Certain aquarium fish are classified as “beginner fish” because they are easy to care for, very colorful, and won’t break the bank. However, even experienced fish keepers often turn to them because they are such crowd pleasers and don’t take as much attention as more high-maintenance species. After years of helping customers in our local fish store, these are our top 10 beginner fish we find ourselves recommending over and over again.
1. Black Neon Tetra (Hyphessobrycon herbertaxelrodi)
This striking starter fish is known for its solid white and black horizontal stripes with a red “eyebrow” above its pupil. Because of its mostly neutral colors, we find that the black streak matches well with fish of many other colors. They grow to about 1.5 inches (4 cm) in length and get slightly bigger than regular neon tetras (Paracheirodon innesi). As a nice schooling fish, they do best in a group of 6-12 of their own species, but luckily they are relatively inexpensive at $2-3 each. Black neon tetras are very forgiving when it comes to beginner mistakes and can withstand a wide variety of temperatures and water parameters. Their robustness and even-keeled nature can help you gain more confidence in the early stages of your fish keeping hobby.
2. Kuhli Loach (Pangio kuhlii)
This miniature “eel” is a popular oddball fish because of its noodle-like body and alternating yellow and black bands. The 4-inch (10 cm) bottom dweller likes to scavenge for food on the ground and hide behind aquarium decorations, driftwood, and aquarium plants. To encourage them to come out in the open, get a posse of at least 3-6 kuhli loaches and drop their meals near the front of the fish tank. They love to eat frozen bloodworms, freeze-dried tubifex worms, and small sinking pellets.
3. Bristlenose Plecostomus (Ancistrus sp.)
Many beginners end up with a plecostomus catfish or “suckerfish” because they look cool and like to hang onto the glass or bottom of the tank. However, some plecos can grow extremely large, so consider choosing a bristlenose pleco that stays relatively small and peaceful. Their common name comes from the fact that males get little bristles on their face, but females usually do not. They are one of our most recommended algae eaters because they do such a great job of cleaning up the aquarium, but make sure you feed them a good quality protein food, Repashy gel food, and vegetables like blanched zucchini slices and canned green beans. For more details on how to care for plecostomus.
4. Harlequin Rasbora (Trigonostigma heteromorpha)
Everyone always has harlequin rasboras on their list of beginner fish because of their stunning appearance, hardiness, and low cost (usually under $4). Nothing beats a beautiful school of 2-inch-long (5 cm) orange rasboras with a solid black triangle patch on their bodies. You need at least six or more of the same species for them to feel the happiest in their environment. In general, schooling fish need social time with their own kind to put on their best coloration, behave correctly, and give you the most longevity and enjoyment out of your purchase.
5. Albino Cory Catfish (Corydoras aeneus)
Corydoras catfish are a fish tank favorite because of their happy-go-lucky personalities and ability to keep the floor clean of crumbs. There are over 100 species in the Corydoras genus, but we like albino corys for beginners because of their toughness, inexpensive price, and shiny pink scales that stand out in a planted aquarium. If you don’t prefer pink, you can also go with the bronze cory, which is the same species in a dark greenish-brown color. This schooling bottom dweller gets up to 2.8 inches (7 cm) and loves gobbling up frozen bloodworms, Repashy gel food, and small sinking pellets. One of their adorable behaviors is their habit of “blinking” or flicking their eyes downward, so see if you can catch them in the act.
6. Cherry Barb (Puntius titteya)
You may have heard that barbs are aggressive, but luckily cherry barbs aren’t any more aggressive than your average tetra or rasbora. Males have a deep red coloration, whereas the females are more tannish-red. While you may be tempted to get only males for your aquarium, try to buy at least 1-2 females for every male because the boys show off their best coloration when they have girls to impress. If you feed them high quality foods like krill flakes, freeze-dried foods, and frozen foods, they are very easy to breed and constantly lay eggs. The adults do predate on their offspring though, so plant a forest of dense aquarium plants like water sprite and wisteria for the baby fry to hide amongst.
7. Red Eye Tetra (Moenkhausia sanctaefilomenae)
If you accidentally bought a bigger, semi-aggressive fish like a bala shark or rainbow shark, pair them with a larger, more full-bodied schooling fish. Red eye tetras (or monk tetras) grow to approximately 2.75 inches (7 cm) in size and are tolerant of a wide range of water parameters. Their silvery body, red eye, and black tail contrast well with a background of green plants or a community of other colorful fish. Get six or more in a group to swim in the middle of your aquarium, and feed them a varied selection of fish foods, like flakes, freeze-dried bloodworms, and Vibra Bites.
8. White Cloud Mountain Minnow (Tanichthys albonubes)
There are several types of white cloud minnows (including those sold as feeder fish), but we recommend getting regular white cloud mountain minnows as the most bulletproof variety. They are very cheap, only grow to 1.5 inches (4 cm), and don’t need an aquarium heater because they live in cooler temperatures. In fact, many people keep them outside in outdoor mini ponds or tubs during the summer season (or year-round, depending on your climate). Just make sure the water temperature doesn’t get above 80°F (27°C) or else they can become prone to disease. Get this underrated fish because you’re going to love watching the males spar with each other, flaring out their fins like little peacocks.
9. Siamese Algae Eater (Crossocheilus oblongus)
The Siamese algae eater (or SAE) is another great cleaner fish with a downturned mouth that’s ideal for consuming algae and leftover fish food in the tank. It’s a bigger fish that grows to about 6 inches (15 cm) in length and kind of looks like a little shark. Technically, they are a schooling fish, but because they can be semi-aggressive in nature, we find that they do best when you have only one SAE by itself or three or more to keep each other in check. We prefer the SAE over the Chinese algae eater (CAE) because the latter gets even larger and more hostile. Some people say that SAEs are better at eating algae when they are younger, but we find that is because the adult SAEs are big enough to get the lion’s share during mealtimes. To get older SAEs interested in eating algae again, try cutting back on the food to whet their appetites.
10. Endler’s Livebearer (Poecilia wingei)
Despite the popularity of livebearers (or fish that bear live young) like guppies and mollies, we don’t always advise them for beginners because they have specific water parameters that need to be met. Plus, their beautiful colors are sometimes the result of heavy inbreeding, which can lead to health issues. However, Endler’s livebearers are a good choice because their natural coloration already looks amazing and therefore not as much linebreeding has been needed to get spectacular patterns. We’ve found them to be quite adaptable to pH of 6.5 and higher and temperatures between 68-82°F (20-28°C). They do prefer some minerals in their water, so if you find your tap water has low GH (general hardness), try adding some Wonder Shell or Seachem Equilibrium. If you’re searching for a budget-friendly fish that looks incredible and makes more babies for free, you can’t go wrong with Endler’s livebearers.