The romance and allure of "casual" fish breeding

Like many of you, I'm a lifelong aquarium hobbyist.

I had my first aquarium before kindergarten. It was almost destiny that I was meant to be a fish geek. One of my earliest fish memories was a 30-gallon display tank that my dad had in our living room, which showed off some of his fancy Blue Delta Tail guppies...He was a serious guppy breeder, and growing up around that was just so cool. I got to help hatch brine shrimp at age four, clean filters at age five...well, you get it.

Baby fishes and the excitement that comes along with them were just part of my upbringing, I suppose.

I had my first non-livebearing-fish spawning- Zebra Danios- when I was like 7 or 8 years old. It was super exciting, even though I never reared more than 5-6 fishes from any of the spawns which occurred. My first semi-deliberate attempt at spawning egg-layers came at around 10 or 11- Harlequin Rasbora- a fish I was obsessed with for a long time. It seemed a lot more complicated and to me- just somehow less enjoyable than the more "spontaneous" spawning events I'd enjoyed in my community tanks in years past. 

I think I dabbled with my first attempt at a "blackwater aquarium" at around 13 years off age. It was absurdly non-scientific and highly "casual", yet it opened up a lifelong interest in the idea of botanical materiaIs added to aquairums. I gathered a bunch of random leaves from the yard and tossed them in my five gallon aquarium, and added some Eheim long fiber filter peat. Miraculously, none of my fishes died, and I actually saw my Neon Tetras lay eggs a few months later, and little sliver-like fry appeared!

Likely a coincidence, but it got my attention! It started me thinking...


I can't forget the aesthetic of seeing crystal clear water and tons of my favorite all-time plant, Water Sprite (Ceratopteris thalictroides) in my Dad's tanks. And there was something about seeing that thick covering of plants in that tank which was compelling, yet serene. Occasionally, you'd see a few babies poking in and out of the 'sprite, and that was always so exciting!

And I thought about all of the guppy breeding books that I poured over as a kid, reading about small tanks with dense growth of Water Sprite for giving birth to, and later rearing fry. I loved the idea of rearing fry in densely planted tanks...tanks which looked good, as well as provided some utility for spawning. To this day, Water Sprite is my favorite aquatic plant, hands down.

Yet, plastic breeding traps were becoming more and more prevalent with livebearer enthusiasts...and I could see what was attractive about them from a functionality standpoint: I mean, you could easily isolate and collect the fry, and you didn't have to keep them in the "birthing tank" for growout...It was about efficiency and function. Very important if you're a serious breeder producing for show or commercial purposes and trying to avoid losses to hungry mothers, I suppose...but again- just sort of a "utilitarian vibe" that seemed to me to be so

Perhaps I'm a bit of a romantic about this sort of stuff...Doing things a more natural way. Yet, it feels right, somehow!

Fast forward a few years, and I was playing with killifish, and I was keeping fishes like Epiplatys (my fave genus of killies), and some Fp. gardneri, and some assorted "top spawning" Aphysemion species...And I was really into breeding them...and yeah, I tried the "spawning mop thing" in bare aquarium, which DID work well at getting a maximum egg count and facilitating easy removal...highly efficient-but it seemed to lack- I dunno- soul, maybe?

Yeah- that was it. Soul. Romance. Allure.

There was something oddly compelling- romantic, even- about looking into a densely planted 2.5 gallon tank, and caching a glimpse of a few fry poking about. Occasionally, one would pop out that was already a nicely-sized juvenile- a very pleasant byproduct of having a safe area to hunker down in as he/she grew! I have this happen periodically even today, especially with Killifish-and it's always incredibly exciting when it does...taking me back to those more simple, less precise days in my hobby experience.

I fell back in love with this "jungle" concept when I spent some time admiring my friend Dave's densely planted livebearer tank not long ago, replete with tons of different fry of different types flitting in and out of the plants! No master plan- just give the fishes a great environment and food, and let 'em "do their thing."

When I bred Kribs, I just had no desire to use a clay flower pot or coconut shell for a "cave". Nope- I felt it better to supply lots of cool rocks and let the fish do what they had done for eons...find a good spot in the rocks and occupy it as they saw fit. There was something more enjoyable to see them choose their spot as they do in the wild.

Again, much respect to the super breeders of fishes like Discus and Angels who use spawning cones and such in a sterile tank and enjoy tremendous success. I know that these are touchy spawners, and that efficiency and all that stuff is so important.

But again, I guess I'd rather forgo some efficiency for a little bit of soul. Suppose that's why I'll never bee a great and productive fish breeder!  I mean, your talking to a guy who hand selects every single botanical item he ships...inefficient by any business standard, but entirely satisfying by other standards.

I guess it boils down to how we look at stuff as "fish breeders."

I mean, I have nothing but admiration for those who breed tropical fishes. You inspire and motivate everyone. The problems you overcome, the procedures you create, and the dedication to the  craft are amazing. And, yeah, I suppose the efficiencies and utilitarian practices, and even breeding traps- go with the territory to some extent. Yet, I have a lot of trouble wrapping my head around the idea of a bare tank and a flower pot, or whatever to spawn fishes. 

For some reason, it's just not "me." I guess I just like the idea of giving the fishes the best environment on a daily basis, and- if it happens- it happens! This idea of giving fishes environmental conditions which approach what they might typically encounter in their wild habitats has always been intriguing to me.

I guess I look at the "spontaneous" clutches of Apisto fry, tetras, or other fishes, that appear unexpectedly in our customers' botanical-style aquariums, and I think to myself, "They're not in a sterile breeding tank...of course that's what happened!" 

I suppose it sounds a bit presumptuous, but isn't it logical to assume that if you provide fishes these kinds of conditions on a regular basis that not only will they be healthy and more colorful, but that they're more likely to spawn at some point?

I think so.

I mean, it's not exactly a revelation- but it always makes me smile when I see how hard I've tried to deliberately breed a fish with no success, only to see a fish I never intended to spawn do so without any special encouragement in a botanical-style aquairum.

Sure, some "control" might be ceded by just keeping fishes you intend to spawn in an aesthetically more interesting, more natural setting...but is that always a bad thing? I mean, I suppose if your hobby is the actual spawning and rearing of fishes, you want to do everything in your power to control the situation and create the best possible outcome, and provide a place to safely rear the fry. For me, however, the tradeoff is well worth it.

I just can't get my head around that old "breeding trap" sort of concept, for some reason...Which, of course, is exactly why I'll never be a great fish breeder!

On the other hand, as a "incidental breeder" of fishes, I can appreciate the hard work that the serious guys and gals do, and their technique- as much as I do the spontaneity and joy of finding your Rams guarding a clutch of eggs in your biotope tank, or discovering that your wild Bettas are spawning in the seed pods you laid out for them.

In the end, we all have our particular specialties.

We all enjoy this amazing hobby how we want to... And it's great to breed fishes- whether it's sort of "accidental", because you created a great habitat that encouraged it, or because you employed all sorts of procedure, technique, and a breeding trap, for example.

For me, it's always been about providing conditions which approximate those that my fishes encounter in their natural habitats 24/7/365, fostering their optimum health, and if something cool happens, like a spawning...well, that's just a "bonus!" 

What's your take on this stuff?

Are you an "opportunistic fish breeder" like me, who relies on Nature to do a lot of the "work", or are you a hardcore, dyed-in-the-wool fish breeder, who uses skill, technique, and specialized equipment to conduct controlled breeding? Have you "crossed over" and tried the other way?

Until next time...keep doing what you do.

Stay creative. Stay dedicated. Stay observant. Stay bold. Stay diligent...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquaitcs 




Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


3 Responses

Kim  Simmond
Kim Simmond

September 26, 2022

Thank you! I’m just starting out with guppy breeding. I had a mixed live barer tank when I was a kid. You and I think just alike! I have set up two gorgeous 10 g. And 1 16 g and another 10 gallon for my fry. I bought the breeder box but just couldn’t do it. I love nature. So thank you for letting feel it’s ok. I love my driftwood and heavily planted tanks with nice lights to show them off. I do have some very nice show guppies that I will keep seperate to breed but in a nice homey environment!

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman

February 15, 2021

Hi Tracy,

Glad this speaks to you! There really IS something more “soulful” to me about giving the fish excellent consigns and if they spawn, well…a huge bonus! However, I definitely can’t fail the incredible people who are serious fish breeders. Where would the hobby be without them? And yeah, isn’t Water Sprite the BEST? 😎



February 14, 2021

This post speaks my language. I believe the fish comes first, then the tank; build the tank around the fish. It drives me crazy to see people building tanks then asking what kind of fish. I have one Betta, Night Train. I adore him. I am upgrading him from a 10 gallon to a 40 gallon blackwater tank filled with things a Betta would love. Great read. Thanks!

BTW, water sprite is my all-time favorite aquarium plant, too. Anubias is a close second.

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