To be truthful there is no such thing as a starter fish. Fish are all susceptible to new tank syndrome and ammonia. Do not listen to sales guys who tell you: “Hey this fish is alittle expensive but that’s why he’ll live for a long time”. Most fish that are expensive I have found are extremely sensitive to water conditions. Cheaper ones are better for the task for one reason. If they die your not out 30 bucks. The fish groups I will list here will give you a good variety and not put a dent in your purse or wallet. These fish are also hardy as well as cheap and should get you through that ever hard first phase of the nitrogen cycle (Ammonia). Also worth mentioning here unless otherwise stated all fish should be bought and kept in at least groups of six. Most of these fish are community fish and enjoy shoaling with members of their own kind. More on this in each group of fish.
Characin’s include Tetra’s and are noted for their extra fin between the dorsal and the caudal fins. This fin is called the adipose fin. These are hardy and strong fish and for the most part fairly cheap in price. One note though on what to watch out for is painted fish. If you read the first page you will see that I had purchased fish named Berry Tetra’s. There is no such thing as Berry Tetra’s and they are white or albino Tetra’s painted a pretty blue color. These fish are expensive and I have heard that they do not live long from being through a great deal by being painted. I have 6 still in the tank and haven’t notice any of them being bad off but the color fades in time and then you’re just left with a white Tetra! Good fish that are cheap in my hometown are Black Tetra’s. These fish have three fat black vertical stripes running down the sides of them starting with their eyes. I get them for 88 cents and they are very hardy and great eaters. Piranha’s are Tetra’s and if you see these Black Tetra’s eat you will think they are Piranha’s. Black Tetra’s if kept in smaller groups of less than six will setup territories among the males and although no terrible fights will occur you will not see the fish shoaling as they normally do. This takes away the natural look to the tank and you’ll see the constant bashing back and forth of the males. Black Tetra’s are very hardy fish and mine never even clamp a fin during the first cycle of the nitrogen cycle. Actually all but a few Characins and Tetra’s are good starter fish. They are fairly cheap and are mostly strong hardy fish. I will also note here that Tetra’s are community fish. They should be kept in-groups of 6 or more. Now this doesn’t mean get 2 Black Tetra’s and 1 Lemon Tetra and 3 Penguin Tetra’s so you have 6 Tetra’s and a rainbow of colors. This is the other big mistake of the newbie and I thought and did the same thing. They need their same kind with them. 6 Black Tetra’s or 6 Lemon Tetra’s or 6 Penguin Tetra’s. This way the fish feel a part of the community. Also most Tetra’s are middle strata swimmers. Depending on how big your tank you should be aware of this. But to start with 6 Tetra’s for any size tank should be good.
Catfish are noted for the barbells that start at their mouths and extend outward. Many varieties also display the same Adipose Fin as do the Tetra’s. Most Catfish as with the Tetra’s are hardy strong fish and also do one thing for you. They are natures little garbage disposals! They wait patiently at the bottom for the upper fish to make a mess and they clean it up. Also Pleco’s which are a good starter fish will help when the tank has cycled to clean up the algae. A note on Pleco’s though. These fish can get very big. They can live for 10 to 15 years but also can get 10 to 15 even 20 inches long. So be aware of that. Also a note on Pleco’s. They are gentle and shy fish. They can be left in a tank with tiny fry’s with no fear of them eating the fry. Although I have notice mine do like shrimp pellets they are mainly vegetarians. Before your tank cycles algae wafers should be bought and dropped in the tank every other day so they have a food source. Algae doesn’t grow till nitrate is in the tank and that means the tank has to cycle. Cory cats are also very hardy and good fish to have in the tank for cycling. Cory’s will sift through the gravel looking for scraps to eat and keep the bottom clean. Also Cory’s can withstand ammonia levels good and ammonia is higher at the bottom of the tank. Pleco’s can be kept by themselves and do not need others of their kind to be happy. They do need a cave or rock ledge though to hide and will defend the hiding spot very hard. Cory’s are community fish and should be kept in-groups of 2 or more. 2 or more of their own kind although they will shoal with other kinds of Cory’s they do prefer their own to others. I love the little Cory’s the best and they are bottom dwellers. They are all cute. I have 2 julii’s 2 Bronze 2 Peppered and 2 Black Spotted Cory’s in the tank at work. They all play together and they are the easiest to tell male from females of all my fish. Females are larger and fatter than the males and their eyes are farther apart. Males are smaller with close set eyes and skinner than females. Also with the exception of larger Pleco’s all of these fish are cheap in price. The two Bronzes I got from Wally World for $2.50 for the pair and they were the only two Bronzes in the tank and ones female and one is male. They definitely have a thing for one another. They court all over the tank driving the others nuts. Small Pleco’s are cheap at around 1 to 2 bucks medium Pleco’s are around 4 to 6 dollars and large Pleco’s are up and above 10 dollars. I suggest a small one for price and size. And also they will be big enough soon but they do grow slowly. In choosing one try to see their bellies. Make sure they have puffy stomachs not a caved in one. This will tell you if they are eating good and are feed good. Also they have a tendency to have a large dung (Poop) trail behind hanging from them. Not a pleasant thought but you will know that they are eating good. Stay away from hardy but expensive Clown Loaches. They are hardy fish but are very popular and expensive. They are not easily breed in captivity and have to be imported in and the cost will show it. When cycling a tank you want only cheap expendable (Although I hate to think of them as expendable I love them all) fish. You want something that if it does pass away it doesn’t put a dent in the wallet.
Barbs and Danios:
Barbs and Danios are for the most part strong and hardy fish. Cherry Barbs, Tiger Barbs, Rosy Barbs, etc are all great starter fish. Strong and well adapted to put up with harsh conditions. But one note here. Tiger Barbs are noted for fin nipping. They are the yellow jacket pesky little guys that are very curious and have to bit and nip at everything. Hungry little guys as well. They are always hungry and will eat 24 hours a day like they haven’t had a meal in years. They should be kept in no less than 6 Tigers Barbs per tank. More if possible and never with fish with long fins such as Angel fish or Siamese Fighting fish or any fish that is slow such as Discus fish. They will pick on them without mercy. Also why you must keep them in-groups of 6 or preferably more is to keep them busy with each other as to not bother the other fish. Cherry Barbs and Rosy Barbs are fairly peaceable fish and don’t display the same problems as Tigers. All at small sizes are fairly cheap and are mid to bottom dwellers. Rosy barbs have a note as well as they prefer cooler water temps. Depending on the type of fish you care to keep this should be noted and water temps kept at 68 to 75 degrees. Zebra Danios are a good and cheap tank starting fish. They are top to middle swimmers but will on occasion visit the bottom to play or get food. They are extremely active and I wouldn’t suggest keeping them with Cherry Barbs, which prefer to have calmer fish. Zebra Danios are always in motion and never ever rest. They are a very busy fish and fun to watch but should not be kept with fish that don’t prefer a busy tank. White Clouds are another cheap and busy fish. My tank at home has 8 white clouds and 11 Zebra Danios and they shoot in and out of each other constantly. Zebra Danios are around 70 cents to $1.25 and White Clouds are roughly the same price. Also both will spawn easily and require little maintenance. Most Barbs and Danios are good fish for beginners and could easily cycle a tank but these are the most common and cheapest around my home. You may choose others if the price is right. Also one other note about Tiger Barbs. They require an well-oxygenated tank. They will not tolerate low oxygen levels and they will suffer if not kept that way.
There are many other first fish that can be used that I haven’t mentioned because of price and or requirements of care. Platy’s and Mollies being one of these. These fish are cheap and are very hardy. They are also very good at removing algae from the tank. But Mollies and Platy’s require brackish water. Brackish water means that they require a small amount of salt in their water. This small amount of salt may cause other fish to not like the water and this is not good. If you like Mollies and Platy’s and just want to keep these kinds of fish then I would say that they are great and cheap starter fish. Also keep in mind that fish swim in stratas. Most Tetra’s prefer middle stratas and Cory cats and Pleco’s bottom dwellers. Zebra Danios are top swimmers. Also another note to keep in mind is that some fish do not tolerate others. Zebra Danios and Tiger Barbs are great together. But put in some angelfish later on and the Angels will hate both of them. Tigers will nip at their long fins and the Zebra’s are always moving and will drive them crazy. Same with Discus fish. I will suggest the two books that I have got that I feel are great for beginners and I read them often. The first book is: “The Aquarium Fish Survival Manual” by Barron’s and “Aquarium Fish” also by Barron’s and no I get no money for any of these books. Unfortunately!!! I feel that both of these books are geared towards the beginner and have great photos in color of fish. They give loads of great hint on breading fish and sicknesses and also have a small section on plants. I wasn’t even aware of the fact that they were from the same company until someone E-mailed me, and I suggested the books to them. I guess they have similar lay outs and I like the format that they use. Fish I will suggest not to get until your tank is established are Bala Sharks or Silver Sharks if you go to Wally World!!! Haha! I’m sure Wally World will be sending me nasty grams soon! But Bala Sharks are definitely for established tanks and also they get very large around 14 inches in length. Also stay away from Oscars. These are also fish that become very large and will be snacking on your smaller fish in no time. Also they have nasty tempers. Goldfish should never be used as a starter fish. First Goldfish are mainly cold water fish. They are cheap but are also mass-produced and kept in poor condition. They may introduce decease into your tank that will kill other fish and most fish with ammonia levels on the rise don’t need any help in the make me feel worse category. There are many fish to not use for many reasons but mainly stay with cheap fish (besides Goldfish) that are hardy and do not have high requirements. Most Tetra’s and Barbs fit this bill. Well I almost forgot to mention since they are very popular. Neon Tetras should NOT be used as starter fish. They are cheap but since they are so popular they are mass-produced and are very weak in many cases. Also they do not tolerate high levels of ammonia well. They are nice fish to have and get along although small well with other Tetra’s but should be bought after the tank has cycled. Next we will discuss types of filters and uses for them. Also I would like to touch on media’s gallons per hour needed.