning signs of illness. Spots, discoloration, or a sudden change in behavior can all indicate that something is wrong.
You should do everything you can to keep their water conditions consistent as well. Even though rope fish care is pretty easy when it comes to parameters and levels, these fish are prone to health complications if there’s a significant shift.
Food & Diet
Rope fish are carnivores which means you’ll need to give them meaty foods as a staple in their diet. This will ensure that they get an adequate amount of protein and nutrients (as well as enrichment).
Some of the best foods to give them are bloodworms, chopped meat, frozen meat-based food, insect larva, and beef hearts. Some owners will give them flakes and pellets to round out their diet, but the rope fish that have lived the longest have usually been fed a meaty diet.
Sometimes you might want to sprinkle in some live food into their diet as well. We like doing this for the sake of enrichment from time to time. While it’s not the most convenient option for you as an owner, it’s something your fish will appreciate.
Since rope fish are nocturnal we prefer to feed them once a day right before you go to bed. Some owners have conditioned their fish to feed during the day, but we like the idea of keeping things consistent with their natural feeding rhythm.
Behavior & Temperament
Rope fish are an interesting fish when it comes to their behavior. They are relatively active (especially at night since they’re nocturnal), but also like to lounge.
These fish like to hang out near the bottom half of the aquarium, although they aren’t pure bottom-feeders. This is because they’re comfortable swimming to the surface in order to breathe when necessary (you won’t see this behavior that often).
Because of their long body type, it can be quite the treat to watch them swim around in your tank. A lot of owners say that even on days where their fish aren’t particularly active, it seems like they’re busy because the times that they decide to swim really stand out.
In terms of temperament, rope fish are a peaceful species. They don’t want to cause any trouble with other fish and will generally mind their own business.
Author Note: The one situation where you might see them go after other fish is if they believe they are food. Rope fish are carnivores and while they won’t eat a fish to be malicious, they will if they believe they’re on the menu.
That’s why it’s important to know the right rope fish tank mates to ensure that this doesn’t happen (check the section below for tank mate recommendations).
Rope Fish Tank Mates
There are a number of rope fish tank mates that you can pick from if you want to keep these fish in a community tank.
Here are some great tank mate options:
This list is just a small sample of possible rope fish tank mates we recommend. As long as you don’t try to keep them with very small fish (like neon or ember tetras) they won’t mistake them for food.
It’s important to make sure you don’t pair them with aggressive fish either. Since rope fish are peaceful and just want to mind their own business, large aggressive fish can definitely hurt them. Fish like African cichlids, Oscar fish, or the Jack Dempsey fish are all good examples of tank mates to avoid.
Breeding rope fish is something that basically never happens in a home aquarium setting. With that being said, it doesn’t stop people from trying it occasionally.
If you’re going to try this you’ll need to increase the water temperature to mimic the warm seasons when rope fish naturally reproduce. Nothing on in this section is something you can skip, you’ll need all the help you can get!
You’ll see the male and female begin to interact by exploring the tank together and staying very close to one another. This will proceed until the female is ready to deposit her eggs for the make to fertilize.
If you find success and the babies hatch you should make sure to remove them and place them in another tank to ensure their safety.
Author Note: It’s worth noting that a lot of the successful rope fish breeding attempts have involved hormone supplementation. If this is more than just an experiment for you then you’ll want to look into that to significantly increase the success rate.
Rope fish are incredibly unique and fun freshwater fish to own. They’re easy to care for, look amazing, and won’t cause trouble in your tank.
We recommend them to anyone who’s looking to add a different look and feel to their tank. Seeing these long fish swim around never gets old!
If you have any questions about rope fish care or the species in general make sure to reach out to us via our contact page or on social media. We respond to everyone, but love talking about interesting fish like this the most!