Apistogramma all come from South America and without exception, the water these fish originate from is extremely soft, with almost no General Hardness (GH) or Carbonate Hardness (KH). Additionally, the native waters these fish are found in is always slack and calm, with virtually no current at all. When keeping these fish in your aquarium, be sure to keep them in very soft water with a GH no higher than 2 and a KH of no higher than 1. These conditions will mimic their natural environment. Also be certain to cut back any water flow in the tank. For instance, avoid using hang on the back filters or canister filters when breeding Apistogramma, and instead use simple sponge filters driven by air.
Next we have to consider housing for these fish to induce or support breeding behavior. If you have ever been lucky enough to collect Apistogramma in the wild, you would have noticed these fish are often found hiding inside of leaves! What happens is that certain broad-leafed trees in South America experience seasonal foliage loss, just like trees in less temperate zones do. As the broad leaves on these trees die, they dry up and slowly curl in upon themselves, forming a little tube before dropping off the tree and into the water below. These leaf tubes sink to the bottom, and Apistogramma take up residence in them. They will often hide in this manner and spend their day-to-day in and near these aquatic leaf tubes. When it comes to breeding though, Apistogramma will seek out rocks, caves, or the undersides of living plant leaves for egg-laying.
Because Apistogramma always prefer leaf litter and rocks for safety, comfort and breeding, it is essential to provide your Apistogramma breeder pairs or trios with plenty of leaf litter, such as dried Catappa or Guava Leaves, and also include random sticks and pieces of wood (but only use aquarium safe woods!). It is even more important to provide them with random rocks arranged in such a way to provide cracks and crevasses the fish can get into. It is also a good idea to add a breeding cave which is large enough for the male and female to fit into. Giving your Apistogramma multiple locations which are each acceptable for breeding is always encouraged, because this greatly increases success rates. Sometimes even with a breeding cave made available to your fish as well as the undersides of plant leaves and more naturally-arranged rocks, Apistogramma will spontaneously decide to lay eggs on the glass walls of your aquarium instead. These little fish can’t make up their minds sometimes!
Another very important aspect to consider is what breeders refer to as “conditioning”. Many would think this strictly refers to what kinds of foods they eat and how much of it, but this is only part of the picture. “Conditioning” more accurately means feeding your fish well on foods likely to induce breeding behavior while at the same time manipulating their environment to also induce breeding behavior. When breeding Apistogramma, we employ a technique known as “the feast and flood”:
First, begin feeding your Apistogramma on only live or frozen daphnia (water fleas) or small California blackworms. You can feed both of these foods if you like. After feeding them on only this type of food for a week, perform a large water change on their aquarium of 70% total water volume. This technique is effective because it mimics a very large downpouring of fresh rainwater, which always provides additional food to fish in the wild. These downpours also flush the river system with new, soft water. “The feast and flood” technique should quite rapidly trigger breeding behavior and before long, you should see eggs on the sides of rocks or in caves, or perhaps even on the walls of your aquarium or on leaves!