How to Choose Starter Fish for Freshwater Aquariums

Have you set up a freshwater aquarium and are ready to purchase fish to add? This article will guide you on which fish are good for different aquariums.


  1. Make sure that you’ve cycled your tank for at least one month. If you’ve had fish in the aquarium before, and the tank is still running, you should still make sure your filter still has nitrifying bacteria.
  2. Research before you purchase. It’s always good to have knowledge of the variety of fish types that you can purchase. Also make sure you know the pH level of your tank as fish species vary in preference. The aquarist or worker at the pet shop or aquarium hobby store should be aware of the pH needs of the different species of fish at the store.
  3. Visit your local pet shop or aquarium hobby store. Take a look at their fish species. They will have tags saying whether the fish are community fish, proceed with caution/community fish with other fast swimmers, or non community fish. For most aquarium owners, community fish are your best option. You will want a mix of top feeders, mid-dwelling fish, and bottom feeders.
    Choose Starter Fish for Freshwater Aquariums Step 1.jpg
    • Some aquarium hobby stores will keep the tanks stocked with common, popular fish but will change up the species of the “specialty” fish. Depending on the type, you may not be able to get it readily in the future.
  4. Look at top feeders. Top feeders can be identified by their mouth near the top of their head. Top feeders consist of guppies, mollies, platies, swordtails, hatchetfish, and gourami. Out of these, guppies, mollies, and platies are easiest to take care of.
    Choose Starter Fish for Freshwater Aquariums Step 2.jpg
  5. Look at the mid-dwelling fish. There are many varieties of fish to consider in this category. Barbs, danios, tetras, and Harlequin rasboras are just a few breeds. They are all very easy to take care of, but tetras do not tend to live as long as the others. These fish are all schooling fish, and should purchase a minimum of three.
    Choose Starter Fish for Freshwater Aquariums Step 3.jpg
  6. Consider having a few cory catfish (not true catfish), plecos, or loaches. Cory catfish will clean the bottom of the aquarium and help to keep it clean. Plecos and loaches will eat the algae growing on the tank’s walls. For small tanks, Panda cories are recommended. Julii corydoras also make great fish mates.
    Choose Starter Fish for Freshwater Aquariums Step 4.jpg
    • Algae wafers should also be provided for plecos and some catfish. Supplying wafers ensures that the fish are getting the proper amount of nutrients.
  7. Decide which fish you are going to purchase. You do not want to purchase too many fish, but at the same time you want a nice variety. For tanks, you may just want three top swimmers, three mid-dwellers, and three small catfish. For larger tanks (20 gallons and up), you can start with more fish in the tank. Remember the rule: fish for every gallon.
    Choose Starter Fish for Freshwater Aquariums Step 5.jpg
  8. Ask the workers at the pet shop which fish they recommend for your experience level. The worker may suggest that you get certain fish over other’s if you are a beginner.
    Choose Starter Fish for Freshwater Aquariums Step 6.jpg



  • Give the fish a few days to adjust to the tank.
  • The fish listed above are just a few options of many fish.
  • Provide the proper food for the fish. Remember, plecos and catfish should have some algae wafers in their diet.
  • Keep the tank clean.


  • If you plan on buying goldfish, do not keep them in a bowl and do not over-crowd them in a small aquarium. Many goldfish can grow quite large if they have the proper environment.
  • Bristlenose plecos are recommended, as they do not grow over a few inches in length. Other plecos can grow over a foot long.
  • Do not buy real catfish. They are predators that don’t clean the tank and will eat any tank mates.
  • Don’t buy too many fish at once. They may feel too crowded and be stressed, causing death.

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