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 go to purchase flake food take a good look at the ingredients. What you'll find is fishmeal, yeast, shrimp meal, algae meal, plankton, kelp, vitamins, preservatives, and protein fillers such as wheat meal, soybean meal, oatmeal, and brown rice. Yes, that's right...those last items are fillers. They are necessary to provide an adequate amount of protein but don't contain the same nutrients and flavor found in shrimp or other seafood.
Remember that ingredients are listed in order of volume, so look for combinations that have the fishmeals and seafood high on the list. Now that you've stocked a supply of good quality flake food, start looking for ways to supplement those boring flakes with fresh or frozen foods.
The Tubifex Controversy
Tubifex, also known as "blackworms", have long been heralded as either the worst or the best live food to feed your fish. From my own research and experience, I can testify that there is a risk of disease from fresh tubifex.
Like earthworms (who eat dirt) tubifex worms eat whatever material they are raised in. Brace yourself -- most 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.
Start by purchasing your tubifex worms from a reputable store, then carefully examine the water they are housed in. It should be clear. If it isn't, don't purchase them. Place your worms in a large container, and 3-4 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.
Don't feed them to your fish until the water is clear. I've discovered that 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.
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.