Ten Great Fish for Beginning Aquarists

An aquarium dealer need only look at the length of the stock list his favorite wholesaler has just faxed over to see what an enormous variety of tropical fish are on the market today. To a new hobbyist, the choices must seem endless, and yet depending on where he wants to take his new hobby, some choices will be much better than others. Here’s a list that might help you match a great fish to your customer’s special niche.

Great Fish for breaking in a new tank: Black Tetras (Gymnocorymbus ternetzi) Getting a new aquarium through its break-in cycle can be a rather harrowing experience for both fish and fishkeeper. But unlike many of their flashier cousins, black tetras seems to be totally unfazed by the rising ammonia and nitrite levels that plague the new setup. They have hearty appetites, are active without driving the other residents up the wall, and make interesting, if not spectacular aquarium fish. As with most schooling fish, they should be maintained in a group of 4 or more, so no individual can dominate the others to the point of exhaustion.

Black tetras have a more striking appearance when young, with darker black stripes contrasting the silver background. They are also obtainable in a white form (cleverly marketed as the White Tetra), and both black and white varieties are also available in a long-finned version, often called Black Skirts and White Skirts respectively. Sadly, these fish are sometimes sold painted or dyed with bright colors – a practice that many of us believe should be discouraged.

Great Fish for those who like chase scenes: Tiger Barbs (Barbus tetrazona) Nearly as hardy as the black tetras, but a lot more active, tiger barbs are also suitable for breaking in a new aquarium. They do have a tendency to nip fins of slower or long-finned fish, so their tankmates should be chosen accordingly. On the plus side, a tank full of tiger barbs and their kin is rarely lacking in action, especially if there is plenty of running room. Keeping at least half a dozen tigers together seems to confine most of their chasing and nipping activity to one another, so the other residents can live in relative peace.

Tiger barbs are available in a variety of color morphs ranging from the original orange with black stripes to albinos, “blushers” with translucent gill covers and the “moss green”. The black with green sheen “moss green” type seems to be somewhat less aggressive, and should be larger if mixed with any of the other tigers. All varieties eat ravenously and thrive on standard aquarium fare.

Great Fish for the mini-tank: White Cloud Mountain Fish (Tanichys albonubes) In spite of the picture that manufacturers put on the package, you can’t really keep two dozen adult African cichlids in a 6 gallon mini-tank. In fact, even a handful of two-inch barbs or tetras can be a bit challenging in such a limited space. An ideal fish for a tiny tank is the White Cloud Mountain Fish (named after the White Cloud Mountains in its homeland), which stays quite small and is extraordinarily peaceful – even in close quarters. Coming from those cool mountain waters also makes them very tolerant of low temperatures and temperature swings, which are common in desktop aquariums.

White Clouds make an attractive display in a small tank with dark background and some fine plants, and often even multiply (they are egglayers with little appetite for their own eggs or young) in such a setup. Babies are very slender, and the metallic stripe often appears quite blue-green, prompting the name “Poor Man’s Neon Tetra” in some of the older literature. In addition to the classic version, White Clouds are also available in a long-finned variety, often labeled Meteor Minnows, and a gold variety.

Great Fish for the “goldfish” bowl: Siamese Fighting Fish (Betta splendens) That some people manage to keep goldfish in a small fish bowl for any length of time is a testament to the goldfish’s incredible durability, not their suitability to such an environment. A far better choice for a small container is the famous Siamese Fighting fish, or Betta, whose low waste output and rather sedentary, reclusive lifestyle makes such cramped quarters feel like home. They should of course be kept one to a tank, as even most non-aquarists are aware that they are inclined to drive others of their own species away – and if there is no “away”, one or both fish end up in tattered, torn or terminated.

While the size of the container seems to matter little to the health of the betta, temperature can be a concern. Ideally, the room the bowl is kept in should be in the mid or upper 70’s, with 72 as somewhat of a bare minimum. They should also be fed regularly – no matter what the instructions on the vase-with-a-peace-lily box says, and should receive frequent water changes. Bettas come in a dazzling array of colors, from metallic reds, blues and greens, to satiny golds.

Great Fish for an unheated aquarium: Goldfish (Carassius auratus) Here’s a fish that has so many great things going for it that it’s largely taken for granted. It’s brightly colored, extremely durable and incredibly long-lived, but often gets passed over because it’s “just a goldfish”. Since it not only tolerates but even prefers cooler water, it’s perfect for a medium or larger aquarium kept at room temperature. Goldfish do have a significant waste output, so they should have adequate filtration and receive regular water changes. Due to their temperature requirements, apparently tasty skin slime and slow movements, goldfish are usually best mixed primarily with other goldfish.

Single-tailed common and “comet” (longer single-tails) are exceptionally hardy and also come in white, red & white, and a calico variety known as shubunkin. Domestic “fantails”, with heavier bodies and a double tail, also make nice hardy aquarium specimens, and are a little shorter and less assertive than the single-tails. Imported “fancy” goldfish, including orandas, lionheads, bubble-eyes and many others, often require a lot more care and acclimation, and are best taken on by hobbyists with more experience.

Great Fish to teach the Facts of Life: Platies (Xiphophorus maculatus) Livebearers are among the most fascinating fish to watch: from the courting dances to the actual mating to the delivery of tiny young to the gulping down of the tiny young. Ok, maybe “fascinating” isn’t the right word for that final step, but the whole process keeps young and old aquarists captivated and amused for hours on end. There are of course a number of common livebearer species, but I selected platies as being hardier than mollies, less vulnerable to attack than guppies, and less likely to torpedo through a small opening in the cover than swordtails.

Since they are so easily bred, platies come in a wide variety of colors – reds, oranges, yellows and even blues – and patterns like wagtails (with a solid black tail) and “Moons” with a black crescent at the base of the tail. After getting his feet wet with the dozens of standard varieties the blossoming hobbyist might start looking for some of the more unusual plume-tail and hi-fin breeds.

Great Fish to teach Good Parenting: Convict Cichlids (Cichlasoma nigrofasciatum) Egglayers can also give hours of enjoyment – especially those that exhibit plenty of parental care. Rather than go the Community Tank route, some beginners might be interested in setting up a 10 to 20 gallon tank just to hold a pair of convict cichlids – and probably a massive throng of their babies. It’s fairly easy to select a male and female (females are smaller, with shorter fins and a salmon-colored patches on their sides) and it seems that most pairs are willing to mate – and mate and mate and mate. The parents are very protective of their eggs and fry, guarding over them and moving them to different hideouts about the tank if the hobbyist looks a little too threatening. They’ll often even bite a hand that gets too close when cleaning the aquarium.

In addition to the regulation striped version that gave this fish its common name, convicts are also commonly seen in a creme/gold variety and occasionally a blue stripeless morph. All are very hardy and probably too easy to breed, making them very easy to come by but not always easy to sell in volume.

Great Fish that eat leftovers: Green Catfish (Corydoras aeneus) As if these cute little fish with so much personality that they “wink” at you didn’t have enough going for them, they also provide a valuable service. They are great at roaming the tank bottom and vacuuming up the little scraps of food and other debris that everybody else missed. In addition, they are extremely peaceful, virtually never harming another fish, and are heavily armored so that many moderately aggressive fish don’t bother them. Larger fish can of course swallow them whole, or worse yet, almost swallow them whole, so some care should be taken, following the “if it fits in, it goes in” rule.

In addition to the common green/bronze Cory, the albino (complete with pink eyes) morph and the closely related peppered cat (Corydoras paleatus) also make fine scavengers. All three of these Corydoras are farm raised en masse in Florida, and are exceptionally hardy and easily acclimated to various water conditions. Many wild-caught or imported Corys have a more striking appearanace, but require better acclimation and more intense initial care than most beginners are likely to provide.

Great Fish that do windows: Plecostomus (Hypostomus plecostomus) Here’s a fish that many beginners will ask you for by name – more or less. If you hear “plectosaurus”, “piscivorous”, “plecouppagus” or pretty much any other name starting with a “p”, this is probably what they’re looking for. Plecos are legendary algae eaters and glass cleaners, and actually are helpful in that regard. They are best purchased shortly after the break-in cycle is completed, when algae first begins to appear. If added too early, they will either suffer from malnutrition or learn to eat other foods, making them less effective algae eaters.

One major drawback with this species is that it gets quite large – well over a foot in most tanks, and several feet long in larger quarters. Fortunately, there is often a demand but no commercial supply for larger specimens to go in big tanks with Oscars, Knife Fish, Tinfoil Barbs and the like. Allowing a customer to trade in a pleco that has outgrown his tank towards a new baby pleco makes everybody happy. There are many species of wild-caught plecostomus available, some with intricate patterns, high dorsal fins or bushy growths, but the standard captive raised Hypostomus are much sturdier and make the best choice for the beginner.

Great Fish for that first saltwater aquarium: Tank Raised “Percula” Clown (Amphiprion ocellaris) Some beginners just can’t wait, and plunge boldly into a saltwater aquarium with little or no freshwater experience. Luckily, after many years of experimentation, tank-raised clown fish are now available that are every bit as beautiful as their wild counterparts – and far less challenging to maintain. In fact, even under beginners’ conditions, many of these fish seem to be as easy to keep as the hardier freshwater species.

For many, the Ocellaris Clown is “the” saltwater fish, with bold orange and white markings, colorful fins and that rocking horse motion that makes them seem so playful. They usually get along quite well with most other peaceful marine fish, including others of their own species, and often hang out in tight little clusters. Tank-raised specimens eat well and thrive on a variety of commercial marine foods, including flakes, pellets and frozen entrees.

There are of course numerous other fish that would be equally great for the same and other beginners’ requirements, so don’t stop with this simple list of ten. A good retailer will look at his customers’ wants and needs, and be ready to offer some solid suggestions on how to fill them.

This article originally appeared in

Pet Age Magazine