Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Best and Worst Beginner Fish

I see a lot of people ask “what fish should I start with?” I also see a lot of people starting with fish that they were lead to thinking were easy.  Most people want a tank full of beautifully colored fish. I understand this, but often the most beautiful fish are also much more delicate. However, there are some very pretty and hardy fish with which you can start your hobby. They may not look like much in the store tanks, but once you get them home and into a good setup, they will show their true colors for you.

Through personal experience and discussion with other aquarists, I have gathered a list of fish that are good for the budding fishkeeper. These fish were chosen for their hardiness (ability to survive a cycle and live in less than ideal conditions), adaptability (can live in a wide range of parameters), small size (ideal for the first aquarium), and peacefulness. I have also compiled a list of fish that beginners should avoid for various reasons such as size, aggressiveness, and sensitivity.

Before I go into the fish, let me take a minute to explain what a good first aquarium size is. While bigger is always better, the beginner might not want to start with a massive tank of 55 gallons (209 L) or larger. This is a big tank (and a big expense), and big tanks mean big water changes which a new aquarist might not want. Conversely a 10 gallon (40 L) isn’t a great beginner tank because it is so small, and small tanks can have fast and dangerous water parameter swings. Also you can only fit one or two species of fish in a tank of that size. I’ve come to believe that tanks from between 20 gallons (75 L) and 40 gallons (151 L) make great beginner tanks because they are large enough to be mostly stable but not too large as to be a pain to perform water changes and they enable the first time fishkeeper to keep more than two species. 

The Bad Choices

Many fish that the pet stores tout as easy and great for beginners are far from that for many reasons. Some grow too large, some are hard to keep alive, and some are aggressive. Since there is a multitude of fish that would make poor first choices, I’m going to group them into categories and give you examples of fish that fall into these categories.

The first category of poor beginner fish are chosen because they get so large. They are sold as cute, inch-long babies, but they will soon be busting the walls of a normal beginner aquarium. These fish include goldfish (Carassius auratus auratus), common pleco (Hypostomus plecostomus), oscar (Astronotus ocellatus), and kissing gourami (Helostoma temminkii). Many people are surprised to see goldfish on this list because all you see in the stores are cute little goldfish. Trust me: these little golden wonders will soon be around a foot long and all the while they grow, pooping like a fiend. They are a hardy fish, but they just get too large for most beginners to handle.

You also don’t want to start off with a fish that is too sensitive. Oto catfish (Otocinclus macrospilus), angel fish (Pterophyllum spp), cardinal tetra (Paracheirodon axelrodi), and many more fall into this category. They should never be introduced to a cycling tank (tank where colonies of beneficial bacteria are not established and harmful levels of ammonia and nitrite are present) because they can’t handle the stress of a cycle. Oto catfish specifically need a setup that has had time to grow algae because they primarily eat algae. They come to stores starving because they are captured from the wild where they only eat algae. By the time they get to the store they haven’t seen any in weeks; they will starve to death in a brand new setup because it lacks algae.

Another mistake that beginners often make is buying fish that are too aggressive to keep with much else; they end up with a moderately large tank and nothing in it but a single school of fish. Or they buy a “freshwater shark” because the name sounds cool, and then end up with a tank full of fish cowering in the corner trying to stay away from the shark’s bullying nature. If you just want to keep a school of these fish or a freshwater shark, then go right ahead, but you won’t be able to add anything else to the tank. Fish that fall into this category are tiger barbs (Puntius anchisporus), black skirt tetra/black widow tetra (Gymnocorymbus ternetzi), and the freshwater sharks like rainbow shark (Epalzeorhynchos frenatus), bala shark (Balantiocheilos melanopterus), and red-tailed shark (Epalzeorhynchos bicolor).

Guppies (Poecilia reticulata) are a great beginner fish, right? You’d be surprised to learn that they are not. They were many years ago, but commercial scale breeding and continuous inbreeding has made what was once an extremely hardy fish into a weak, disease-ridden fish terrible for beginners. If you can find guppies from a hobby breeder, then you have the chance to get some good fish, but pet store guppies are so weak, they can hardly be considered a good fish anymore. Sadly, neon tetra (Paracheirodon innesi) and dwarf gourami (Trichogaster lalius) have also gone down this same route. Commercial-scale breeding programs are now producing weak, inbreed, and disease ridden fish. In fact, both fish now have a disease named after them because these fish so commonly carry them: dwarf gourami iridovirus and neon tetra disease. These diseases have no cure and can spread to other species.

I know you want to start off with strange and unusual fish to wow your friends, but these fish are usually delicate, difficult to keep alive, and have specific needs. This brings me to my final category of fish that are bad for beginners: the oddballs. These are fish like the black ghost knifefish (Apteronotus albifrons), German blue ram (Mikrogeophagus ramirezi), and African butterfly fish (Pantodon buchholzi). A good rule of thumb is if it looks strange, it’s going to be hard to keep alive. 

The Good Choices 

Don’t despair. While those are fish you shouldn’t start with, you have plenty of attractive and interesting options that can be your first fish. Instead of grouping them like the bad beginner fish, I have listed them out with pictures and general care information. All of these fish are not picky eaters and will readily accept any flake or pellet food.

Blue Tetra (Catxx @ the Aquarium Wiki)

Blue Tetra, Cochu (Boehlkea fredcochui)
Tank size: 20 gallons, 24 inches long (75 L, 61 cm)
Temp: 72 - 79F (22 - 26C)
pH: 6.0 - 8.0
Water hardness: up to 15 dGH
Notes: Like most tetra species this is a schooling species and needs to be maintained in groups of 6 or more. When buying schooling fish like this it is best to buy about 9 so in case you have a death, these fish won’t start bullying other fish. Don’t keep them with fish with long fins like betta fish. This fish will be most colorful in an aquarium with lots of cover such as decorations and plants (live or fake).

Group of Flame Tetra (Catxx @ the Aquarium wiki)

Flame tetra, Fire tetra, Von Rio tetra (Hyphessobrycon flammeus)
Tank size: 20 gallons, 24 inches long (75 L, 61 cm)
Temp: 72 - 82F (22 - 28C)
pH: up to 7.8
Hardness: up to 25 dGH
Notes: This is another gorgeous and hardy tetra species. They should be kept in a minimum of 6, but keeping them in larger numbers will make them more attractive and reduce the nipping tendencies common with tetra. Don’t keep them with slow-moving fish. It will show its best colors in an aquarium with lots of decorations such as fake or live plants.

X-ray tetra (Debivort @ Wikipedia)
Pristella tetra, X-ray tetra, X-ray fish, Goldfinch tetra (Pristella maxillaris)
Tank size: 10 gal, 20 inches long (40 L, 50 cm)
Temp: 74 - 82F (24 - 28C)
pH: up to 8.0
Hardness: up to 30 dGH
Notes: In my opinion, this is one of the best beginner fish because it is so easy to keep. It will survive in all but the most hard of municipal water supplies. Like all tetra, it should be kept in groups of 6 or more at a minimum.

Bronze cory cats (public domain)

Bronze Cory Cat, Albino cory (Corydoras aeneus)
Tank size: 20 gal, 24 inches long (75 L, 61 cm)
Temp: 70 - 80F (21 - 27C)
pH: 6.0 - 8.0
Hardness: up to 20 dGH
Notes: Also found in an albino form, the bottom-swimming bronze cory is a great addition to a new fishkeeper’s aquarium. They will do best with a sand bottom but can manage with smooth gravel. It will be most active when kept in groups larger than 5. Three is the minimum that should be kept together as these fish are very social.

Two harlequin rasbora (Stee @ flickr)

Harlequin Rasbora, Red rasbora (Trigonostigma heteromorpha)
Tank size: 20 gal, 24 inches long (75 L, 61 cm)
Temp: 70 - 82F (21 - 28C)
pH: below 7.5
Hardness: up to 15 dGH
Notes: A common fish in pet stores, it is a great choice for a beginner. This is another social fish that needs to be maintained in groups of 6 or more, but it will fare best with groups of 10 or more.

Two Bandit cories (Stuart Halliday)

Bandit cory, Masked cory (Corydoras metae)
Tank size: 10 gallons, 20 inches long (40 L, 50 cm)
Temp: 70 - 77F (22 - 25C)
pH: up to 7.5
Hardness: up to 15 dGH
Notes: As they are more shy than bronze cories, they should be kept in groups of 6 or more. They will be much more active in larger groups. When kept singly or with 1 or 2 other bandit cories, they will not be seen much and may be too shy to feed. They like a sand bottom best as they enjoy rooting around in the sand for morsels of food.

Regular zebra fish (public domain)

Glofish, genetically modified zebra danio (www.glofish.com)

Zebra danio/glofish (Danio rerio)
Tank size: 20 gallons, 24 inches long (75 L, 61 cm)
Temp:  65 - 77F (18 - 25C)
pH: 6.0 - 8.0
Hardness: up to 20 dGH
Notes: Also sold as the brilliantly colored glofish, these peaceful little schoolers make a much better candidate for a smaller unheated aquarium than goldfish do. The zebra danio that are sold as glofish aren’t dyed. They are actually genetically engineered to be that way by having jellyfish and coral genes implanted in their own. They will pass this down to their children, too. Like all schooling fish, these active little swimmers need at least 6 of their own kind to feel safe (you can mix glofish and the regular zebra danio). As a precautionary, I feel like I need to mention that due to massive inbreeding, this fish are becoming less and less hardy; one day they might not be good beginner fish.

Glowlight tetra (gonzalovalenzuela @ flickr)

Glowlight tetra (Hemigrammus erythrozonus)
Tank size: 20 gal, 24 inches long (75 L, 61 cm)
Temp: 74 - 82F (24 - 28C)
pH: up to 7.5
Hardness: up to 15 dGH
Notes: Like all the other tetra, this little beauty is a schooling fish and should be kept in groups of at least 6, but if you have the room and biological capacity add as many as you can. They are most colorful in large groups. An albino form is also seen and is just as hardy as the normal form. The albinos will school with the regular glowlights.

School of bloodfin tetra (public domain)

Bloodfin tetra (Aphyocharax anisitsi)
Tank size: 20 gal, 24 inches long (75 L, 61 cm)
Temp: 64 - 82F (18 - 28C)
pH: 6.0 to 8.0
Hardness: up to 30 dGH
Notes: This fish gets my vote as the best beginner species. It can survive a wide range of water parameters and is commonly found at petstores. Kept in groups of 6 or more, its brilliant red fins will sparkle in the water.

Male cherry barb (Sannse @ wikipedia)

Cherry Barb (Puntius titteya)
Tank size: 20 gallons, 24 inches long (75 L, 61 cm)
Temp: 74 - 81F (23 - 27C)
pH: 6.0 to 8.0
Hardness: up to 20 dGH
Notes: Barbs, like tetra, need groups of 6 or more to feel safe. They will be more colorful and be out in the open more if they have large groups. Unlike the tetra, the males are more colorful than females. The males have a much more red color while the females take on a yellow-brown hue.

Male swordtail on left; female on right (MacAnthony @ flickr)

Swordtail (Xiphophorus hellerii)
Tank size: 29 gallons, 30 inches long (109 L, 76 cm)
Temp: 68 - 82F (20 - 28C)
pH: 7 to 8
Hardness: 9 - 30 dGH
Notes: As this fish is a livebearer it is the best choice for a new aquarist with hard water. The catch is, if you put males and females in a tank together, you will get more swordtails. If you don’t want baby fish, get only males. If you want baby fish, make sure there are 3 females to every male. Males are also the more attractive of the sexes, so an all-male tank would be ideal for a beginner. Pretty and you don’t have to worry about babies.

These next two fish are good beginner choices, but they come with a catch which I will highlight in italics.

Male betta (copperarabian @ deviantart)

Betta fish/Siamese Fighting Fish (Betta splendens)
Tank size: 5 gallons (18 L)
Temp: 76F - 84F
pH: 6.0 - 8.0
Hardness: up to 20dGH
Notes: Betta fish are a great first fish if they are the only fish in the tank. They are very hardy, easy to care for, and will generally take any beginner mistakes in a stride. Their small tank requirement also makes them great as a dorm pet. Due to their aggressive nature, keeping betta with other fish makes the difficulty go up and can be a bit much for a new fishkeeper. Keep him in his own 5 gal tank and you will have an easy setup with a very interactive fish.

Male honey gourami (Kooshking @ flickr)

Honey gourami (Trichogaster chuna)
Tank size: 20 gal, 24 inches long (75 L, 61 cm)
Temp: 72 - 82F (22 - 27C)
pH: 6 - 7.5
Hardness: up to 20 dGH
Notes: This little jewel is the smallest and most peaceful of the gourami. It will make a great centerpiece fish in a small tank provided it is the only gourami in the tank. This also includes bettas as they are gourami, too. Male gourami are territorial and will fight when placed in the same tank. The males are the most colorful, so just one would be the perfect addition to a beginner’s tank.

Don’t feel limited by what the pet stores tell you are good beginner fish (because they are often wrong). The beginner has many attractive options for their first fish tank. As I discuss in my How to Stock a Fish Tank article, combining a species of cory cats and a school of tetra in a 20 gal tank could make a very nice display for the first-time aquarist. While not all of these fish may be available at your local pet store, I’m sure you will be able to find some of them to help you get started in your fishkeeping hobby.

Works Referenced

Monks, Neale. 2008. “Fish Viral Disease.” www.fishchannel.com. Retrieved 28 May 2012.

Monks, Neale. 2011. “Neon Tetra Disease.” www.fishchannel.com. Retrieved 28 May 2012.

Ramsey, Graham. 3 March 2010. “Top Ten – worst beginner fish.” fcas.wordpress.com. Retrieved 27 May 2012. 


  1. i ant find where the x-ray tetra lives and what it eats what is a specific play the live like canada, europe, asia, or somewhere else were does it lives??????

    1. X-ray tetra live in South America. In the wild their diet consists of small insects. In the aquarium they readily take small pellets.

  2. Aquarium Design is also an important factor to consider when deciding upon your selections. Thanks for providing such an insightful blog now I will know what type of fish to be putting into my aquarium.

  3. Aquarium Design is also an important factor to consider when deciding upon your selection. Thank you for providing such an insightful blog now I will know what type of fish to start out with.


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