DUNCAN, Okla. - "Gone fishing" has a new meaning these days, as a surprising number of people are discovering that tropical fish make friendly, educational and economical pets.
Karen Larason opened Mondo Aquatics in Duncan just a couple of months ago, and has had such a good response that she's helping to organize a club for aquarium hobbyists.
The Duncan-Ardmore-Lawton Aquarium Society - DALAS for short - is open to singles, families and children with parental consent.
DALAS' goal is to bring aquarium enthusiasts, both freshwater and saltwater, together to share knowledge, experience and camaraderie related to the fish keeping hobby, she said. People often begin with freshwater aquariums and, as their knowledge grows, they progress to saltwater aquariums with more exotic creatures.
In one of Larason's saltwater tanks, everything is alive, from the fish to the plants to the coral reefs that form the backdrop for the colorful, constantly changing display.
Eventually, the club hopes to bring in monthly speakers, based on the membership's interest, and to hold events such as swaps and auctions.
Larason began working with fish a couple of years ago at her home. When the hobby outgrew her space, she opened her store to accommodate a wider variety of fish, snails, crabs, scallops, firebelly toads, plants, coral and supplies.
She even stocks Japanese koi for water garden enthusiasts. And, yes, "Nemo" look-a-likes are in stock, to the delight of young visitors.
"You can learn a lot from fish. Caring for fish teaches children responsibility, as it's quickly obvious what happens to the fish when it is not cared for. Children can learn a lot about life in general watching fish being born or hatched, watching them grow and play, and even watching them die occasionally," Larason said.
They also learn a lot of simple chemistry and scientific principles in the bargain.
A couple of years ago, her daughter, Allison Pitzl, then a student at Emerson Elementary School, took honors in the science fair sponsored by Halliburton for her exhibit on fish and water quality.
Asked about the popularity of aquariums in the Duncan area, Larason's husband, Jeff, said a representative of a national discount store that sells fish told him that their local store was among the top 100 in the country in fish sales.
"I don't know if that's right, but fish seem to be a very popular hobby around here."
"It's certainly a relaxing hobby," Karen Larason said. "When my grandmother was in a nursing home, we would take her out to our house and she enjoyed watching the fish by the hour.
"We even have a customer whose husband is under hospice care. She often buys him new kinds of fish to entertain him and help take his mind off things."
Fish are good choices for business offices, where people can watch the darting critters' antics while they are waiting for their appointments, and for people who have disabilities or who live in small apartments, as fish do not have to be exercised, she said.
There are also people who like to have pets that match the decor of their homes, and will ask for "a red fish," for instance, not caring what kind of fish it is as long as it fits in with the color scheme.
The aquarium hobbyist also is helping on a larger scale by helping to preserve certain species of fish, she said.
She also wants to introduce children to the hobby. The store will give a free fish to any student from first grade through high school who takes in a report card bearing an A as a final grade in any subject — one finny friend per child.
A Louisiana native who grew up eating fish and seafood, Larason admits to enjoying a fish meal now and then.
"But not these!" she was quick to add.