It's a funny thing entering a really good fishkeeping shop as a relative novice - a cross between how Howard Carter must have felt discovering Tutankhamen's tomb and the reaction of the first man on the moon...
There's lots of choice, and a lot of the information with it will make contradictory claims. The shop staff will have their own favourites (and may not even agree on those). But faced with a choice of (say) five different styles of filter - internal, undergravel, external canister, hang-on, and fluidised bed, all arguably suitable for a basic tropical tank - and between two and five different manufacturers, how DO you decide?
All you can do is ask questions, and the great problem is knowing what to ask. The first simple question in fishkeeping is "What do the fish need?" Starting from this point is far more useful long-term than adopting the "Do it this way" approach. That can only be based on the views of one person and on a general feeling - not for what's best for every fish, but for what will by and large not do them any harm.
Asking what the fish need requires some research, and if that's done properly, you're well on the way to a successful first tank. By all means trot off to the fish shop and make notes on what you like - but don't buy anything until you've checked it out. The typical beginners tank (which should of course be stocked slowly over several months) might hold something like this: Six guppies - four males for the colour, two females for interest, six Neon tetras, two Corydoras aeneus, a small Black shark and a pair of Kribs.
What may then happen is this...
The male guppies get their tails ripped, the females produce dozens of fry and the tank owner's children are distressed to see many of them eaten; the Neons may well have been raised in hard water in Singapore but unlike the guppies they prefer more acid water. At least they are in a small shoal - the Corys would appreciate that too, but they're rarely kept in groups of six plus. The Black shark may be going to get enormous; he may be harassing the corydoras and shredding the guppies' tails. The Kribs are just about to breed - when they do they'll beat up the other fish in the tank and end up killing most of the guppies and Neons. When they do breed it may not be successful because the corys will sneak in one night and eat the eggs. Seem like a nightmare?
Maybe, but the sort of fish mixture I've detailed is very common in new fishkeepers' tanks (and it should be said, it may even work out OK in some cases). A little research may have pointed up all these potential problems, and other details like the mixing of African, Asian, Central American and South American fish. While this mix of fish will cope with one general set of conditions, aiming for a neutral pH of 7, other "bread and butter" species will require more or less filtration, current, aeration, alkalinity or acidity. Once you know what the fish want, equipment buying becomes a little easier, and you have quite a few potential questions at your fingertips. Far better then to choose a dozen potential species and go away and research them - then choose the best mix you can afford.
In the March guide we also try to suggest some other equipment details you might want to check out before buying. It's all about saving you time and money and making life easier.
Beginner's guide to fishkeeping
If you're new to tropical fishkeeping you'll have to make a lot of decisions before you set up your new tank. Our supplement aims to save you time and help to make those decisions quick and easy. We're not just advising you on the best aquarium, equipment, and fish to begin with - we're looking at lots of possible choices to help you evaluate the advice others may give you. The chance to take part in our Start a Friend Fishkeeping campaign - with the oportunity to win some great prizes for both you and your friend.
© Steve Windsor. May not be reproduced in part, or whole, without permission.