Fishkeeping 101: Advice, Tips & Tricks

The fish-keeping hobby is a really cool hobby. Not only can you add a visually appealing aesthetic to your living space, but you’ll have a beautiful fish tank to show off to your friends and family.

There are so many species of tropical fish that come in beautiful arrays of colors that it’s ridiculous. You can always experiment with new fish as you grow in the hobby. You can even get into saltwater reef tanks eventually, but that’s a whole other ball game.

What’s convenient about tropical fish is you don’t have to potty train them or take them for walks or to the vet or anything like that. The only things you have to do are make sure their water is safe and clean, feed them once or twice a day, and perform some routine maintenance.

Safe water is achieved with a good filtration system and even the feeding can be automated.

There is much to learn though. That can be a little intimidating at first, but once you get through the learning curve and develop a routine, it becomes much easier.

In this article I want you to discuss some things that beginning fish keepers would need to know when starting out. It’ll make your life so much easier when you learn from experience. These are some things that I learned along the way and things I didn’t consider when I first started out.

Hopefully, I can embark on some knowledge and experience your way.

Let’s get started.


Now, the first thing you need to consider is the size of the fish tank. It’s tempting to get a smaller fish tank at first, like maybe a 10-gallon, but it’s better to get a bigger size fish tank when you’re first starting off. Maybe 25 to 50-gallon tank and I’ll tell you why. Fish are live animals and they need a lot of space.

Tropical fish produce waste which pollutes their water. The water needs to be filtered through a filtration system.  The smaller the fish tank the more waste is going to be in the water and the more ammonia which is very bad for the fish.  You need to understand the nitrogen cycle.

Fish are also territorial. They require a lot of space to go and hide or just get away from other fish or just to swim around. In a smaller tank, they really have nowhere to go.

TIP: When it comes to fish tank size the bigger the better.  Not only is it easier to take care of, but you have more options as to the type and size of tropical fish.  In a smaller tank, you don’t have as many options.


Where you place your fish tank becomes very important.  You don’t want to place your fish tank in direct sunlight, like near a window, because you will get enormous algae growth.  You also don’t want to hide it away somewhere not able to enjoy it. Find a spot where you and everybody else can see it and it’s not too hot or cold.

You also need to consider the weight of the water.  Typically, water weighs about 10 pounds of gallon give or take, so you need to make sure that you have a good solid stand that can handle the weight. If your stand breaks you’ll have a big mess in your hands. Glass aquariums are much heavier than acrylic, so you need to consider that as well.


This is the part where you set up your aquarium with everything necessary to run an efficient environment for your fish.

When you’re first starting out you can buy a kit.  A kit will include almost everything you need to start off with and are generally reasonably priced. This may be the route you want to go, however, some of the equipment you get with the kit can be rather cheap so you may want to upgrade sometime in the future.

If you were to buy everything separately you would need to buy the aquarium, substrate, plants, filter, heater, some decorations, and probably a pump and AirStone. You would also need to buy the fish obviously.  These costs can add up quite rapidly. This is approximately how much it would cost.

When first starting out, I highly recommend using live plants over fake plants.  Live plants act as an additional filter in your tank to help absorb some of the nitrates. Live plants are great for your aquarium ecosystem and they’re not that hard to keep. Here are five great live plants for beginners.

The substrate is the gravel or sand at the bottom of your tank.  Gravel is recommended for beginners because it’s easier to clean and maintain. For starters, you’ll want to go with nice neutral colors to show off the color of your fish better.  Maybe nice pea gravel. Pea gravel has smooth, round edges so your fish don’t get cut.

As far as the live plants are concerned, you will need some sort of nutrients for the plants to grow.  There is nutrient-rich gravel that you can buy online or at pet stores. If you use regular gravel, then you would have to add some dirt as a first layer or other nutrient material to the substrate.

Decorations are important not only for the look of your fish tank but also to provide hiding spots for your fish. A tropical fish’s natural instincts are to hide from its predators. They need a spot where they can go and hide once in a while. It’s just good for their well-being. So get aquarium decorations that provide hiding spaces.

It’s also important to get yourself a good aquarium heater or maybe even two.  Tropical fish need water at certain temperatures depending on the species.  Because heaters are prone to malfunction it’s good to have a backup spare heater in case one goes out.  That way you’re not scrambling when it’s too late.

Probably the most important piece of equipment for your fish tank is the fish tank filter.  There are a few different types that beginners will use. There are submerged filters like Corner filters or sponge filters. These types are submerged inside the fish tank and are fine for smaller tanks.

There are filters that hang on the back of your aquarium and these are very popular among fish keepers due to their ease of use and maintenance. Then there are known as external canister filters that are a little more robust and powerful as far as how many gallons per hour of water they filter. Canister filters are the best for keeping the water nice and clean but are the most expensive.

Filters keep your fish water clean from all the toxins that fish and food waste created.

TIP: Get twice the size filter as you need. So for a 25-gallon tank let’s say, get a filter rated for a 50-gallon tank. That way, you are ensured that the water will stay clean (if you maintain the filter). Most filters are rated without media, so the flow rate goes down once you add media and/or gunk gets in there.


Other than the fish tank equipment, you’re going to need some supplies to go along with maintaining your fish tank.  Things like food and chemicals and cleaning items and a nice fishnet to capture your fish if you need to.

Here are some must-haves for your water.  You should get a de-chlorinator if you use tap water to fill your tank.  Tap water has chlorine in it which is not very good for your fish. Something like Seachem Prime works well.

Another must-have is a good water test kit especially when you are starting a new fish tank and cycling it.  You need to get good readings for the amount of ammonia and nitrites and nitrates that are in your water to see if it’s safe enough for your fish to live in.  I recommend something like the API Master water test kit.

The next item that’s a must-have is fish food.  You should do some research with your fish to see if there are a herbivore or carnivores or an omnivore.  This will determine what type of food you should get for your fish. Herbivorous fish will eat just plant food while carnivorous fish will eat just meat and omnivore fish will eat both. Frozen and live food is good for carnivores,  fish flakes, algae wafers, and pellets work well for herbivores and omnivores. It’s better to feed them a variety of foods rather than just flakes all the time. Some human foods like blanched peas or spinach or zucchini work too.

Another really good thing to have as a fishnet because you’re going to need to catch and remove your fish at some point in case they get to see it or something like that.  Get a fishnet that’s big enough to handle your fish otherwise, you’ll be trying to catch him by hand which is very difficult to do.

Also, your fish will probably need some medication at some point in case it develops from fin rot or something like that. Make sure you have a few of the basic medications necessary so that you aren’t racing around trying to find something when you really need medication now.

A good detoxifier is really handy too. When you test your water regularly, which you should, and notice an ammonia or nitrite spike, you’ll want to have an ammonia detoxifier on hand to get rid of it fast until you figure out what the problem is.

The final product to get is what’s called bio clear. The water, especially in new tanks can get cloudy which is unattractive. Just add some of the bios clear and the water should clear up.


The first thing we should address when talking about tropical fish is that you need to cycle your tank first before you add the fish. This is a two to three-week process.  It’s important to cycle your tank to make the water safe for your fish before you start adding it. Here’s how to do it.

When looking at purchasing your tropical fish you want to avoid impulse buying and do your research first. Some fish can grow quite large and so you need to know how big your fish will eventually get in order to know if you have the proper tank size. In fact, you probably should figure out what kind of fish you want to keep and then go get the proper size fish tank.

Another factor is the compatibility of your tropical fish. Certain fish cannot really live together peacefully because they’re known to be more aggressive or predatory to more docile species. Beginners should stick with ‘community fish’. These are typically smaller more peaceful species of fish that you shouldn’t have too much trouble with.

Also, consider that some fish are livebearers and some lay eggs. If you get both male and female livebearers, then you will have lots of babies known as fry.

Certain tropical fish species, like betta fish, cannot tolerate other males so it’s important to get the proper mix of males and females as well. More about that here.

These are some great fish to get for beginners.

TIP: Start with easy fish for beginners. There are hardier species that can tolerate some mistakes and still survive.


If you have the proper equipment there isn’t a ton of maintenance you have to do, but it’s the consistency that counts.

You’ll have to do regular water changes like maybe 25% every two weeks and then 50% once a month. Other fish keepers do things differently depending on the type and amount of fish they keep. The point is that you should be changing the water regularly.

Before you perform water changes, you should test your water. It’s important to test on a regular basis.  Sometimes you get ammonia spikes and you wake up with a dead fish. You don’t want any surprises.

Along with regular water changes, you should also vacuum your substrate at the same time you’re doing a water change. You can do both at once. You want to pull out the gunky water at the bottom of your fish tank because siphoning out the surface water really does no good. Food and other waste tend to build up in your substrate causing big problems when it starts to rot. Regular cleaning of the substrate gravel is a must.  I’d say at least once a month.

Still another thing that you need to do regularly is to clean out your filters.  Aquarium filters tend to gather a lot of muck from mechanical filtration. Those need to be cleaned and/or changed regularly. The biological filtration, however, should not be cleaned as that contains the beneficial bacteria that eat the ammonia and nitrite.  You should also clean the rest of the equipment and that’s why it’s handy to have a nice aquarium brush kit to do that with.


Fishkeeping is a great hobby in that tropical fish and aquascaping are just beautiful to look at every day and add a lot to the aesthetic value in your home. Understand that it does take some research and mastery and some regular maintenance, so be patient because you will inevitably make mistakes. Start with beginner fish and plants for an easier experience.

When it comes to fishkeeping, what is your single biggest challenge or frustration? Leave a comment below.

Learn More on Fishkeeping:

Marian Haaz
Marian is a cat adoption expert. She has rescued and adopted several cats herself and helped find homes for dozens of stray cats and dogs.
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