Hatching & Raising the Fry

Now that you have had a pair of Rams successfully spawn, and the eggs are in your tank, the next questions is “Now what?” If you have ever hatched/raised angelfish before, you’re light years ahead as the process is very similar.

One of the most rewarding sights in the aquarium hobby is seeing a proud pair of Rams carefully fan the nest and chase off “intruders.” Eventually they will escort the cloud of fry around the tank, as they herd them, protect them and teach them to fend for themselves. One of the most frustrating experiences is this hobby is to see a beautiful pair of fish eat spawn after spawn of eggs! From our personal experiences, Rams are notoriously poor parents. Of the hundreds of spawns we have been fortunate enough to receive, NONE of the parents have ever successfully raised their own fry. Most eggs are eaten between 24-48 hours after the fish spawn. We know other breeders that have had success with parent-raised fry, but not us! After trying dozens of times, we long ago abandoned the idea of allowing the parents to try and raise their own fry. The question then becomes “How do we raise the fry artificially?”

If you are one of the lucky aquarists who has a pair that raise their own fry, sit back, relax, and enjoy one of the most rewarding experiences in the hobby. The only thing you need to worry about is what to feed the fry after they become free-swimming. We’ll cover this later.


Planning Ahead

Long before your fish ever spawn, you should decide on the process you’re going to use to hatch them. We would recommend using a dedicated hatchery tank and an individual hatching jar for each spawn. While it may sound complicated at first, the process is very simple, and the pictures should clarify the process significantly.

The hatchery tank is simply a 10 gallon tank that is filled halfway with water. The hatching containers with the eggs will be set inside the tank and a submersible heater adjusted to 80 degrees is attached horizontally to the back of the tank, along the bottom. This will maintain the proper temperature for hatching. A glass cover should be used to maintain the temperature and control evaporation. A sponge filter completes the setup. Using a 10 gallon tank as the “hatchery” allows you to add as many as 5 of the 1 gallon hatching containers (5 separate spawns) to the same tank without worrying about temperature. While we use a 10 gallon tank, you could just as easily use another size tank that you happen to have handy.

For hatching containers, we use 1 gallon, clear plastic containers that we picked up at Wal-Mart for about $2 each. These containers are actually canisters, for storing sugar, flour, etc. (see photo ##).

Generally, we allow the eggs to remain with the parents for a couple of hours after it appears that the spawning process is over. This helps ensure that enough time has passed to ensure that the eggs have been fertilized by the male. Unless the male is eating the eggs as they are being laid (which sometimes happens, but not often). There’s nothing worse than pulling out a large spawn from your special pair only to find that you removed them too early and they are completely infertile.


Hatching the Eggs

Once spawning has been completed, water is siphoned out of the spawning tank and into the plastic container, just up to the top line of the container. Don’t fill it too high or when you put your hand in the jar, water will spill all over the floor (and you). If the eggs have been laid on a small rock, piece of slate, spawning plate, etc, then you can easily reach into the tank and remove the object with the eggs attached. Don’t worry about knocking the eggs off the object as they are very sticky at this point, and are actually pretty hard remove. Place the object into your container of water. Again, don’t worry about them being exposed to the air. They are out of the water for such a small amount of time that it will not affect the eggs in any way. Carefully lower the object bearing the eggs to the bottom of the container. If it’s a rock or plate, place it in the center of the jar, eggs up. If the eggs are on a piece of slate, try to stand the slate upright, leaning against the back of the jar, with the eggs facing the center of the jar. Occasionally, despite having numerous spawning sites to choose from, the parents will choose to spawn on the silicone in the corner of the tank, on the heater, or in a small gravel pit excavated by the parents. In that case, you can simply (but carefully) siphon eggs off the silicone, heater, filter, etc. using a length of silicone airline tubing. Likewise, you can actually siphon the eggs, gravel and all, into the hatching jar while you are filling the hatching container. Trust me, it works.

We then add 8 drops or Methylene Blue to the water. This will turn the water (and most everything in the container) a dark blue. No matter how experienced the parents, there will always be a certain number of eggs that are infertile. This can range from just a few, to as many as 50%. Roughly 24 hours after they are laid, any infertile eggs will become an opaque white. If left in regular water, these infertile eggs will become covered with a fuzzy fungus. If left untreated, this fungus will quickly spread to the good eggs, or newly hatched “wigglers” and kill them. Methylene Blue is an anti-fungal and when added to the water will prevent the “bad eggs” from getting coated with fungus and spreading to the good eggs. It will not have any adverse impact on the good eggs.

The entire hatching container is then lowered into the hatchery tank. The heater in the hatchery tank will maintain the proper temperature in all the hatching containers. It’s important to make sure the water level in the hatchery tank is approximately the same as the water level in the hatching container. A little less water is OK, but makes it harder for the heater to maintain a steady temperature. Too much water in the tank may cause the container with the eggs to float up and tip over….definitely not a good thing. Remember, as you add more containers, you will need to remove some of the water in the hatching tank or they will start to float!

The last step in the process is to add an air stone to the container and put it as close to the bottom as possible. The flow of air should be strong enough to provide good circulation in the container, but not strong enough to dislodge the eggs. I would describe it as a “medium” flow. You can now sit back and take a break. Your job is done (for at least a couple of days). You should check on them periodically. After about 24 hours, the bad eggs will turn white. The fertile eggs will be a darker color, and if you use a flashlight (really the only way to see them through the blue) you will be able to see a dark spot inside the egg. Now you will be really glad you added the Methylene Blue!

At 80 degrees, ram eggs will generally hatch in about 48 hours. As they hatch, they may begin to fall of the spawning surface to the bottom of the container. That’s fine, don’t worry. If raised by their parents, the parents would gently pick them up and spit them back on the slate. Don’t try this at home! Trust me, the water tastes terrible! They will look like little more than an egg with tiny tails. At this stage, they are referred to as “wigglers” for obvious reasons. Once the eggs have all hatched (usually around day 3) you can reach in and take out the spawning surface. Shake it gently under water to make sure all the wigglers have been removed. At this point, we like to move the airstone about halfway up the container. This still provides some circulation, but won’t blow them away. The wigglers will continue to grow and develop on their own. You do not need to feed them as they will live off their yolk sack, while they continue to grow and develop. You will need to watch them carefully beginning around day 3.

Assuming that the water in the hatchery is at 80 degrees, somewhere around day 3 (after hatching) you’ll notice that the yolk sacks are noticeably smaller, and the fry are “scooting” around the bottom of the jar. Some of them may even be strong enough to make short “sprints” off the bottom, and up into the water column. At this point, we’ll reduce the air to the airstone so that it just bubbles a bit, and we’ll move the airstone to the top of the jar, so that it is just under the surface of the water. It should continue to supply air, but the little guys shouldn’t have to use all of the strength to fight the current just to swim. Sometime within the next 24 hours, you’ll look in the hatching container and will be surprised to see a whole cloud of fry swimming about in a compact school. A few of them may still be scooting around the bottom of the jar, but now it’s time to move them to their new home.


Transferring the Fry

For the next stage in their development, we use 2 ½ gallon tanks. We use bare-bottom tanks, with a small (seasoned) sponge filter, and a small (50 watt) heater. The temperature in the fry tank should match the temperature in the hatching container as closely as possible when you transfer the fry. When you’re ready to transfer the fry, make sure that the tank isn’t filled to the top or it will overflow when you add the fish. Remove the hatching jar from the hatchery tank and (carefully) siphon as much of the water as possible out of the hatching container (without siphoning out the fry). Covering the end of your siphon with a piece of nylon (pantyhose) held in place with a rubberband keeps the fry from accidentally being sucked up in the siphon.  Usually, we can get all but the last inch or so of water.  The hatching container is then turned on its side and immersed in the 2 ½ gallon tank (they fit perfectly). Water is allowed into the container, and as you pull it out, you sort of pour the fry into the tank. Make sure to check the inside of the jar for stragglers. If a few get stuck, just immerse the container again and repeat the process. It’s pretty quick and painless for the fish. Over the next few days, we gradually increase the temperature in the fry tank to 82-84 degrees.


Feeding the Fry

Once the fish have become free-swimming, it’s now time to start feeding the little guys. Now is NOT the time to begin thinking about what to feed the fish! Hopefully, you will have given some thought to this before the rams laid their eggs. Rams do not take too well to prepared, dry foods. I know some breeders that have luck getting some of their fry to eat commercially prepared foods like Liqui-fry or Hikari first bites, but again, for the greatest rate of survival, the fry need something with a “wiggle factor.” This means live food. The majority of breeders will use newly hatched brine shrimp as a first food for their fry, but rams are too small to be able to eat brine shrimp as a first food. We have tried a number of other live foods over the years, and by far, our favorite first food for our fry are Vinegar Eels (see our section on live foods). Vinegar eels should be fed to the fry about 3 times a day. Again, as explained elsewhere on this site, vinegar eels will live in fresh water for days, so uneaten eels will not fall to the bottom and begin to foul the water like prepared foods. Uneaten eels will stay active in the water column where your little guys can find (and eat them). We also begin adding some freshly hatched baby brine shrimp (bbs) to the tank. I can not stress enough, when I say small amount, I real mean tiny amount. The tip of your finger can hold hundreds or perhaps thousands of bbs. The individuals in a school of fry will vary considerably in size. Some ( OK, a few) will be able to eat bbs from day one, but again, most of the group will be so small that 90% or more of them will not be able eat even newly hatched bbs from day one. As they grow, they will begin attacking the bbs. Day three after free-swimming is what we routinely refer to as the make-it or break-it point. By that we mean that by day three, most of the fry that are going to survive will be able to eat bbs without a problem. You will actually be able to see their little bellies swell up and turn bright pink/orange from the color of the bbs. We continue to feed vinegar eels along with the bbs for the first week after free-swimming. This allows the smaller fry to develop at their own pace, and provides those fry that might not otherwise make it on bbs alone, an opportunity to catch up developmentally. You will also need to siphon out the uneaten food at least once a day, (we use airline tubing).

The 2 ½ gallon tank is the perfect size for the fry for the first few weeks of their lives. The tank is large enough for them to swim, yet the small size means that you can add smaller amounts of food, and they won’t have to search as hard to find it. We do not do any water changes for the first two days. Then we begin making 50% water changes daily, until the fry are ready to be transferred to the next tank in the process.

TIP:  In the event you have a "unexpected" spawn of fish hatch and don't happen to have any Vinegar Eeels or San Francisco Bay Brine Shrimp ready to feed them, try this.  When we began raising Discus and Glofish (Danios), we found that their fry were also too small to eat newly hatched brine shrimp.  Some of the discus sites we researched recommended using powdered egg yolk as a first food.  Powdered egg yolk is available from baking specialty stores, or on-line for about $11 a pound.  A pound of powdered egg yolk will last you and your friends a lifetime.  For danios, we mix a very tiny amount (see photo) with a couple of drops of water in a tablespoon.  Then, using an eye dropper, squirt a drop or two of the egg emulsion right in the middle of the school of fry.  The current in the tank will eventually disperse the food throughout the tank.  The powdered egg yolk particles are so small, that the fry will be able to eat it as a first food.  We have used this "emergency ration" several times with batches of our rams with great success.  We would not recommend using it as their only food, but it may buy you enough time to get a batch of brine shrimp going.

CAUTION:  If you choose use the powdered egg yolk, it is essential that you perform a 50% water change daily.  This includes the first two days when we normally say they are not required.  The egg yolk will cause your water to become cloudy and will almost certainly cause the water to become foul.  Now you will be glad you chose to use such a small rearing tank.


Growing Out the Fry

Somewhere between 3 and 4 weeks after hatching, the fry are large enough to transfer to a 10 gallon tank for further growth and development. At this time, we begin introducing small amounts of finely ground flake food between the feedings of brine shrimp. After another 2-3 weeks (6 weeks of age) they are moved one more time to a larger tank (we use 55 gallon tanks) where they will remain and grow to full size.

Just remember, we are not saying this is the only way to artificially hatch and raise ram fry, nor do we claim it’s the best way, it’s just the way we do it and it has been working for us for years. There are a great many highly successful breeders out there who do things quite differently. Some use hydrogen peroxide instead of Methylene Blue, other place the eggs in small containers and float them in the tank with the parents, etc. Every successful breeder has their own methods and tips that make them successful. This is just the method that we use and that has proven to work for us.

Above all else, have fun with your fish!

Matt & Mark

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