What's "beginner's fish", anyways?

I often think of the term "beginner's fish" that the industry/hobby loves to bandy about from time to time.  I don't particularly care for it. It's one of those "double-edged swords", in my opinion. On one hand, it referes to a fish that, by it's very nature, is apparently adaptable, hardy, and easy enough to care for that it can even be recommended to a novice aquarium keeper with little skill.  Now, on the surface, this sounds pretty good. 

Yet, when you look at some of the fishes being touted as "beginner's fishes", it's pretty apparent that there are some aspects of some of them that defy this over-reaching description. I mean, look at the Neon Tetra, for example. Sure, it's reasonably adaptable, hardy, eats most anything you feed it- making it a reasonable and hardy choice for a beginner. However, when you think about it, how many hobbyists do you know who have bred the Neon Tetra?

Like, not that many, huh? 

And then, the very term "beginner's fish"seems to devalue the fish, as if to imply that once you're no longer a beginner, the fish is somehow not worthy of your skills and should be passed over in favor of more "exotic" and challenging species.

So, what exactly constitutes a "beginner's fish?" 

Wouldn't, say, a guppy be a better call as a "beginner's fish", because it pretty much ticks every box in the "beginner's" department? Well, sure, it's easy to breed, hardy, etc., etc. However, to produce truly fancy show guppies- the best of their kind- represents a huge amount of work- housing, feeding, culling, selecting, etc. Not something that every "beginner" would necessarily want to undertake, or have the skills for, for that matter. In fact, many advanced hobbyists aren't up for the challenge, either! To produce a fancy guppy is not as easy as just throwing any two fishes together.

Yet, wouldn't you agree that keeping and breeding guppies- even the fancier varieties, is easier than keeping, say a Leopard Ctenopoma, for example?

The reality is that most fishes are far more "multi-dimensional" than to be given the term "beginner's fish."

Sure, some fishes are simply easier to adapt to aquariums. They can tolerate environmental fluctuations better than others. Some can be bred with far less effort than others. Yet, to assign the generalized term "beginner's fish" to me implies an animal that is near bulletproof. And that's a bit of an overstatement.

Ever kept a Gourami? Many of them are surprisingly tough, but some of the ones commonly sold as "beginner's fishes" are far more delicate than the term would imply, certainly not in prime health and color in an undisciplined aquarium.

So, where does this leave us? Well, in my opinion, we need to rethink the "beginner's fish" moniker for fishes that are hardy enough for novice fish keepers to keep and maintain for a long life span in the aquarium. I think we need to utilize an equally broad, yet more descriptive term, like"hardy."  Sure, it doesn't tell the whole story about the fish. It says nothing about the ability to breed it, but it avoids that overreaching "beginner's fish" title, and says a big chunk of what I believe the title was meant to imply in the first place.

And often, so of the more well, "dull" fishes are often heaped into the "beginner's fish" basket as well...You know, fishes that may not have been blessed with bright crazy colors. Their like "disposable" to some, simply because they have little to offer fro ma color standpoint under typical "community tank" conditions. 


And then there is the fact that, when provided with conditions similar to their natural habitat, even these fishes become more amazing to keep, from both a health and aesthetic perspective. We can appreciate these so-called 'beginner's fish" even if we're not a "beginner", right? Hardiness and color certainly are only a small part of the story.

For example, our office aquarium, which you see splashed all over our blog, social media posts, etc., is home to a small shoal of Hyphessobrycon flammeus, the "Flame Tetra" or "Von Rio" Tetra- a fish that, for all intents and purposes is a historical "poster child" for the so-called "beginner's fish" archetype.

Hardy, peaceful, subtly colorful, and easy to breed, it's easy to take this one for granted. Yet, when in the proper setting, such as our blackwater leaf-litter aquarium, they glow. And we receive a near constant stream of inquiries from hobbyists worldwide wanting to know what "those bright red fish" are. They're almost always surprised to hear that it's our old friend, the Flame Tetra!

I think that the idea of providing conditions for fishes similar to those from it's natural habitat, even when you're talking about a long "domesticated" version, will give you an entirely different perspective on them. Even the more "chromatically challenged" Tetras with muted colors seem to take on an entirely different glow under blackwater conditions.

I'm such a strong believer in this that one of our next tanks is going to be set up entirely with some of the lessor-colored so-called "beginner's fishes" in a blackwater environment, to really demonstrate the point.

So, next time you're looking to stock your tank, take into consideration those fishes that are so frequently taken for granted by the hobby. Colorful, dull, or somewhere in between, it's always fun to check out some old friends in a new light!

Simple thought for a short week.

Stay fascinated. Stay excited. Stay creative.

Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


Leave a comment