4 Techniques for Target Feeding Marine Fish

Common tools used for target feeding

Common tools used for target feeding

Feeding saltwater fish isn’t always a simple matter of plopping food in the water and looking on as the frenzy ensues. In any community of fishes, some species (or individual specimens) are going to be more aggressive in their eating habits than others, so oftentimes you have to be a bit more targeted in your feeding approach to ensure that all the tank inhabitants get their fair share.

In addition to leveling the mealtime playing field for species of varying degrees of assertiveness, targeted feeding can also be beneficial for:

  • Shy newly introduced specimens that are reluctant to come out of hiding to eat
  • Predatory species that demand a “lively” food presentation
  • Bottom-dwelling and burrowing species that can be easily outcompeted by fishes that feed higher in the water column
  • Delivering medicated food to an ailing specimen

If you’re dealing with any of the feeding challenges described above, one of the following target-feeding techniques might just come in handy:

#1 “Fish Sticks”

No, I’m not talking about feeding Mrs. Paul’s to your tank inhabitants, but offering them foods on the end of a feeding stick (available commercially or you can craft your own). This technique is ideal for presenting meaty food items directly to predatory and/or toothy/spiny species that might need a little direct inducement to eat, such as eels, lionfish, frogfish, or puffers. Using a feeding stick also allows you to give the fish’s meal a little enticing jiggle to make it look more lively and appealing—not to mention, it allows you to keep your hands and fingers free and clear of nipping teeth and poking (and potentially venomous) spines.

#2 The Easy Squeezy Meal

This technique involves slurping up small food items (such as mysid shrimp or finely chopped seafood) and a little aquarium water with a turkey baster, commercial syringe feeder, or pipette and delivering the food close to the targeted specimen.

I’ve found this method to be very helpful in feeding yellowhead jawfish, which are often reluctant to venture far from their burrow to get food. The idea is to deliver the food just upstream of the burrow so the food drifts in zooplankton-like fashion right toward the jawfish’s waiting mouth.

A slight variation on the Easy Squeezy Meal can be used to target feed extremely shy specimens when more aggressive species, prone to snatching up every tidbit for themselves, occupy the same tank. This method involves placing the tip of the baster, bulb feeder, or pipette right near the targeted specimen’s mouth and very gently squeezing the bulb so the food extends slightly beyond the tip of the feeding device—just far enough so the specimen can grab it. If you do it just right, you can also retract the food into the tube quickly by simply relaxing your grip on the bulb, thus making it difficult for thieving tankmates to swoop in and steal the food.

#3 The Provision Pipeline

Gobies, blennies, jawfishes, hawkfishes, and other bottom dwellers are sometimes left with slim pickings (not to be confused with Slim Pickens—‘cause fish can’t get enough of that guy!) at mealtimes after all the mid-water feeders have had their fill. An easy way to ensure your bottom feeders get their fair share is to extend a length of PVC pipe or plastic tubing from the water surface to just above the substrate and deliver food (sinking of course) down through it.

#4 The Hand-to-Mouth Method

Okay, this is just a fancy way of saying “hand feeding.” While there’s no great advantage to hand feeding versus, say, the Easy Squeezy Meal, it does offer one of the few opportunities to directly interact with your fish. Just put a pinch of food between your thumb and forefinger and present it to your fish. I routinely use this method to feed pellets to the percula clownfish in my 75-gallon reef tank. (The darn thing always attacked my hand whenever I put it in the tank anyway, so I figured what the heck!) Naturally, any species that have sharp teeth and/or spines are not good candidates for hand feeding.

By the way, the hand-feeding technique is also a great way to interact with a cleaner shrimp if you happen to have one in your tank (and you don’t mind the singular sensation of a crustacean clambering all over your hand).

What’s your technique?
What say, fellow salties? Anyone out there have a different target-feeding technique that you’d like to share? Let us know in the comment section below.


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About Jeff Kurtz

Jeff Kurtz is the Co-founder/Editor of Saltwater Smarts, former Senior Consulting Editor for Tropical Fish Hobbyist Magazine, and the aquarist formerly known as “The Salt Creep.” He has been an aquarium hobbyist for over 30 years and is an avid scuba diver.


  1. Paul Baldassano says

    I feel that target feeding is extreamly important for certain fish that we normally keep. Over the years I have built automatic target feeders for Moorish Idols and mandarins. Because of the feeder I was able to keep a Moorish Idol for five years. Five years stinks for almost any fish, but for a Moorish Idol, it is almost a record.
    I am very proud of my mandarin feeder which is a flat plastic container which is really an electrician tape container that you sometimes can buy tape in. It has a fine netting stretched over the top and a tube going to the surface with a small funnel on top. I pour newly hatched brine shrimp into the funnel where they travel down to the container with the mesh. The shrimp can’t swim out much on their own but mandarins sit on top pulling out the tiny food all say. Because of this my pair of mandarins have been spawning every few weeks for over a year. My pair of bluestripe pipefish also enjoy the feeder and they also spawn frequently.
    I don’t know how to add a picture so that’s it for now.

    • Jeff Kurtz says

      Sounds like you’ve definitely got the knack for do-it-yourself innovations, Paul. We’d love to share photos of your handiwork. If you’re able to email them, perhaps Chris (who’s much more tech savvy than I) could get them posted in the not-too-distant future.

  2. Mark Friedman says

    Greetings !
    Im the owner of an aquarium service company called Ocean Images Inc. and for years we’ve been manufacturing a feeding tool for our clients. We call it the Fish Kabob .We’ve put up some fun videos on YouTube showing examples of feeding methods on a variety of fish including stingrays, a smooth hound shark and a large Stars and Stripes puffer!. It is a unique target feeding tool that our customers say they absolutely love because it allows them to really interact with their aquatic pets, as you had mentioned yourself in your article we have been supplying local stores in our fabulous city of Las Vegas Nevada as well as a prominent aquarium supply wholesaler in Southern California. We recently supplied a number of our feeding tools to a large fish club in the Midwest . Available in 4different lengths ranging from 12″ -43″ for really small to extremely large deep tanks.

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