Your pet fish must eat what you serve them, or face starvation (a problem that happens all too often). Although flake food is a good staple diet with balanced vitamins and minerals for fish, the vast majority of freshwater fish would literally jump at the chance to have live or even frozen foods.
Before we dive into the topic of live food, let's talk about flake foods. Realistically, it's not possible for most of us to provide a completely balanced diet composed of only fresh and frozen foods. Flake food is accepted by a large number of freshwater fish and contains important nutrients your fish needs to stay healthy. However, not all flake foods are created equal.
The next time you purchase flake food take a good look at the ingredients label on the container. What you'll find is fishmeal, yeast, shrimp meal, algae, plankton, kelp, vitamins, minerals, preservatives, and fillers such as wheat meal, soybean meal, oatmeal, and brown rice. Those last items are necessary to provide the binding of ingredients but don't contain the same nutrients and flavor found in shrimp, fish or other food the wild fish would eat.
Remember that ingredients are listed in order of highest volume first, so look for prepared foods that have fishmeal and seafood high on the ingredient list. Once you select a quality flake food, start looking for ways to supplement those boring flakes with fresh or frozen foods.
Also, vitamins in flake foods have a limited storage life, so you should buy food in a quantity that will be used in about a month. If it will take longer to use up the flake food, try storing it in the refrigerator or even freezer to keep it nutritious longer.
The Tubifex Controversy
Tubifex worms have long been heralded as either the worst or the best live food to feed your fish. They are very nutritious and easy to grow at home but can be purchased at many local fish stores. The controversy comes from the risk of them carrying diseases to your home aquarium
Like earthworms (which eat dirt), tubifex are annelid worms that eat whatever material they are raised in. Brace yourself—most commercially raised tubifex worms are raised in trout pond run-offs, which means they live on fish manure. Needless to say, that makes them potential hotbeds for transmitting bacterial or parasitic infections. Disgusting? Yes! But freshwater fish love tubifex worms and thrive on them if they are cleaned properly. So how can you ensure they are safe to feed your fish?
Start by purchasing your live tubifex worms from a reputable store, then carefully examine the water in which they are kept. It should be clear. If it isn't, don't purchase them. When you find clean worms, place them in a large container of dechlorinated water, and 3 to 4 times a day rinse them thoroughly until the water runs clear. Store them in the refrigerator and examine the water each morning. If the water is clear they are clean and can be used to feed your fish. Don't feed them to your fish until the water is clear, so continue to rinse them as needed.
The quality of tubifex will vary from store to store, so if you locate good ones (worms that clean quickly as opposed to ones who are still fouling the water after many days) make note of the supplier. If you find healthy, clean worms, you can start your own colony of tubifex worms by growing them in an aerated tank with an inch of gravel on the bottom and then add small amounts of vegetables (slices of sweet potato are good) or aquarium plant trimmings for food. As they multiply, siphon or net out the worms to feed to your fish.
Almost as good as feeding live tubifex worms, most pet stores sell frozen or even freeze-dried tubifex worms. These forms of tubifex are safe to feed your fish without having to do any cleaning.
One of the best live foods is Artemia, more commonly known as brine shrimp. If you've looked around for live brine shrimp you've probably discovered they are a bit pricey, or difficult to find at all. Don't give up. Most fish shops carry a good selection of frozen brine shrimp. The texture and flavor of brine shrimp will vary based on what they were fed and how they are frozen.
Much like people, fish have distinct preferences when it comes to food. Don't hesitate to try several brands to find the one your fish likes the best. Regardless of whether you try frozen or live Artemia, you will be surprised to see how voraciously even small fish will consume them.
Many fish stores sell dried brine shrimp eggs, and even kits for hatching and raising live brine shrimp at home. Newly hatched brine shrimp are a perfect starter food for baby fish (fry) of many species. They are relatively easy to grow at home. Once grown, the brine shrimp will continue to reproduce so you can keep a culture going and have shrimp of all sizes to meet the needs of your fish. Because brine shrimp live in saltwater, they do not carry the parasites that might spread to your freshwater fish.
Other Live Foods
Shrimp aren't the only "safe" live food available. Experts consider Daphnia, AKA water fleas, one of the top live food choices. They carry none of the diseases that tubifex do, are an excellent source of nutrition for all fish, and can be raised fairly easily at home.
Daphnia are not commonly found at fish stores, but local fish clubs can usually supply you with a starter colony. The best part of offering Daphnia is the fact that since they are freshwater organisms, they can live in the aquarium until the fish eat them. Once your fish have gotten the taste of the "good stuff," you'll find yourself searching for an even wider variety of live foods. There are plenty of options. Consider the following:
- Grindal worms
- Maggots (fly larvae)
- Mosquito larvae
- Vinegar eels
- White worms
- Wingless fruit flies
If live food isn't available, is too costly, or is too much of a hassle to raise, frozen foods are a good alternative. Brine shrimp is the top-selling frozen food, but you shouldn't limit your fish to only shrimp (even steak gets boring after a while). There are many other frozen foods available, and some even combine several popular foods into a single mix that fish find very appealing.
Spend a little time in the freezer section of your fish store. You won't find any Macadamia Nut ice cream, but you will find everything from krill, to kelp, to red algae. Wait, aren't algae and kelp plants? They sure are. Don't forget that even meat-eating fish will enjoy plants and vegetables. In fact, some vegetarians, such as the plecostomus and other algae eaters, will also eat meat-containing fish foods.
You can satisfy the vegetarians with frozen kelp, freeze-dried algae strips, or bits of fresh Romaine lettuce and spinach. The next time you make a salad, wash the greens well and try feeding a small portion to your fish. You might be surprised to see which ones dig into it. What your mother told you about veggies being good for you holds true for your fish too. Fresh vegetables provide vitamins and roughage often lacking in other fish foods.
Whether it's live or frozen, animal or vegetable, your fish will enjoy having a variety of foods offered to them. Remember, you are the only chef they have.
Tubificid Worms (Tubifex Worms). Missouri Department of Conservation Discover Nature, 2020