The long road...

Having set up more than aquarium systems in my time, I never seem to be surprised at my true hobbyist impatience! Let’s face it—once we get the plumbing done, the lighting tweaked, leaks sealed, and aquascaping set, we’re absolutely hell-bent on getting some fishes in there! I mean—we’ve waited so long for “first water” in the tank that it’s time to enjoy the fruits of our labor. We need to get the fishes in there right away…even just a few.


Well, stop and think about this for a minute. Would you like to move into a house, which didn’t have a refrigerator or pantry stocked with at least some food?  I wouldn’t, for sure. Unlike humans, fishes seem to have not lost their genetic programming for grazing and hunting for food (although some days I wonder about this myself...). Let’s face it—most of the waking hours of aquatic animals are devoted to acquiring food and reproducing (hmm…not a bad lifestyle, actually, huh?). Even our captive animals, spoiled by frozen and freeze-dried foods, could benefit from having some natural food sources to hunt and graze for. 

I've kicked this idea around a lot over the years...time for you to kick it and tell me if it's a completely dumb idea or not:  Couldn't we provide for our animals’ needs by supplementing their prepared diet with some “pre-stocked” natural foods in their new home? Now, I’m not talking about tossing in a few frozen brine shrimp hours before the first fishes go in the tank—I’m talking about a deliberate, systematic attempt to cultivate some living food sources within the system before a fish ever hits the water! Imagine a “new” aquarium system offering numerous foraging opportunities for it’s new inhabitants!

Hardly novel form the standpoint that there are always some small life forms present in even a new aquarium, such as the odd paramecium, copepod...whatever that "hitchhikes" in on a rock or plant or filter media. However, the idea of really kicking it up a notch and deliberately adding some additional potential  food sources before adding fishes seems kind of cool to me!

Now, from a practical standpoint- it seems easy enough, right?

“C’mon, Scott. You’re crazy! First, you preach about decomposing leaves and you're talking about leaving a newly -set-up aquarium fallow...It could take a month or more to accomplish this. I’ve just spent lots of cash and time  setting up this tank and you want me to keep this tank devoid of fishes while the my reproduce?”

Okay, you made a good argument! That’s what I would say too! Remember, mental shifts are cool...I'm just asking you to consider this. It is a bit...well, different.

Yet, in my last two aquariums, this is exactly what I did.  In particular, our office tank, which yo see a lot of on these pages, got this very "treatment."  I rationalized this by acknowledging that I would be stocking these tanks with wild fishes that do like to forge, such as headstanders, catfishes, dwarf cichlids, and later on,  Sailfin Tetras and other characins. I felt it would be cool to give their homes a little "culinary kick start."

Since they were botanical-influenced tanks, with a lot of deliberate use of leaf litter, seed pods, and wood, it was pretty easy to do.  I just let the leaves settle in, soften, and start to break down just a bit. Then, I added some live Daphnia cultures,  as well as Cyclops, along with a few Black Worms tossed in the substrate (Okay, the worms were a feeble gesture, but it was an experiment, right). I eventually sourced some live Gammarus ("Scuds", as hobbyists call them..), which seemed to do well in the leaf litter!


I let the tank sit empty of fishes  for almost a month..Just tossed in some food here and there. I did stock the tank with some "Amano Shrimp" and other Neocaridina shrimp to help break down some of the leaves a bit, which they did.

The Daphnia, free from fishy predators, started to reach a fairly noticeable population, believe it or not. I would see them in the afternoon swarming near one side of the tank when sunlight hit it. The Gammarus could be seen crawling and flitting about the leaf litter, apparently doing what came natural to them...eating and reproducing. If you read up on them, you'll note that decomposing leaves are a recommended means of culturing them..

Sweet. I had a ton of decomposing leaves, right?

And you know what? I was keeping finicky Headstanders,  and some wild Iguanodectes spilurus  in the tank from pretty early on in the tank's life, with no losses, and fsurprisingly at and happy fishes actively foraging for natural food sources among the leaf litter between regular feedings. And I’m no genius, trust me. I don’t have half the skills many of you do- but I have succeeded with many delicate “hard-to-feed” fishes over my hobby “career.” Delicate fishes require careful handling, regardless of who the aquarist is. Why not utilize a simple technique to give these animals every advantage possible? It works in reefs, African cichlid tanks, and good old-fashioned community systems, too.

How do you do it?  Just like I did. . Once you’ve got the system set up, you simply start adding cultures of Daphnia, Gammarus, etc., along with other micro/macro fauna your research tells you are healthy, disease-free, and edible. 

And of course, you can always toss in an old algae-coated piece of wood, a rock, or other decoration from a healthy, established tank to help things along, too. In fact, for herbivores, having at least a few pieces of rock or wood in the aquarium upon which they can forage natural from day on in your system is not a bad idea at all, right?

Wait a minimum of three weeks—and even up to a month or more- if you can stand it, and you will have an amazing population of micro and macro fauna upon which your fishes can forage between feedings. Having a “pre-stocked” system helps reduce a considerable amount of stress for new inhabitants, particularly for those fishes that have reputations as “delicate” feeders, especially wild fishes that have a tough time acclimating to prepared food. The idea works great for fry rearing tanks, too...

You can run the lights on a regular cycle or you could be more economical and just run them a few hours a day until you start stocking with fishes and plants.  You can lightly “feed” the tank with foods like pellets, flakes or freeze-dried foods once in a while.

Break out the flashlight and the magnifier some evening and check out the action! After a couple of weeks, you’ll see a remarkably large population of creatures crawling about, free from fishy predators, foraging on algae and detritus, and happily reproducing in your tank. It's pretty cool!

It takes a certain patience- and a certain leap of faith-to do this. I’ve been doing it for a while and I can tell you it works for me. If you like delicate or difficult-to-feed fishes, it’s a technique that could help you succeed where you’ve failed in the past. Trust me, I’ve been there. The point of this practice is to help develop—or I should say—to encourage the development of supplemental natural food sources in the system- before their populations can be devastated by your fishes. And like any idea, it deserves nuancing and refinement!

It’s not always easy to try something a little out of the ordinary, or a bit against the grain of popular practice, but I commend you for even thinking about the idea. At the very least, it may give you pause to how you stock your tank in the future, like  "Herbivores first, micro predators last", or whatever thought you subscribe to.  Allow your system to mature and develop at least some populations of fauna for these fishes to supplement their diets with. You’ll develop a whole new appreciation for how an aquarium evolves when you take this long, but very cool road.

Until next time.

Be adventurous. Be innovative. Stay skeptical. Stay engaged.

And Stay Wet.

Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquaitcs

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


Leave a comment