Starting a freshwater aquarium is both an exciting and intimidating process. You have the enjoyment of choosing between different decorations, plants, and substrate but you also have the stress of keeping your new fish healthy and safe.
When starting a new aquarium, it’s a good idea to research about the different types of fish you want and their individual needs. This will tell you what fish will can co-exist together peacefully, how to care for them, and whether or not you need to come up with a new plan.
Things To Consider for a Freshwater Fish Tank:
If you haven’t done so, familiarize yourself on the nitrogen cycle and keeping ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate at the correct levels. Once your cycle is established and parameters are stable, you are ready to slowly add fish. The keyword here is slowly, one of biggest mistakes new hobbyists make is adding too many fish at once. This can lead to a spike in ammonia and the loss of some or all of your fish.
Another common mistake is choosing the wrong fish. Some fish are more aggressive than others, create more waste, reach a large size in adulthood, or thrive in vastly different environments.
Schooling fish are often good choices for beginner hobbyists and should be established slowly to avoid overwhelming the parameters. It’s also recommended that you choose one species at a time instead of trying to start multiple schools at once.
Finally, choose fish that are known to be strong enough to withstand the slight variations that occur while establishing a new aquarium. Once your tank has matured and you become more comfortable with maintaining a freshwater aquarium, you can move onto species that are more sensitive to water conditions.
Here are some of the BEST fish for beginners who are still getting used to keeping a freshwater fish tank.
1. White Cloud Mountain Minnow
White cloud mountain minnows are a great freshwater fish for beginners because they are hardy and can withstand less stable water conditions. They are peaceful fish that prefer living in schools of at least 6, but more is merrier if you have enough space to accommodate a larger school.
You can expect these guys to reach 1.5 inches in length by adulthood.
Care Instructions for White Cloud Mountain Minnow
White cloud mountain minnows are one of the few hardy freshwater fish preferring a cooler temperature ranging from 45°F – 70°F, making them the perfect choice if you don’t want to worry about adding a heater to your aquarium. The recommended pH range is 6.0 – 8.0 and the minimum aquarium size is 5 US gallons.
White cloud mountain minnows are omnivores and will eat commercial flakes or pellets without trouble. They will eat frozen or live insects too, but you will need to ensure they are free from insecticides and other toxins before offering them to your fish.
White Cloud Mountain Minnow Lifespan
When living under ideal conditions, you can expect a lifespan of 3 to 5 years.
Platies are a popular freshwater fish for beginners and for good reason! They come in an assortment of vivid colors and markings and aren’t picky when it comes to care requirements.
Platies are non-aggressive and should have no problem living alongside other fish. Their maximum size by adulthood is 2.5 inches in length.
How to Care for Platy Fish
Platies are warm-water freshwater fish that prefer water temperatures of 70°F – 77°F. They are considered a hardy fish and can handle small fluctuations in temperature and conditions when healthy. The recommended pH range is 7.0 to 8.3 and the minimum aquarium size is 10 US gallons. This size of aquarium is a comfortable home for up to 5 Platies.
Platies are omnivores and should be fed a diet that is balanced in protein and vegetation. A high-quality fish flake or pellet should meet the needs of a Platy, but you can feed them live or frozen bloodworms, daphnia, or brine shrimp as well.
How Long do Platy Fish Live?
The typical lifespan for a Platy fish is 3-4 years.
3. Black Skirt Tetra
Black skirt tetras are a great choice for beginners with a larger aquarium setup as they will grow to be 4.5 cm lengthwise by adulthood. They are easily recognized by the two vertical black stripes on their body, and their lower fins giving the appearance of a black skirt. They are peaceful fish when kept in schools of at least 6, otherwise they can become aggressive.
Care Instructions for Black Skirt Tetra
Black skirt tetras thrive in a temperature range of 68°F – 79°F with a pH level of 5.8 – 8.5. They are on the larger size and are fairly active, so you’ll need an aquarium that holds at least 15 US gallons.
Black skirt tetras respond well to high-quality fish flakes and pellets and small food like bloodworms, brine shrimp, and daphnia.
Black Skirt Tetra Lifespan
When living in an environment that suits their needs, you can expect a lifespan of 3 to 5 years.
4. Cory Catfish
Cory catfish are often recommended to beginner hobbyists because caring for them is a breeze! Although they aren’t a replacement for regular aquarium maintenance, they do a great job eating fallen flakes, pellets, and remnants of vegetation.
They are peaceful fish that enjoy being social with their own species, so you should plan to have at least 2 of them in your tank. By adulthood, Cory catfish should reach a size of 1 – 2.5 inches and will need at least 10 US gallons.
Although you should ensure parameters are stable and in the correct range, Cory Catfish are hardy enough to withstand tougher water conditions. They prefer a temperature of 72°F – 78°F with a pH range of 7.0 – 7.8.
The diet for a Cory catfish is standard, a high-quality fish flake or pellet will suffice. Bottom feeder tablets are another option that work well if you are planning on keeping your Cory catfish in a community tank and you are worried, they aren’t getting enough leftover food. Like with all fish, you should ensure you are not overfeeding them by not offering them more than they can eat in 5 minutes.
Lifespan of Cory Catfish
The typical lifespan for a Cory catfish is 5 years but they can live much longer (up to 20 years!) under perfect conditions.
5. Zebra Danio
Zebra danios are known for their silvery body and bright blue stripes, making them an eye-catching choice for any aquarium. They are a great option for beginners because of their durability and easy breeding. Although they are peaceful fish, they are known to nip fish with long fins like Angelfish, Guppies, and Bettas and should not be kept in the same aquarium.
If you’d like to add Zebra danios to your aquarium setup, you should plan to have at least 5 of them. This will promote activity while reducing stress and susceptibility to diseases. They typically reach 2 inches by adulthood.
Zebra danios are known to be hardy enough to withstand a large range of temperatures and water conditions. Their preferred water temperature is 64°F – 74°F with a pH of 6.5 – 7.0. Although they are small in size, they are incredibly active and will need a minimum 10 US gallons to thrive.
Zebra danios aren’t picky eaters and will thrive on a diet of high-quality flakes or pellets. Like most fish, they will enjoy eating bloodworms, brine shrimp, and other live or frozen invertebrates.
Zebra Danio Fish Lifespan
The average lifespan for a Zebra danio living in ideal conditions is 5 years.
6. Pearl Gourami
Pearl gourami are popular choices among beginners for their beauty and ease of care. They’re Labyrinth fish, so that means they go to the surface of the tank to breathe air, and they can vocalize by making growling and croaking noises!
You can have a Pearl gourami in a community tank, but you should avoid having male gouramis to avoid issues with aggression. Instead, you might want to consider small schooling fish like Harlequin rasboras, Black skirt tetras, and Cherry barbs.
Caring For a Pearl Gourami
Pearl gouramis prefer their water on the warmer side at a balmy 77°F – 82°F with a pH range of 5.5 – 7.5. A fully-grown Pearl gourami can reach 4.5 inches, you’ll need an aquarium that is at least 20 US gallons.
These guys are omnivores and will eat all forms of food, whether it is a high-quality flake, pellet, or fresh/frozen invertebrates. Some people recommend offering them vegetables like cooked peas or spinach for an extra health boost.
The average lifespan for a Pearl gourami living under ideal conditions is 4 – 5 years.
Despite what their name might insinuate, Swordtail fish are peaceful and can be easily kept in community tanks. They are known for their unique fins and assortment of colors, the most common being red and green. They aren’t schooling fish, so you don’t need to keep more than one in your tank. Suitable tankmates include Mollies, Platies, or friendly types of Corydoras.
Adult female Swordtails can reach 6.3 inches by adulthood with males reaching 5.5 inches.
Care Instructions for Swordtails
Swordtails are one of the few tropical freshwater fish that can safely live in a large temperature range at 65°F – 82°F. This gives some room for errors, a benefit for beginners who are still learning how to safely set up an aquarium. Their preferred pH range is anywhere between 7.0 and 8.4.
They are active fish, so if you will want to have 15 US gallons available for one Swordtail. If you would like to have more fish, 29 US gallons is recommended. If you want to keep more than one Swordtail together, a ratio of one male to three females is recommended to control aggression.
Swordtails are omnivores, eating a diet of high-quality flakes, pellets, or frozen food. In their natural habitat, they are known to eat algae and other forms of vegetation, so it’s important to accommodate this dietary need within your aquarium too.
Like most of the fish on this list, Swordtail fish are known to live moderate lives ranging from 3-5 years in length.
Betta fish are one of the most familiar freshwater fish in the aquarium trade, and a great choice for beginners. They have quirky personalities, and are available in an assortment of colors, patterns, and tail types. Bettas are notoriously hardy and can survive in some of the harshest conditions.
Bettas are a semi-aggressive fish. While male Bettas cannot safely live together and female Betta sororities require additional experience, you can keep your Betta with peaceful community fish like Cory catfish, Harlequin rasboras, Feeder guppies, and the Kuhli loach. Fancy guppies and other fish with flashy colors or fins should be avoided as they are often a perceived threat to a male Betta.
While Bettas can survive in harsh conditions for some time, they will thrive in temperatures ranging from 76°F – 82°F with a pH range of 6.5 – 7.0. A single Betta can be kept in a minimum 5 US gallons but like with most fish they will appreciate having more space to swim and explore.
The average length for a fully-grown Betta is 2.5 inches, but they can grow as large as 3 inches in the right conditions. Here’s our in-depth guide to setting up a tank for Bettas.
When living under ideal conditions, many Bettas live between 3 – 5 years of age. How long do bettas live? It can really vary, and sometimes they just won’t make it that long, and it’s not your fault.
Once you’ve chosen the freshwater fish you’d like to add to your established aquarium, you’ll need to know what to look for in terms of healthy fish. Avoid fish that appear lethargic, malnourished, have torn fins, white patches, wounds, or cloudy eyes. All of these signs insinuate stress and infection, and that you should take your business elsewhere.
If you’ve done your research and have choose hardy species, you should have no trouble establishing a healthy community of fish.
Frequently Asked Questions about Freshwater Fish for Beginners
Do you have any questions? Don’t be shy to leave a comment below and we’ll do our best to answer them for you, or find someone who can!
What freshwater fish eat other fish?
There are many freshwater fish that will eat smaller fish when given the opportunity.
Let’s start with Angelfish. Despite their angelic name, Angelfish are actually quite aggressive and have been known to eat smaller fish like Neon tetras. Both Red tail black sharks and Ruby sharks are known to be aggressive and eat smaller fish. Parrot cichlids, Golden wonder killifish, Black widow tetras, Bettas, Striped and spotted doras, and Pictus catfish are also all guilty of aggression and eating smaller fish.
Some fish, like most tetras, will nip at the long fins of other fish causing damage and making their victim more susceptible to illness. Almost all fish will eat fry or eggs, so that’s why it’s important to separate young fish immediately.
Are freshwater fish endangered?
Yes, some species of freshwater fish are endangered. This includes the Red Canarese barb, Red tailed black shark, Butterfly goodeid, Red line torpedo barb, Asian arowana, Cherry barbs, and some types of Killifish.
Luckily, with some species like the Cherry Barb and Killifish, aquarium hobbyists are actually helping them flourish in captivity whereas they are almost extinct in the wild.
Will brackish water kill freshwater fish?
Not necessarily. Before we get to the answer, let’s talk about what brackish water is. Brackish water is water that has more salinity than freshwater but less than saltwater. Some fish like Guppies, Black mollies, Asian cichlids, and Green spotted puffers might be marketed as freshwater fish but adapt or flourish in brackish water conditions. Other fish like types of Tetras, have more trouble adapting to such water conditions and could die from stress.
The most important thing to remember is to avoid sudden changes in water conditions. Even if a fish prefers brackish water, the quick change can cause them to go into shock and pass away.
What freshwater fish are easy to take care of?
Besides the freshwater fish mentioned earlier in this article, the following fish are considered easy to take care of: Bristlenose pleco, Dwarf gourami, Tiger barb, Convict cichlid, Kuhli loach, Red cherry shrimp, and most types of snails will flourish with little to no work from you. Two popular types of freshwater snails that are usually easy to find are Nerites and Mystery snails.
Before picking out a new freshwater fish, remember to ensure you can support their preferred water temperature, pH range, and that you have enough room in your aquarium.
Will salt kill freshwater fish?
This depends on the type of fish or invertebrates you have in your aquarium. You might be wondering why salt is added to an aquarium in the first place so let’s look at that first. Some people choose to add aquarium salt to their setup to treat infections like Ich, but it’s not really necessary now that we have safer treatments available.
Your household table salt should be avoided as it could contain iodine, which is fatal for most invertebrates. Additionally, most freshwater fish aren’t accustomed to having salt in their water and have an adverse reaction to it being added.
If your freshwater fish prefers soft water, do not add salt as they are likely one of the species that do not tolerate any amount of salt in their water.
Do freshwater fish eat shrimp?
Yes. Almost all freshwater fish will eat brine shrimp or young shrimp that are smaller than them. On the extreme side of aggressive fish, like the Vampire tetra, Asian arowana, and Red belly piranha prefer a meat-based diet and will certainly eat any shrimp roommates.
Aggressive or semi-aggressive omnivore species like Bettas, African cichlids, and Tiger barbs might terrorize their shrimp roommates to death, so you may want to reconsider keeping them together. Of course, this is dependent on the personality of each individual fish and your mileage may vary.