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How to Setup a Freshwater Fish Tank: Part 3

February 5, 2020
How to Setup a Freshwater Fish Tank: Part 3

Beautiful. So your aquarium is setup. You’ve got live plants (hopefully) and you understand the nitrogen cycle and have mechanical, chemical and bio filtration in place. Now you’re ready for the fish!

As easy as it would be to run to the pet store and start selecting fish like candy at Halloween, you really need to take some things into consideration…

Fish Temperament & Size

It’s important to understand how freshwater fish will get along with each other. And with that, how many you need of a certain kind. For example, neon tetras are a schooling fish. You need 5-6 at a minimum in the tank or they’ll be stressed out. Cory catfish? Same situation. I don’t care if there are only 3 of them in the tank at the pet store. Don’t do this at home.

Sabrina coming to the top to beg for food.

Fish personalities matter too. Some fish are just gonna swim around and look pretty (Gouramis). Others are going to beg you for food every single time you get near the tank (Cichlids). Other fish will recognize you and have personalities (Oscars).

Some fish can be pretty territorial. Most are going to get a lot bigger than they are at the pet store, and you need to think ahead.

The Amount of Fish

Everyone suffers from the same syndrome with a new fish tank. I call it the sardine-tank-syndrome. “How many fish can I put into this thing?”

Some pet store employees are gonna say stuff like, “An inch of fish per gallon.” And that means calculate the final size of the fish when it’s full grown. But this math isn’t always good. IMHO you don’t want to pack your tank out. Your fish need breathing room. They need to be non-stressed and comfortable.

Plus, as you now know, the more fish you have the more ammonia, nitrites and nitrates you have to deal with.

Water Temperature

Most of the freshwater fish you can purchase at a pet store are tropical fish. However, that doesn’t mean they all like the same temperatures. Angelfish are happy at 78-81. Panda Corys want around 73-75 while other Corys can go up to 78. If you don’t have the right temp your fish might not float to the top dead, but they’re not gonna be healthy.

What Did I Decide?

You already know that I have a 29 gallon planted tank. Here are the fish I have and important things to know about each of them:

1 Angelfish (Entertainment)

Freshwater angelfish are technically cichlids, which means they have more personality (like begging you for food) but they can also be a bit opinionated and territorial. For a 29-gallon tank, one angelfish is just fine. Can you do two? As long as you start them together young. But they are okay being alone.

When an angelish grows up, it’s going to chomp down on any tiny fish or crustaceans. Just recently I came to the tank to see Sabrina (my angel) very fat. And with that, a cherry shrimp was missing.

2 Bristle Nosed Pleco (Clean Up Crew)

Most are familiar with algae eaters. A common one is the pleco. However, normal pleco get HUGE and a 29 gallon tank is way too small for them. A bristle nosed pleco stays small, and is also an algae eating machine! My albino bristle nose are part my tank clean up crew and eat algae off everything from the glass to plant leaves.

This bristle-nosed pleco who is part of my tank clean up crew.

2 Nerite Snails (Clean Up Crew)

Another form of algae attack are nerite snails. An important note: These snails will not spawn into hundreds of tiny snails like some types of snails. They are hardy, and flexible with temperatures.

5 Shrimp (Clean Up Crew)

Shrimp are also great algae eaters. I had two cherry shrimp (now just one). Also have three Amano shrimp, which are best known for their algae eating skills. These shrimp will be able to pick off algae in areas that a bulkier pleco can’t get to. You need to have cover for these guys to be happy.

Otocinclus catfish, nerite snail and shrimp.

4 Otocinclus Catfish (Clean Up Crew)

Otocinclus catfish are also great algae eaters, but unique to the others in that they’re a schooling fish. So I have 4 in my tank so they’re not stressed out. You might be thinking, “Dude, why all of the algae eaters?”

In my planted tank I’ve had A LOT of algae try to grow. And so I have quite a few varieties to help take care of this. Keeping water PH and nitrate levels right also helps, but it’s still gonna grow.

ICH Warning: What is ICH? I found out the hard way. It’s a parasite that freshwater fish can have. It’s also called white spot disease as that’s how it shows up on your fish. Up to 60% of fish at pet stores could have it, and you won’t know it unless they get stressed.

So what do you do about it? There is treatment you can purchase from the pet store. I got a bad case of it on my first tank setup this year, and this was part of my crash and burn. I’d purchased fish from two different pet stores, and one of them was infected and it spread. Not good!

The only way to avoid ICH completely is to have a small 10-gallon setup that you place new fish in for a quarantine period. But that’s a lot of time, money and hassle for most people. I recommend getting your fish from one place, and have treatment ready so you can hit it fast if needed. Upping the water temp to 80 can also help kill the parasite off.

If you see white spots, act fast!

Would I Do Anything Different?

If I was doing this all over again, I’d get a 55-gallon fish tank minimum. The 29 is really nice, but you’re still limited to how many fish you can put in there. If I had a 55-gallon I could have more than one angel fish, a school of tetras, etc. With the larger tank I’d also study up and really design the landscape of the tank more with not just live plants, but wood, etc.

Having a planted freshwater fish tank has been a lot of fun! If you’re about to jump in, I hope this writeup has proven helpful — Enjoy your new underwater world!

To Summarize

For those of you (like me) who thought you could put clean, filtered water into your new tank and immediately dump in fish, well… Think again. They could die on you. The nitrogen cycle we talked about in Part 2 must be in affect.

Fish need the eco-system God created in nature. They need a tank with beneficial bacteria to absorb ammonia, nitrites, etc.

As a fast summary, here’s the way to get your tank going:

  1. Add the substrate and filtered water (not tap)
  2. Start your filter (with bio media!)
  3. Add the live plants (I have 11 live plants in my 29 gallon tank)
  4. Add a little bit of fish food to get the cycle started
  5. Add an additive to help jump start the positive bacteria (if desired)
  6. Wait about a week.
  7. Test your water (most pet stores can do this if you bring a sample)

That should really do it! Once your test comes out good, you’re ready for fish. And as mentioned above, if you really want to avoid ICH, quarantine them first if possible. I didn’t do this on round two, and avoided it this time, but that’s simply not always the case.

Hey, I hope you have a blast with your fish! It’s really a lot of fun.

Written By
Kyler Boudreau

Kyler experiences life with his wife Sandi and his daughter Journey. He is an independent filmmaker ( and designed a CRM for network marketers (

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