Keeping monster fishes is quite popular in the country these days. Fishkeepers are fascinated with keeping fish that grow to an impressive size. To attain their monstrous size, lots of food should be offered to these fishes. However, being mostly predatory and carnivorous fishes, offering live food may be a problem for some fishkeepers as live fish for feeding may not be always available; often, these are too small and, let’s face it, very costly.

In fact, a question quite often asked when purchasing a monster fish is, “Is it off-live?” For some fishkeepers, this is such an important preference when purchasing a monster fish. A fish that eats non-live food, after all, is such a blessing compared to one that is strictly on a live food diet. While it may be exciting to watch a monster fish stalk, hunt, and ambush its live prey, feeding your monster fish with non-live food can have many advantages for the fishkeeper.

Advantages of Non-Live Food

For one, it is always available. Go early in the day to any wet market anywhere in the country and all sorts of non-live food should be available. Among Filipino fishkeepers the favorite non-live food offered to monster fishes are dulong, dilis, tawilis, galunggong, cream dory…actually, any fish on the table of the fishmonger. They can also have shrimp or prawn, mussels, squid, alamang, and non-seafood morsels like chicken breast fillet, chicken heart, chicken liver, and beef heart, among others. Since these are meant for human consumption, they are always available in markets and groceries.

Secondly, non-live food can be easily stored. Another concern when feeding live fish is having a separate tank just for your live feeder fish. While the tank need not be fancy, it should have the proper facilities to sustain live fish. You must provide proper care to these feeder fish too; otherwise, they will just die. Thus, you must keep your feeder fish in an ample sized tank, provide filtration, and do periodical partial water changes just as you would with regular tanks. Basically, to keep feeder fishes alive and healthy, you must exert the same effort you make with your pet fishes.

With non-live food, storage is so much simpler. Just separate a portion enough for one feeding, put this inside a plastic bag, and store in the freezer. Bring out one bag and thaw before feeding. Keep the rest stored in the freezer until the next feeding.

Third—and probably the most important reason why fishkeepers prefer giving non-live food—is that is disease and parasite free. One of the biggest concerns in feeding live food is the high probability of introducing diseases or parasites in your aquarium. Katabas, guppies, and other fishes sold as feeder fish are caught in our local waters and are oftentimes infested with parasites like anchorworms, internal parasitic worms, gill flukes, and fish lice. Or they may have diseases like white spot disease, fin rot, fungus, etc.

This can also be true for feeder goldfish. While they may not be found in local waters, they are raised in private ponds, often in very poor conditions. Thus they too may be infested with the same parasites and diseases.

Lastly, feeding live fishes can also be frustrating for the fishkeeper since they die easily. It is a common experience for all who do so that purchasing live feed entails a lot of sacrifices. Oftentimes we have to travel through kilometers of heavy traffic just to reach our favorite store selling live feeder fish. After purchasing a bag or two, you have the arduous task of driving back home. To make matters worse, you reach home only to find out that half of the feeder fish you bought have died. You paid so much, went through a lot of hassle, yet only half the fish survived. Now that’s a big letdown.

So there must be a better way.

Can It Convert from Live to Non-Live?

The better way is, of course, to train your monster fishes to take non-live food. Training monster fishes to take non-live food can be easy, or it can be challenging. Some predatory and carnivorous monster fish are very easy to accustom to eating non-live food; they readily take non-live but fresh meaty food like fish and shrimp purchased from the market.

In my experience, the easiest ones to “convert” are the following monster fishes:

  • Arapaima (Arapama gigas)
  • All arowanas under the genera Scleropages and Osteoglossum
  • Bichirs under the genus Polypterus

*Some catfish like the Paroon shark (Pangasius sanitwongsei), Tiger Shovelnose catfish (Pseudoplatystoma fasciatum), and Red Tail catfish (Phractocephalus hemioliopterus)

  • Electric eels (Electrophorus electricus)
  • Gars under the genera Lepisosteus and Atractosteus
  • Golden Dorado (Salminus maxillosus)
  • Many species of knife fish
  • Nile perch (Lates niloticus)
  • Snakeheads under the genera Channa and Parachanna
  • Wolf fish from the genera Hoplias, Erythrinus, and Hoplerythrinus

I have had these monster fishes at one time or another and I have never experienced any difficulty in converting them to eating non-live food. With these greedy monsters, just cut the non-live food to size, toss in their general direction, and watch a feeding frenzy ensue. When you purchase any of these monster fishes, you won’t have to worry about what to feed them.

On the other hand, there are some monster fishes to whom it is quite challenging to offer non-live food. They simply love chasing after live fishes for food. Under captive conditions, however, they may be trained to take non-live food…but not without making your life difficult. Yes, it is a big challenge. Throwing in a piece of fresh shrimp in the tank will never work; you will only end up scooping out that same piece of shrimp later.

The most picky and choosy fishes I have encountered in my fishkeeping career that are difficult to train to eat non-live food are:

  • All species of Peacock basses falling under the genus Cichla
  • All five species of Tigerfish from the Datnioides genus
  • All five species of African Tigerfish from the Hydrocynus genus
  • The predatory African Tetra (Hepsetus odoe)
  • The South American Dogtooth or Vampire Tetras belonging to the genera Hydrolycus, Cynodon, and Rhaphiodon
  • Some catfish like the Zebra Catfish (Merodontotus tigrinus), Dorado Catfish (Brachyplatystoma flavicans), Salton Catfish (Brachyplatystoma Capapretum), Golden Zebra Catfish (Brachyplatystoma juruense), and even the Gulper Catfish (Asterophysus batrachus), among others.

There are no hard and fast rules in converting these choosy feeders, and each specimen has its own pace when it comes to being converted—that is, if ever they do develop a liking for non-live food. The term fishkeepers like to use for this procedure is “train.”

Training a Monster Fish to take Non-Live Food

Fishkeepers have their own methods of training their fish to take non-live food. I am sure all of them have had relative success with their methods. Let me share my method, since this is what I have been used to doing all my life.

Before we start with the actual training method, one of the facts I learned is that smaller fishes are easier to train than bigger fishes. We’ve all heard, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” Apparently this is also true for old fish. A 3-inch Peacock Bass (Cichla monoculous) is so much easier to train to take non-live food than a 10-inch Peacock Bass. Big ones may never even learn to do so. So it is best to buy smaller fishes and train them yourself.

When I train fishes to learn to eat non-live food, I set up a tank specifically for this purpose. I also put in some fishes that are already non-live food eaters like Silver Dollars (Metynnis argenteus) or Tinfoil Barbs (Barbonymus schwanenfeldii). These are greedy fishes will not back down on any morsel given to them. Then I put in the fishes I want to train. This way, as I feed small pieces of shrimp to, say, my Peacock Basses, the Silver Dollars and Tinfoil Barbs will join in on the frenzy. The Peacock Basses learn from the Silver Dollars and Tinfoil Barbs that the bits of shrimp are actually food.

Another thing to remember is that it is easier to train a small number of fishes, than a solitary fish. With six, they should be more relaxed. Thus it would be wiser to put 6 pieces of 3-inch Peacock Basses in a tank and train them to take non-live food. With 6, you have a better chance that one of these will learn to take non-live food. If it does, then the others may follow.

Another trick up my sleeve is to tap the water surface every time I offer the non-live food. This becomes a signal to the fishes that a meal is being served. Based on what I learned from my Psychology class at the university, this is actually Pavlovian classical conditioning at work! A biologically potent stimulus in this case, food is paired with a previously neutral stimulus, the tapping of the water surface. Thus, when the fishes see the tapping of the water surface, they know food will follow. This is a big help in training the fishes to eat non-live food… and it makes me look smart when I tell people about it.

Hungry Like the Wolf

The key, however, is hunger. The hungry fishes will have to eat, and hunger is what we shall use to bait them into eating non-live food. Sometimes, it is scary because the fish will not eat for days and even weeks. Do not worry because fish don’t really eat every day in the wild anyway. But you have to be strong. Toss in some non-live food at least once a day. If they don’t eat, try again tomorrow. If not, do it again the day after. Eventually the fishes will learn that what is being offered to them is food that can appease their hunger.

Training your fishes to eat non-live food is a process. It will take a few steps, a few days, and lots of effort on your part. The rewards, however, shall be worth it. Once you have successfully gotten your fishes off live food, you should have an easier time feeding your monster fishes.


This appeared in Animal Scene magazine’s November 2017 issue.