Breeding Bristlenose Plecos For Profit (Keeping it simple!)

Over the last 30 years, I have bred dozens of different species of fish. Some, like guppies, were really easy to breed, and others, like my colony of Zebra Plecos, required a little more effort.

Eating Daphnia
Eating Daphnia

For me, breeding fish is probably the most enjoyable part of the hobby for me, but it has also allowed me to fund the building of my entire fish room. Every tank, filter, and light in my fish room was paid for either by selling fish I have bred or by trading them with my local fish store for store credit.

Bristlenose Plecos are one of the easiest species of freshwater tropical fish to breed, plus they are almost always in demand, wherever in the world you are.



Selecting Breeding Stock

One of the most important steps when it comes to breeding Bristlenose Plecos for profit is selecting the right breeding stock.

Bristlenose Plecos are easy to breed, and there is no shortage of people breeding them, so selecting a strain that is more desirable than the normal Bristlenose Plecos is the key to making a decent profit.

There are a number of different color morphs of the Bristlenose Pleco available in the hobby, and many of these color morphs also come in a long-finned variety. The most commonly available color morphs include;

  • Common Bristlenose
  • Green Dragon Bristlenose
  • Albino Bristlnose
  • Blue Eyed Lemon Bristlenose
  • Super Red Bristlenose

Assuming you are planning on selling the Bristlenose Plecos you breed in your local area, call into your local fish store and ask them if one color morph sells better than any other. Is there a particular color morph they can’t get enough of? Do they pay more for one strain than another?

For example, it makes no sense to breed long-finned Green Dragon Bristlenose Plecos if your local fish store can’t even give them away.

To make a decent profit, you want to breed a fish that is in demand. The more people that want to buy the Bristlenose Plecos you breed, the more money you will make from your breeding tank.

Once you have chosen which strain you hope to breed, spend some time sourcing good-quality breeding stock. Ideally, you will want to buy a trio of proven breeding adult Bristlnose Plecos, but these can be difficult to come by.

A better bet is often buying 6 or 7 juveniles and growing them on with the intention of keeping the 3 or 4 best fish to become your breeding stock.

Whether you are raising your own breeding stock or selecting a few mature specimens from the store, you only want to breed from strong, healthy fish that display traits you like.

Never breed from fish that are sick or have deformities or traits you don’t wish to carry to the next generation. A few years ago I had a large guppy breeding project, and frustratingly, my most colorful male was also hyper-aggressive towards any other fish. I wanted his color, but his temperament was undesirable to me, so I didn’t breed from him.

In my experience, the ideal Bristenose Pleco breeding group is one female to 2 or 3 males. I always try to choose the largest, plumpest female I can as she is usually a really good egg producer.

If you are looking to breed a particular trait, such as long-flowing fins or a particular color, choose specimens that boast that trait. If you only have a single fish with that particular trait, you may have to breed that fish back to its own offspring.

For example, if you have an albino female, and only regular color males, to produce more albino fish you will possibly have to breed her back to her own male offspring in a year or two.



Sexing Bristlenose Plecos

Bristlnose Plecos derive their common name from the tentacles or bristles they develop on their faces. These bristles are the best guide to which Bristlenose Plecos are male and which are female.

Whilst both sexes develop the bristles, the females only tend to develop a few, whereas the males develop many. The females also only usually get bristles across the top lip and around the mouth whereas the male Bristlenose Plecos develop bristles down the middle of their head too.

A word of caution here, many inexperienced breeders have found they were out of luck trying to breed their Bristlenose Plecos, only to discover they were keeping a mature male (having many bristles) with an immature male (which looked female due to the lack of bristles).

Bristlenose Plecos usually develop sexually at around 2″ to 3″ (5cm to 7.5cm) in length. Ideally, you want your breeding fish to be at least 3″ (7.5cm) before you finally decide which are the boys and which are the girls.

In the image below you can clearly see both sexes have bristles, but they are far more pronounced on the male.

Sexing Bristlenose Plecos
Image Source: Norbit’s Adventures (Youtube)

Whilst quantity and placement of bristles is a great way to sex Bristlenose Plecos, there are other indicators to look out for.

Female Bristlenose Plecos tend to be slightly larger and plumper than the males. Males on the other hand usually possess well-developed odontodes on the pectoral fins.

In my experience, providing your Bristlenose Plecos are healthy, well-fed, and at least 3″ (7.5cm) in length, using bristles as a guide to which sex the fish are is the most reliable method.


Bristlenose Pleco Breeding Setup

Once you have sourced your breeding stock and decided which are your males and which are your females, you will need to set up a suitable breeding tank.

Many aquarists have found that Bristlenose Plecos will happily breed in the community tank and many fish keepers didn’t even know their Bristlenose Plecos were breeding until they saw babies swimming freely around the tank.

However, if you plan to breed your Bristlenose Plecos for actual profit, you will want to set up a dedicated breeding tank.

For the setup described below I am going to assume we are keeping 2 male Bristlenose Plecos with a single female. If you have more fish, just adjust the setup accordingly.

Bristlenose Pleco breeding tank size

When it comes to breeding Bristlenose Plecos, the larger tank you can offer them the better, especially once the babies start to arrive. Bristlenose Plecos can have A LOT of babies!

I have found a 20-gallon (75 liters) tank to be the minimum size for a trio of Bristlenose Plecos. Floor space is more important than water volume as these guys spend much of their life on the bottom of the tank.

A 20-gallon long, which measures 30″ x 12″ x 12″ is better than a 20-gallon tall which comes in at 24″ x 12″ x 16″. With that said, use what you have.

One point that always raises eyebrows when I give talks on fish breeding, is to remember this is a breeding setup, not a display tank. If you don’t have a 20-gallon glass fish tank, but you have a 20-gallon plastic storage bin, use that instead. Providing it holds water (and it hasn’t been used to store harmful chemicals) use it, the fish won’t care.

I once had a very successful Angelfish breeding setup using only 22-gallon (84 liters) Really Useful Boxes.

If you take nothing else away from this article other than the point that fish don’t care what type of tank they live in then reading it will have been time well spent!

Bristlenose Pleco Breeding Caves

After providing a suitably sized tank, breeding caves are the next most important step in setting up your Bristlenose Pleco breeding tank.

When it comes to breeding, Bristlenose Plecos require caves. There is no way around it. To successfully spawn, the male wants to trap a female in his cave and keep her there until she lays her eggs. After which he will kick her out and guard the eggs whilst they develop.

Without a cave, the breeding process won’t take place.

In my experience, Bristlenose Plecos want a cave that is tight. The males like to be sure no one is going to sneak past them and eat their eggs or babies.

Over the years, I have had more success using terracotta plant watering spikes (like these ones from Amazon.com) as caves than any other cave on the market. I believe they are my number one secret to successfully breeding so many Bristlenose Plecos.

The photo below shows a male Bristlenose Pleco guarding the entrance to his cave (plant watering spike)

Image Courtesy of Foisy Aquatics (YouTube)

When setting up caves for your Bristlnose Plecos, always add more caves than fish. That way, the Bristlenose Plecos will have a choice of caves. They may prefer one cave over another.

As well as providing more than 1 cave per fish, consider putting the caves so the openings face in different directions. I know the temptation will be to put all the openings facing the front so you can see into the caves and keep an eye on any action, but the fish may not want to spawn in a cave facing the front of the tank.

Maybe the light is too bright at the front of the tank, maybe there is too much movement or the water currents are different in another part of the tank. For whatever reason, your Bristlenose Plecos may not like the caves where you put them.

Giving them choice will increase the chances they select a cave to spawn in.

Bristlenose Pleco spawning tank substrate and decorations

The substrate in a Bristlenose Pleco tank is not important. I have used sand, crushed coral, and normal gravel. It made no difference to my success rate.

Currently, I don’t use any substrate in any of my Pleco breeding tanks. The fish eat and poop so much, especially once you have 100’s of babies, that a bare-bottomed tank is just easier to keep clean.

Once a week I siphon the waste off the bottom of the tank when I carry out my water change, and the tank water is kept in pristine condition.

Other decorations are down to personal taste. The success or failure of your project won’t be determined by whether or not a SpongeBob Pineapple House is in the tank.

The only addition to your breeding tank that I think does make a real difference is live aquarium plants. Live aquarium plants consume fish waste by absorbing any ammonia and nitrates in the water.

I keep a good number of live aquarium plants in small terracotta pots. By keeping them in pots, it doesn’t matter if I don’t have any substrate, and it also means I can move them around from tank to tank as required.



Heating and filtering a Bristlenose Pleco breeding tank

To encourage your Bristlenose Plecos to successfully spawn, you will need to make sure their aquarium water is around 77°F – 79°F (25°C – 26°C). For most of us, the best way to do this is with a small aquarium heater. Any reliable aquarium heater will do. It doesn’t need to be fancy, it just needs to be reliable. I use a lot of these heaters as they are reliable and cost less than $20.

Filtering the breeding tank water is very important. Whilst Bristlenose Plecos are fairly easy to breed, if there are high levels of ammonia in the water, the eggs may not hatch and the developing babies may have deformities.

I have found small sponge filters to be the most efficient way to filter my breeding tanks. They generally do a good job of keeping the water clean without blowing water all around the tank.

I especially like to use the AQQA Spong Filter as they don’t require a separate air pump.

You can find out more about these great little filters and check the current price on Amazon.com

Lighting a Bristlenose Pleco breeding tank

Bristlnose Plecos don’t require any special lighting, and in fact, lower light levels may be more beneficial in a breeding tank.

On almost all my breeding tanks I just use a standard LED light fitting attached to a small timer. I have the light on for around 8 hours a day. This system has worked well for all the different Plecos I breed.


Conditioning Bristlenose Plecos To Spawn

When it comes to breeding ANY fish, the better condition that fish is in, the more babies they will produce. Feeding your fish a high-quality diet in the weeks leading up to spawning is called conditioning.

If we hope to breed our Bristlenose Plecos for profit, we need to make sure they are in the best possible health before we allow them to spawn. Females need to eat a well-balanced diet to allow them to produce lots of viable eggs. Males need to eat well before spawning to help sustain them whilst guarding the eggs and developing young.

In my experience, there are primarily two main ways to condition a Bristlenose Pleco prior to breeding.

  1. Feed lots of live or frozen foods
  2. Feed a large amount of good quality dried foods

Frozen or live foods to condition Bristlenose Plecos

In my experience, feeding Bristlenose Plecos live or frozen foods is the best way to bring them into breeding condition.

In the wild, an abundance of food, usually in the form of live insects, insect larvae, or waterborne crustaceans, signals the start of the good times when there is plenty of food for everyone. This is the time most fish choose to breed as it means there will enough food for them and their offspring.

Feeding your plecos an abundance of live or frozen foods not only helps pile the weight on but also sends the fish a signal that now is the time to spawn.

I normally end up feeding my Bristlenose Plecos frozen, rather than live because I don’t have a reliable source of live foods close to me. Plus, frozen foods are far more convenient to store, and they are always on hand when I need them.

My go-to frozen foods include;

  • Bloodworms
  • Brineshimp
  • Daphnia
  • Mosquito Larvae (although it does tend to float)
  • Tubifex Worms

I have found all of the above foods to be as good as one another and the Bristlenose Plecos will eat them all the same.



Dried foods to condition Bristlenose Plecos

As well as feeding my Bristlenose Plecos lots of frozen foods to bring them into breeding condition, I also feed commercially available dried foods.

My go-to dried food is Rapashy. Repashy is food that comes in powdered form and is then mixed up as required using boiling water. I appreciate this sounds like a hassle, but a batch of food will last for a week in the refrigerator or several months in the freezer.

The reason Repashy works so well for my Bristlnose Plecos is that it remains in a block form once in the water. The Bristlenose Plecos can eat it for several hours and it won’t disintegrate in the water.

The image below shows one of my Red Cherry Shrimp colonies feeding on a small block of Repashy.

Red Cherry Shrimp eating Repashy

Whatever food you choose, the secret to bringing your Bristlenose Plecos into breeding condition is feeding them lots of good quality foods.



Spawning Bristlenose Plecos

Once you have set up your breeding tank, selected your breeding stock, and spent a couple of weeks feeding them well and bringing them into breeding condition, the next step is to allow get your Bristlnose Plecos to spawn.

Truth be told, if you have done all of the above steps correctly, this part will take care of itself. There is an old adage that is often used when discussing breeding Bristlenose Plecos, and it goes “add water, will breed!”

Providing a sufficient number of caves have been placed in the tank for your Bristlenose Plecos, you should find they can’t help but spawn.

The process usually goes something along these lines;

  1. The female will swim around the tank checking out the males in their caves
  2. She will find a male that she decides she would like to spawn with and checks out his cave
  3. The male, if receptive, will then trap her in the cave, keeping her there until she lays her eggs
  4. Once she has finished laying her eggs the male will kick her out the cave
  5. The male Bristlenose Pleco will then fertilize the eggs
  6. After fertililziation is completed the male will block the entrance to the cave, keeping all intruders out
  7. The male guards the eggs and the subsquent developing fry

Once a female has finished laying her eggs and been kicked out of the cave, she will usually retreat to her own cave or another suitable hiding spot in the tank. We as fish breeders should take this opportunity to feed her as much as possible, because, if you have multiple males in the tank, she will soon be ready to go and find another male in his cave and lay another batch of eggs.

If you hope to make some real money breeding your Britslenose Plecos, having more males than females in the spawning tank will lead to more babies!

Male Bristlnose Plecos make excellent fathers. They will stop anything getting past them into their cave, including shrimps and snails. This is the reason it is so important they have access to the right size caves. There is no way a male Bristlenose Pleco can block the entrance to a cave with has a 6″ (15cm) wide mouth.

As mentioned above, in my experience, these terracotta plant watering spikes make the best caves for spawning Bristlnose Plecos

The female shows no parental cave of her eggs or babies whatsoever. She takes to part in the guarding of the cave.

How do you know if the Bristlnose Plecos have spawned?

One question I often get asked when giving fish breeding talks at clubs around the country is ‘how do I know if my Bristlenose Plecos have spawned?’.

To the new fish breeder, there can be the temptation to poke around and try to drive the male out of his cave so you can see if there are eggs. Others may try shining a flashlight into the cave to catch a glimpse of the eggs. Both these actions are likely to lead to the male abandoning his eggs and the babies dying before they have a chance at life.

There is an easy way to tell if your Bristlenose Plecos have spawned. Following a successful spawn, the male will sit half in his cave half out, still blocking the entrance, but crucially, he will be moving his fins up and down, fanning fresh water into the cave.

This fanning action is the tell-tale sign he has eggs or developing babies. In the video below, you can clearly see the male’s fanning action.


https://youtu.be/yoyoSS4P77w

Once you decide your male Bristlnose Pleco is guarding and fanning the eggs, resist the temptation to keep disturbing him. I know from first-hand experience it is incredibly tempting to try and see what is going on. I’ve been there. I’ve shone a flashlight into the cave to see if I can see babies.

Every time we disturb the male guarding the eggs, there is a chance he will eat the eggs or simply kick them out of his cave. He may even abandon the cave altogether and go and find another one, leaving the eggs to perish.

Let nature take its course, and before long you will have a tank full of baby Bristlenose Plecos.


Raising Baby Bristlenose Plecos

When it comes to raising baby Bristlnose Plecos there are two routes we can take. We can leave the eggs with the male and let him do all the hard work, or we can remove the eggs and raise them ourselves.

Clearly allowing the male to do the work is easier for us hobbyists, but if we really want to maximize profits, maybe we should pull the eggs out and raise them ourselves, allowing the male to spawn again sooner.

Below I look at the pros and cons of each method.

Allowing the male to raise the babies

Allowing the male Bristlnose Pleco to do the hard work is clearly the easiest option and I would certainly recommend this for the first-time breeder.

Once the eggs have been laid, the male Bristlnose Pleco will guard them as they develop and for a few days after they hatch. Once Bristlenose Pleco babies emerge from their eggs, they continue to feed on their eggs sacks which remain attached to their bodies for a few days.

Whilst guarding the eggs, one of the males’ jobs is to continually fan fresh water over the eggs. Without the males’ intervention, the water around the eggs would become stale and fungus would quickly develop on the eggs, killing off the developing fish.



Raising the babies artificially

Whilst allowing the male Bristlnose Pleco to raise the baby fish is a lot less work than raising them yourself, if you are breeding to make a profit, it can certainly be more profitable to raise the babies artificially.

To raise baby Bristlenose Plecos yourself, you will need to keep an eye on your breeding fish. You will need to have everything ready so that as soon as the female has laid her eggs, and the male has fertilized them, you are ready to remove the eggs from the breeding tank.

Once you see signs the male is sitting on eggs (the most obvious being him sitting at the entrance to the cave ‘fanning’ water), you need to remove the eggs and place them into an egg tumbler (I use this egg tumbler I ordered from Amazon).

The egg tumbler’s job is to keep the eggs moving, very gently, so as to prevent fungus forming. It is the action of the water flowing over the eggs that prevent fungus from forming. the water flow will also prevent any debris in the water from settling on the eggs.



Once the eggs hatch, and you see small ‘wigglers‘ (which are tiny baby fish still attached to their eggs sacks) you will need to transfer the wigglers from the egg tumbler to their raising tank.

If the raising tank has other fish in it already, consider moving the wigglers to a fish brood box like this one, to give them a chance to grow slightly and reduce the chances of the other fish eating them.

Feeding baby Bristlnose Pelcos

Whether you leave the male Bristlnose Pleco to raise the fry or you decide to do it yourself, the babies will need feeding after a few days.

Whilst the babies will eat a lot of algae from around the tank and also feed to tiny pieces of food they scavenge from the substrate, if you want your Bristlenose Pleco babies to grow quickly and become healthy adults, you should consider feeding them a good quality food as soon as possible.

In my experience, newly hatched brine shrimp are far and away the best food to give baby Bristlnose Plecos. In fact, newly hatched brine shrimp is the best food to feed ANY baby fish!

As well as newly hatched brine shrimp, I feed my baby Bristlenose Plecos lots of canned green beans and Repashy gel food (which is an amazing food for all plecos).


Culling Baby Bristlnose Plecos

To my mind, culling baby fish is one of the hardest parts of breeding for profit. Culling essentially means removing the fish from the breeding system.

Culling often means killing, but killing baby fish isn’t the only way of culling.

Why do we need to cull baby fish?

Occasionally, fish will hatch and they are deformed. These deformities are usually traits that are not desirable such as missing or bent fins.

No responsible breeder should ever breed from deformed fish, as those deformities may be repeated in future generations. As such, we have to cull those fish from our breeding stock.

How to cull deformed fish?

The easiest way to cull deformed fish is to feed them to another fish. That is what would happen in nature, and it means the deformed fish does not go to waste.

If you plan to feed your culls to another fish, make sure that the fish is large enough and aggressive enough to kill the culled fish instantly. No fish should be slowly picked to death by its tank mates. Personally, I have a large Red Tail Catfish which will quickly consume any deformed fish that arise from my breeding programs.

If you don’t have a large predator fish, you can use clove oil to literally put your fish to sleep. Clove oil is essentially an anesthetic which, in sufficient doses, will quickly, but humanely end a fish’s life.

As I mention above, culling doesn’t have to mean killing. If you own other fish tanks, a deformed fish can be removed from your breeding setup and placed in another tank where it can potentially live out its life. I currently have a 55-gallon (208 liters) tank with a dozen deformed, but still attractive, Angelfish living in it. Most of them have missing or bent pectoral fins.



Selling Bristelnose Plecos

So, you have successfully bred some Bristlnose Plecos. Now all you have to do is sell them!

There are many different ways to sell baby fish. Some are easier than others and the price you get will vary depending on the method you choose.

Over the years I have used all of the following ways to sell the fish I have bred.

  • Wholesaler
  • Local fish store
  • Local fish club auction
  • eBay/Craigs List

Wholesaler

If you have a fish wholesaler in your local area, or even in your state, you may be able to sell your baby Bristlenose Plecos directly to them.

Selling fish to a wholesaler will net you the lowest price of all the methods for selling, but it is hassle-free and they will usually take all the fish you have produced. It makes a lot of sense to get a low price per fish, but sell out in a single trip.

I once sold 400 Bristlenose Plecos to my local wholesaler in one go. It made sense to me as I had a bumper crop and I didn’t want to spend months selling them individually.

Local Fish Store

Selling fish to my local fish store is my preferred method of selling the fish I breed. Any decent local fish store will be happy to buy locally produced, high-quality baby fish. They would rather buy from someone in their state that probably shares the same water as them than ship them from the other side of the planet.

The downside of selling to a local fish store is they often won’t pay cash. Most stores prefer to give store credit when buying fish from local breeders.

Store credit is a perfectly acceptable way to sell fish, and if you are anything like me, you always need more food or a new filter or you have your eye on a larger tank.

If you work with a local store for a long time, and they can see you produce high-quality fish that sell well, you can often change from a store credit agreement to a cash agreement.

Local Fish Club Autions

Selling the fish you breed at a local fish club auction is another great way to sell lots of fish you breed.

To sell your fish at your local club you usually have to take small groups of them bagged up ready for the new buyer to take home. The popularity of the species you are selling will often determine how many you put in a bag.

When I have sold baby Bristlenose Plecos at my local club I have usually sold them in bags of 10. Talk with the local fish club and see how many they suggest you put per bag.

The downside of selling at a local fish club auction is you often have no say how much you will get for your fish. I once sold a bag of 20 Kribensis for $1. I guess nobody wanted Kribensis that night!



ebay/Craigs List/Other online portals

Over the years I have tried numerous different online platforms to sell my fish. Selling online comes with the biggest pro and biggest cons.

The main advantage of selling online is there is no doubt you will get the best price for your fish. Because you are selling directly to the end buyer, you can naturally command the highest price, and therefore make the most money per fish.

However, and here is the major downside of selling to the end buyer, you usually only sell your fish in very small numbers. Most hobbyists only want one or two Bristlenose Plecos at a time.

Also, how do you get the fish to the buyer?

If they come to my house, we are going to end up looking at all my tanks. I’m a fish nerd, he’s a fish nerd. We are going to spend a couple of hours talking about fish keeping. Alternatively, if we meet in the local Walmart parking lot, that’s a bit weird too. Just sitting in my truck watching every vehicle that comes near.

The final option is mailing fish. Let me tell you from personal experience, mailing a fish is the most work you will ever do for a couple of bucks, and the success to failure rate, in my experience, was about 1 shipment going wrong in every 5. Tough way to turn a profit!



In Conclusion

Breeding Bristlnose Plecos for profit is a great way to fund a fish room. Almost everything in my fish room was paid for thanks to the sale of one breed of fish or another.

The secrets to making a good profit are;

  • Don’t spend a fortune on new equipment
  • Only breed from good quality stock
  • Feed both your breeding stock and their off spring good quality food

About the Author

I’ve been keeping, breeding, and showing tropical fish for nearly 30 years. Over that time I’ve done it all! I’ve had great success and I’ve made some really foolish mistakes (like the time I bought an Asain Walking Catfish). Read more…
Richard James
Editor