It can be a difficult task to find the right beginner fish when you’re starting out in the aquarium hobby. Not only are you confronted by dozens, or even hundreds of colorful and interesting fish at the pet store, but you often have no idea what each fish needs to keep it healthy and happy.
And sadly, in most cases, neither do the pet store employees. Often, they’re new at the job, have little training, and don’t know the first thing about fish. If I had a nickel for every person I’ve talked to who received bad information from a pet store employee, I’d probably be retired on a warm beach somewhere.
Even worse, the information you find online about beginner fish is often written by people with very little – if any – experience keeping fish. And if you follow their recommendations, you could end up with a monster fish that will quickly outgrow your aquarium, or a homicidal fish that will murder everything else in the tank.
But there are good beginner fish out there, and this article goes over some of the more commonly available beginner fish. The criteria for choosing beginner fish are as follows: hardy, adapts to a wide variety of water conditions, and doesn’t have any special requirements. While most of these fish are also peaceful, some can be aggressive. So be sure to read each fish’s profile.
Betta fish are an excellent choice for someone new to aquariums. Not only do they come in an array of brilliant colors, but they often greet their owner – a trait that really helps to endear them to you.
Of course, they’re not quite as easy to keep as many people believe. Even though you may have heard the myth that betta fish live in the rain water that collects in the impression of a footprint, it’s not true. The truth is that they live in substantial bodies of water – like rice paddies or streams – in Southeast Asia.
And rice paddies are vastly larger than ‘betta bowls’. While bettas can technically survive in a betta bowl, the reality is that the best aquarium size for a betta is around 5 gallons (19 litres), though a 2.5 gallon (9.5 litres) aquarium may also work, if you really keep on top of the maintenance. And their aquariums should always be heated – something that is virtually impossible to do in the tiny betta bowls.
On top of all that, they also need to be kept alone. Male bettas will kill any other males they are kept with, and while it may be possible to keep a group of female bettas in a large aquarium, they still often end up wounding each other in fights. Bettas also don’t get along with most other species of fish, and either bully and attack their tank mates, or get bullied themselves.
But if you’re willing to provide what these fish actually need, then they are one of the best beginner fish in the hobby. Their unique ability to breathe air allows them to survive even the most catastrophic mistakes, and they will often live for years in the poorest conditions imaginable. Two traits that make them one of the best fish to keep for beginners.
Zebra danios are an amazing beginner fish, and if I had to choose one fish as the ‘best’ beginner fish, I would probably choose these. They are incredibly hardy – to the point where you almost have to actively set out to kill them – and they are also highly adaptive to a wide range of water types and temperatures.
While many people seem to believe that these fish can be kept alone, they are actually a schooling fish, and do best when kept in groups. A bare minimum of six should be kept together, though they will really thrive in larger groups. If they aren’t kept in schools, then they will often become stressed, and can become aggressive towards other fish.
Zebra danios are so renowned for their hardiness, that they are often used to cycle fish tanks. And while I would never recommend using fish to cycle an aquarium, if they can survive that, then they could survive just about anything a beginner could throw at them.
White Cloud Mountain Minnows
Once nicknamed the poor man’s neon tetra (due to neons costing a king’s ransom many years ago), these fish are noted for their beauty and peaceful nature. Not only that, but they are also hardy and easy to care for – something that can’t be said of today’s modern neon tetras.
One of their biggest advantages is that they prefer cool water, and because of that, their aquariums don’t need to be heated. In fact, they often do poorly in a heated aquariums, and they won’t be nearly as healthy or colorful when kept in water with tropical temperatures.
And while they will do well with most other fish, their preference for cool water gives very few options for tank mates. Because of this, people often avoid them if they want to set up a community tank, though there are other easy cool water fish out there to house them with (most notably zebra danios and dojo loaches).
These little fish are by far one of most iconic fish in the entire freshwater aquarium industry, and they make an excellent choice for someone starting out in the hobby. Not only are they stunning, but most of them are hardy little fish (though this isn’t true with many of the specialty ones). And they are able to survive most of the small errors you’re bound to make when starting out.
But there are a few things you need to consider with guppies before you purchase them. The first is their nickname, ‘the million fish’. Guppies are livebearers, which means that their babies are born live and fully formed. Unlike most of the other fish that lay eggs, guppies will often have very high fry survival rates.
So, if you’re keeping both males and females together, you will need a plan in place to deal with the hordes of babies that will follow shortly. And don’t take this lightly, since I’ve seen more than my fair share of fish tanks completely overrun by guppies.
The other consideration is that there should always be more females than males – or alternatively, an all-male tank – which also solves the problem of dealing with babies. But the other reason for having more females than males is that males will constantly attempt to mate with the females. And by having more females, it will spread out the harassment. Otherwise, the females will become stressed and may even become ill from the unrelenting mating attempts.
But if you can deal with the fry, then they remain one of the most undemanding fish out there, and are an excellent fish to experience fish breeding with.
Platies are another excellent livebearer fish for someone starting out in the hobby. They come in an amazing array of colors, and tend to be very hardy. They also stay relatively small, and will do well in most of the smaller aquariums that many first-timers tend to purchase.
Another positive aspect of these fish is that while they are live bearers, they tend to have much lower fry survival rate than guppies. Although the reason for this isn’t very pleasant, since the parents tend to eat most of the fry. But because of this, you don’t have to worry about your tank becoming overrun with fry – for a little while at least.
But they are a great way to dip your toes into keeping livebearers, and make a great beginner fish for a newcomer.
No beginner fish list would be complete without these little peaceful catfish, and while they may not be as colorful as some of the other fish on the list, they more than make up for it with their interesting behavior and big personalities.
But they do prefer soft, acidic water, which may limit the amount of people who can keep them. With that being said, most species of corydoras are now bred on fish farms, and can adapt to harder water. Although, you shouldn’t expect them to breed in any water that is even moderately hard.
The two corydoras catfish species that are easiest to keep are Bronze Corydoras (a personal favorite of mine) and Peppered Corydoras. Both of them are extremely hardy and long lived – excellent qualities for a beginner fish.
Rosy Red Minnows
Rosy red minnows are probably one of the most underrated fish in the entire hobby, and the only place you’ll normally see these fish is in the feeder tanks at the pet store. In these cramped aquariums, they are often subjected to rampant diseases and malnutrition, but if you can find some of these fish that are healthy, they make an amazing addition to nearly any fish tank.
They do well in both cold water and tropical tanks, and they can adapt to a wide variety of temperatures and water conditions. They are incredibly hardy, and will even thrive in terrible conditions – which may be part of the reason why they are often sold as feeder fish (their fast breeding likely figures into it too).
But perhaps one of the best things about these little fish, is that they are one of the few minnows to breed like cichlids. Because of this, they are one of the easiest fish to breed outside of livebearers, and it’s fascinating to watch a male rosy red minnow create a nest and then diligently defend it.
With everything taken together, this is perhaps one of the best fish for beginners – even though it can be difficult to find any that are actually healthy. But if you can find a source of healthy rosy red minnows, these fish are a true gem, and I even recommend them to highly experienced aquarists who have never kept them before.
These little fish are another underrated fish in the aquarium hobby. They’ve been a staple of the aquarium fish trade since the very earliest days, and make an excellent addition to virtually any community tank. Not only are they hardy and easy to care for, but as they age, they develop a stunning golden coloration.
And while they prefer soft, acidic waters, they can readily adapt to most water types. Don’t let these fish’s small size fool you – they make an excellent choice for a beginner.
Any of the fish on the list will make an excellent beginner fish, and if you take the time to read up on their needs, then you could potentially enjoy these fish for many years to come.
And don’t let the fact that they’re labeled ‘beginner fish’ deter you from keeping them. Even people who have decades of experience still keep these fish, so don’t make the mistake of thinking that just because they’re easy to care for, they aren’t an interesting fish to keep. Nothing could be further from the truth with these fish – even the ones labeled feeder fish.