Your First Freshwater Aquarium

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Albino Oscar juvenile: a great species—but not for a beginner's community tank.

[edit] Hard-learned Lessons

Success starts with picking the right fishes

By Kathleen Wood

My entry into the world of fishkeeping was quite by accident and for all the wrong reasons. I was living in a small apartment and needed a divider to separate the kitchen from the living room. A 6-foot aquarium seemed just the thing, and besides, I’d always wanted to keep fish but the time never seemed right. So, I bought a 125-gallon tank and brought it home.

A month later and several hundred dollars poorer, I had my tank up and running...but there it sat, still empty. What to do? I knew next to nothing about fish, so I decided to make the rounds of my local tropical fish stores. There were so many pretty and interesting species to choose from that I found myself overwhelmed. Which ones should I start with and would they all get along? Confused, I finally knew what I was going to do. I’d throw a “fish-tank-warming party.” I sent out invitations asking each guest to bring one tropical fish.

For the next week I received calls from most of the stores in the area, each asking me to be more specific about the kinds of fish I was thinking about. Did I want gouramis? How about a knifefish? And on and on. Everyone seemed to be getting involved in this fishy endeavor. By the time party night arrived, I had probably spoken with just about every shop in the area and, by the end of the evening, I was the proud owner of a tank full of around 75 fish (no one brought just one!), from a Ghost Knifefish to tetras to gouramis to cute baby name it, I had it. All types of fishes from all types of habitats from all over the world, all with various and different needs.

There I was with a tank full of living, breathing fishes and not a clue what to do next besides sprinkle in some flake food a few times a day. And so began an odyssey into the fascinating world of tropical fishes that has lasted for over 30 years.

[edit] All the Right Reasons

One of the great things about the aquarium hobby is that there are so many possibilities. Over the years I’ve watched the numbers and varieties of wonderful tropical fishes grow to the point that we now have a staggering array to choose from. Walking into the tropical fish section of just about any pet store is like being a kid in a candy store. So many colors and fin types, so little time. But, just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.

When I was the editor of Aquarium Fish Magazine, I received countless letters and phone calls from frustrated hobbyists who were at their wits’ end and about to throw in the towel. Their fishes were dying, the water cloudy—fishkeeping was just too difficult and not very rewarding. When questioned further, it turned out that many of these newcomers were suffering from the common beginner’s ailment of leaping before they looked. They had purchased fishes based on a whim of the moment, with little or no consideration of what would happen once they got the fishes home. Few had bothered to ask: How big would they get? Would all the fish get along? Do I have the right setup for the fish I picked?

No one acquires an aquarium with the intention of failing or of killing fish. In fact, lack of success (and lost fish) is the number-one reason why there are so many empty 10-gallon tanks at garage sales. But, what I’ve learned over the years is that having a thriving aquarium is not that hard—all it takes is a little thought and planning before you start and whenever you buy a new fish.

The beginner's sections of this site (and my book, 101 Best Tropical Fishes ), are designed to make stocking a freshwater aquarium less of a mystery and to give you some tools to get started on the road to success with tropical fishes. This hobby is too much fun for people to end up frustrated because they made bad choices when acquiring their fishes.

Start with Stocking Your Freshwater Aquarium and the species accounts to find fishes that are hardy, easy to keep, attractive and interesting to you. These are the species we would recommend to a best friend or relative wanting to stock a new aquarium—or restocking more intelligently after an initial failure.

Be sure to read the husbandry guidelines and advice, as well as pages on stocking, foods and feeding, and choosing healthy fishes. These have the simple goal of helping you to avoid the mistakes I made when I started in the hobby.

So, what happened to the 75 fish crammed together in my 125-gallon room divider? Luckily, a friendly clerk I encountered on one of my never-ending trips to the pet stores to buy yet another medication to solve yet another problem turned out to be a very knowledgeable teenage “fish geek.” With great patience, he proceeded to guide me out of the morass of troubles I had gotten myself and my fishes into.

During that time I learned which of the 75 were compatible and returned those that were not and which types of fishes were suitable for my setup.

Finally, after many returns and lost fish, I had a perfect community of 25 bottom, midwater and top-swimming fishes, many of which I was able to enjoy for years. It would have been so much easier (not to mention less costly) to have done it right in the first place.

The best advice I can give anyone entering or exploring this wonderful hobby is to take your time and buy the right fish for the right reasons.

Excerpt from: 101 Best Tropical Fishes
Kathleen Wood, Laguna Beach, CA