The aim for any new fishkeeper is to have an aquarium setup that is full of color and movement, as that’s what drew you into wanting to keep fish in the first place. The local fish store (LFS for short) is filled with exactly that – hundreds of tanks filled with colorful, exotic-looking, tropical freshwater fish, but not all are suitable for new aquariums or new owners. So what are good beginner fish for the freshwater aquarium?
Know that some fish grow large, some nip fins, some eat smaller fish, and some are highly aggressive. Others may be delicate, need a specific pH value, or need to be fed a specific diet. There are even those fish that are best kept as the only fish in the tank. To get the best possible start, and in order to avoid dead or sick fish as best you can stick to easy to keep hardy community fish.
Probably the hardiest freshwater fish there is, the Zebrafish, Danio rerio. It’s tolerant of a wide range of temperatures (even unheated tanks,) a wide range of pH, can be kept with all other fish and is even tolerant of poor water quality. They will thrive in virtually any size tank, and any type of small fish food making Zebrafish one of the best possible beginner fish to get started with. If you crave some with more color than the standard grey stripy ones, they come in a variety of colors and in long fin varieties too. If you plan on keeping Zebrafish they should be the first fish added to a tropical community tank.
Mention barbs and you think of Tiger barbs. Although popular, Tiger barbs have a reputation for nipping fins of long-finned fish like Angelfish, male guppies and Bettas. They are also less tolerant of nitrite – a common substance in new aquaria – however, choose Cherry barbs, Golden barbs, Odessa or Rosy barbs and the four are a great pick for peaceful community fish. These beginner fish are very easy to keep with Golden barbs, Odessa and Rosy barbs being tolerant of cooler water, so would pair well with Zebrafish in a temperate or tropical freshwater aquarium.
Neon tetras are suitable for community aquaria, but they aren’t suitable for new tanks or recommended as beginner fish as they are sensitive to poor water quality and new aquaria. The same goes for Cardinal tetras. But Black widow tetras are hardy because of their tolerance of different temperatures and water conditions, making them suitable beginner fish. And again if the black and grey don’t do it for you, choose albino, long fin or other versions.
Livebearing fish are so-named because unlike most fish they give birth to live young. Guppies, Platies, Mollies and Swordtails are some of the most popular tropical fish of all, and of those, Platies are a great fish for beginners. They stay small, are easy to keep and very easy to breed. Guppies are hugely popular and available in hundreds of varieties but generations of selective breeding has weakened them and made them susceptible to disease. Start with Platies and if you still want to try Guppies, add them only to tanks that are two months old and older. Want mollies instead? They need salt in the water as they come from the coasts, which some other fish like Neon tetras won’t appreciate if you want to add them in the future.
Everyone wants a catfish and for good reason. Although not what you would call cute, catfish come in a huge variety of shapes and sizes, and are selected for their janitorial skills as well as to add movement on the bottom of the tank. Catfish divide into two main types – those with whiskers which they use to sift the substrate and detect food with (like Corydoras,) and those with suckermouths that they use to rasp algae and other foods from hard surfaces (like plecos). We use catfish to our advantage in the aquarium as by sifting the sand and rasping away at algae they help us to keep our tanks clean. Some plecos can be sensitive, expensive and reclusive, but the Bristlenose catfish, Ancistrus spp, is an excellent algae eater, doesn’t grow above 5” and can even be bred. If you want a brighter coloured, long fin version, they’ve got you covered there too. And all Corydoras species are suitable for aquarium life, being incredibly peaceful and great companions for small fish swimming above them like tetras. Choose Corydoras aeneus or paleatus, again in standard camouflage, or albino forms.
The Siamese fighting fish, Betta splendens, is also a hugely popular beginner freshwater fish. Tropical and known for its rich colors, flowing fins, accompanied by tales of fights to the death with rival males can leave some in awe. But, it’s because of those long fins and that attitude that can make Bettas unsuitable for some community tanks. The good news is that Bettas are suitable for a novice and if kept on their own, they are hardy, but should most likely be the only fish in the tank.
Tank size requirements are a touchy subject. Some keepers prefer nano and pico tanks of just a gallon for keeping a lone male Betta, and have done so successfully. Reason, Bettas prefer still water and produce a low amount of waste which means they can be kept with minimal to no filtration making them an excellent beginner fish for the freshwater aquarium. So, if you want a Betta it is possible to set up a little tank especially for it, or possibly multiple tanks to keep more.
As the tank matures, fish choice increases massively and tanks over two months old, and with ammonia and nitrite levels consistently reading zero, get to enjoy hundreds of other community species to choose from including dwarf rainbowfish, dwarf gourami, dwarf cichlids like Kribensis, loaches, rasboras and lots of other tetras. It just takes a little time for tanks and filters to mature enough for them to be added. The best, most colorful fish (like Cardinal tetras,) need to be kept in groups, so make up a wish list, and make sure you leave room for them to be added at a later stage.
Top 10 Picks for Beginner Fish
- Zebrafish, Danio rerio
- Rosy barb, Pethia conchonius
- Golden barb, Barbodes semifasciolatus
- Platy, Xiphophorus maculatus
- Peppered corydoras, Corydoras paleatus
- Bronze corydoras, Corydoras aeneus
- Bristlenose catfish, Ancistrus spp.
- Black widow tetra, Gymnocorymbus ternetzi
- Harlequin rasbora, Trigonostigma heteromorpha
- Kribensis, Pelvicachromis pulcher