Beginning Fishkeeping-Choosing your first Fish

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Choosing your first fish[edit]

You're ready to pop down to your local store and buy a fish or two? Well here are a few tips and pitfalls to look out for:


Probably the first time you enter the store you'll be amazed at the choice and variety of the fish you can buy. You should spend a good bit of time simply looking and taking it all in.

If you're in a good fish store then there will be labels on each tank telling you the species name, maximum size the fish will grow to and its price. If the store only has common names, no latin names and no size guides, ask staff, if they can't answer you it may be time to try another store.

Things the store will not know will often be the sex of the fish. This is because most of the stock will be too young and fish often can't be sexed until they're much older. Some can't be identified by sight at all. So it's usually pot-luck.

Healthy tank[edit]

  • Check the tank itself.

Does it look clean? If the outside of the tank is covered with lots of dried-in water stains then the store is probably not taking care of the fish. Sadly this is too common an occurrence in some of the larger pet stores. Take a good look at all the occupiers of the tank regardless of species.

Healthy fish[edit]

  • Check all the fish.

A healthy fish has a undamaged body, clean fins with its dorsal fin fully displayed, it will be swimming around in similar behaviour like others of its own species. It will look alert and not be acting differently.

If there are any with ragged fins edges, covered with tiny white pinprick spots, damaged bodies or fluffy cotton-wool like growths on it then that fish is diseased.

If just one fish in the tank looks unhealthy or even dead, this means the rest of the fish in that tank will also be potential carriers of disease and you risk losing the fish. So we'd advise not buying a fish from that tank no matter how much you are tempted.

Ask the store keeper[edit]

Fish have two names. Their common name which is usually descriptive in nature (e.g. Goldfish) and its actual species name which enables everyone to know the exact fish you're talking about (Goldfish = Carassius auratus). If you don't know the fish, ask the shop assistant. In theory they should know the details you need on how the fish should be kept, what it likes to eat, how big it will grow, etc. But in the real-world, they often don't. Unless you're in a dedicated fish shop that has awards hanging on its walls, the assistant may very well be vague or even ignorant. Some shops even make up the common names to make them sound that bit more exciting!

Points to keep in mind[edit]

  • Shops regularly sell 2.5-5.1cm (1-2") long fish which grow to an enormous size of over 61-121.9cm (24-48")!
So that cute 5.1cm (2") pleco the shop assistant says is great for eating algae could easily grow to over 61cm (24")!
  • Shops will sell you fish which will attack other fish (even their own species). This is because fish behaviour in a store tank can be very different once it's in your own tank and settled in.
A small common fish called 'Algae eater' or Chinese algae eater is sadly all to often sold as a tank glass cleaner. But it grows to -10.2cm (5-6") in length and loves eating the sides of other fish when hungry.
A group of cute looking red finned shark fish looks great in the shop. But put two or more in your tank and you'll soon find they hate the sight of each other!
  • Shops will sometimes give you wrong information.
No shop knows its all, there are after all thousands of fish species. But they should be honest when they don't know.
Get yourself a fish species book. It is advisable that you buy (or borrow from a library) at least one fish species book. These handy books list the most common species to be found and will tell you the facts you need to ensure you buy the right fish for you.
Taking your book with you to a trip to a fish shop is a great idea as you can also ask the shop to order a particular species you've read about. If the fish shop is especially good, they'll have one of these books for you to consult on the premises.

Which fish[edit]

Fish vary enormously in their requirements. Some require special food or special water in order to survive healthily. Others species seem to thrive in any old tank and are tolerant of mistakes a beginner may make.

On this site we've tried to class species of fish that are easy for beginners to keep. You can read that full list here - Fish suitable for beginners or Easy fish to keep.

But basically these are Common Goldfish, Paradise fish, Bettas, Mollies, Swordtails, Guppies, Platies, Rosy Barbs, Zebra Danio and Gold Barb.

Each of these fish require particular tank environments.

The Common Goldfish for example eats a mixture of mostly plants and a little meat, doesn't mind company and prefers water temperatures of less than 25°C (77°F) . Whilst the Paradise fish or Betta is a meat eaters only, dislike company and prefers warm,er temperatures of 25-30°C (77-86°F) .

So you have to decide which environment you've got that is going to be suitable. Some beginners choose the fish first without thinking what the temperature of the room where the tank will be.

Asking the shop assistant[edit]

When you're ready to get your fish, ask the shop assistant. they should, if you're lucky, take their time and ask you a few questions about your aquarium, size, how long it's been cycled for, etc. (in the UK it's the law that the shop know you can look after your newly purchased pet).

Then they'll net the fish for you. If it's a reasonable sized fish and the shop assistant is willing, they will allow you to pick the one you want. Once the fish is bagged they should allow you to inspect it closely and this is when you should take your time and look at its body and fins. Make sure it's not missing an eye or has fin damage or tiny white spots on it (a sign of ich disease).

The assistant will knot the bag and if it's a catfish, loach, or other fish with sharp spines, probably double bag it in case the fish's sharp fins pierce the bag. The assistant will only half fill the bag and if they're knowledgeable will fold over the bottom corners with sticky tape so no small fish can get trapped if the bag is rested on a surface. The bag is often wrapped in old newspapers to insulate it from the outside cold air and to reduce stress on the fish as its kept in the dark. Finally it is put in a plastic carrier bag ready for you to take home.

Getting it home[edit]

You now have up to 2–4 hours to get home with it!

The bag only contains a certain amount of oxygen in it and the temperature of the water will start to drop to its surrounding environment so it is important that you shield the bag from cold winds or direct sun light. If you are transporting it in a car, try to keep the bag from moved or banged about. Try not to let the water temperature drop under 18°C (64.4°F) as most tropical fish will start to die when it gets this low. Though goldfish can survive 9-10°C (23°F) .

Try not to huddle it too close to your body, we're 32°C (89.6°F) and this is too warm for most tropical fish!

Opening the bag[edit]

Take the bag and put it on the surface of the aquarium water without opening it. After 20–30 minutes the bag temperature will have equalised with the aquarium's and you can prepare to release them.

Switch off the aquarium lights as sudden bright lights can shock small fish, undo the bag and slowly pour the bag contents into the tank. It is quicker to cut the bag open rather than try to fiddle with undoing the knot as you don't want to further stress the fish. A stressed fish often becomes an ill fish.

  • Some people may say you need to pour some aquarium water into the bag over time, in order to get the fish used to your tank water. This is totally unnecessary in the modern aquarium hobby as it take days for the chemistry of fish to adjust to new water. In any case if the fish shop was local then your tap water will be very similar to theirs. Fish are hardier than we give them credit for and a slight water difference will not affect them greatly.

Keep the lights off for several hours more and if it's in the evening leave them off and put them back on in the morning. By which time the fish will have settled in more and de-stressed.

  • You'll probably ignore the above advice, but we have to tell you the safest option for your new pets!

Online Purchases[edit]

It is not recommended that fledgling aquarists purchase livestock from online vendors for a multitude of reasons. However it is recommended that temperature acclimation with the bag closed be performed when the fish has been in a bag for a period of longer then 6 hours. When opening the bag, the inrush of fresh atmosphere can cause drastic changes in the water chemistry which can quickly kill intolerant fish within a few minutes.

Now on to - Monitoring your new pets.