10 Best Schooling Fish for a Freshwater Aquarium

Updated on July 1, 2020
EricDockett profile image

Eric is an aquarium enthusiast with over two decades of experience caring for a wide array of tropical fish.

Neons are among the most popular schooling fish for freshwater aquariums.
Neons are among the most popular schooling fish for freshwater aquariums. | Source

In the wild, fish school to stay safe, find food, and swim more efficiently. In your aquarium, they won’t need to dodge predators or worry about where their next meal will come from, but they don’t know that. The same instincts that drive them to school in the wild will govern their behavior in your tank.

That’s okay. Schools of fish look amazing, especially in large tanks that replicate their natural environments. But there are a few things you need to think about if you want to keep your schooling fish healthy and stress-free.

Schooling Fish vs. Shoaling Fish

Many people use the terms schooling and shoaling interchangeably, but that’s not accurate. For the proposes of the home aquarium:

  • Schooling fish group tightly together and often swim in the same direction.
  • Shoaling fish group loosely or may not appear to group at all, but they still need others of their kind close by.

The same general advice applies to both types of fish, and you’ll see it throughout this article: Stock both schooling and shoaling fish in groups of six or more.

Here are ten schooling and shoaling fish that make impressive additions to the home aquarium, along with five large schooling fish you need to think long and hard about before purchasing.

Neon Tetra
Neon Tetra | Source

1. Neon Tetra

Neons are among the most colorful freshwater fish for your aquarium, and a large school really makes a tank pop. They’re small—only about an inch long as adults—so don’t stock them with large fish who may see them as a snack. Even though I suggest that people keep schooling fish in groups of six, I think the more the better for neons.

Adult Size

1 inch

Minimum Tank Size

10 Gallons

Tank Setup

Live plants, driftwood, river rock

Tank Mates

Peaceful community fish that can’t eat them

Most small tetras make excellent schooling fish for a community tank. I’ll touch on a few in this article, but there are many species such a:

  • Cardinal tetra
  • Rummy-nose tetra
  • Bleeding heart tetra
  • Black neon tetra
  • Lemon tetra

Black Skirt Tetra
Black Skirt Tetra | Source

2. Black Skirt Tetra

The black skirt tetra is near the top of the list of my favorite schooling fish. They are larger than neons and a better choice if you have bigger fish in your tank. Their chunky little bodies with black stripes and flowing black fins make them sharp-looking fish.

These guys are peaceful and hardy, perfect for a community tank with other peaceful fish. Keep them in a group of six or more and give them a tank of at least 15 gallons. Like most tetras, they’ll appreciate an aquarium with lots of medium and tall vegetation.

Adult Size

2 inches

Minimum Tank Size

15 Gallons

Tank Setup

Live plants, driftwood, river rock

Tank Mates

Medium-sized peaceful community fish

Cory Catfish
Cory Catfish | Source

3. Corydoras Catfish

Cories are industrious little catfish that putter around your tank, cleaning up uneaten food that has fallen to the substrate. They are fun to watch, and you can think of them as part of the sanitation crew for your aquarium.

But some people don’t realize that cories need to live in schools. The reason we need to be sure to keep social fish in small groups has to do with managing their stress levels. When they are around others of their kind, they are happier and healthier.

Be sure to toss a few sinking pellets in the tank at feeding time so your cories have enough to eat and don’t have to rely on scavenging food that falls to the bottom.

Adult Size

1-3 inches

Minimum Tank Size

20 Gallons for a school of six

Tank Setup

Live plants, driftwood, river rock

Tank Mates

Peaceful fish

Otocinclus Catfish
Otocinclus Catfish | Source

4. Otocinclus Catfish

Many new aquarium owners want an algae-eating fish to help keep the place spiffy. They look to the Plecostomus, the suckerfish that clings to the side of the tank. The only problem there is that the common pleco can reach an adult size of two feet and is not appropriate for most home aquariums.

Instead, many freshwater aquarium owners would be better off with a school of otocinclus catfish. Otos look a little like miniature plecos and they will cling to the glass in the same way. You’ll want to stock a school of six or more and avoid any large fish that could eat them.

Be sure to feed algae wafers so you know your otos are getting enough to eat.

Adult Size

1-2 inches

Minimum Tank Size

10 gallons, but larger is better

Tank Setup

Lots of plants, live if possible

Tank Mates

Peaceful fish that will not eat them

Zebra Danio
Zebra Danio | Source

5. Zebra Danio

Zebras are among the hardiest fish in the aquarium world, which makes them a superb choice for beginners. They are shoaling fish, so you won’t see them hanging out together all the time like some other fish in this article, but it is still smart to keep them in a group of six or more.

They’re small, peaceful fish and best kept in a peaceful community tank with other peaceful fish who aren’t big enough to eat them. Remember: Big fish eat little fish, so whenever you stock a tiny fish like the Zebra Danio you have to be careful.

Adult Size

2 inches

Minimum Tank Size

10 gallons

Tank Setup

Plants, driftwood, river rock

Tank Mates

Peaceful fish community.

Cherry Barb
Cherry Barb | Source

6. Cherry Barb

Here’s another hardy shoaling fish, and one of my all-time favorites. You will occasionally see cherry barbs listed as semi-aggressive, but I’ve never had issues with them in my tanks. They are generally peaceful and make an impressive addition to a community tank. Males have a bright-red coloring while females are more subdued.

Again, you usually won’t see them hanging out in a tight group like neons do, but it is still important to stock enough of them to avoid stress. It is also an excellent idea to stock two females for every one male.

Adult Size

1-2 inches

Minimum Tank Size

30 gallons

Tank Setup

Plants, driftwood, river rock

Tank Mates

Other peaceful fish community

Harlequin Rasbora
Harlequin Rasbora | Source

7. Harlequin Rasbora

Here is a fish that looks amazing in a large school. Harlequin rasboras are peaceful and only grow to a couple of inches in length. They have a red-orange coloring on their sides, contrasted with black markings on their tails. Because of their small size and calm temperament, they make great fish for beginners.

As with the other small schooling fish in this article, avoid stocking them with large tank mates who may look at them as lunch. Otherwise, the harlequin rasbora is an easy and colorful fish to keep in any tank ten gallons or bigger.

Adult Size

2 inches

Minimum Tank Size

10 gallons

Tank Setup

Plants, driftwood, river rock

Tank Mates

Other small and medium-sized peaceful fish community

Marble Hatchetfish
Marble Hatchetfish | Source

8. Hatchetfish

This is one of the coolest schooling fish out there, but they are not for everyone. Hatchetfish are peaceful and inhabit the upper part of the water column. However, they are easily startled and use an interesting strategy for evading predators. They jump out of the water!

In the wild, a jumping hatchetfish will land back in the river. In the home aquarium, it could end up jumping out of your tank. It is very important to make sure your entire aquarium is tightly covered if you intend to stock these guys.

Adult Size

2 inches

Minimum Tank Size

30 gallons

Tank Setup

Tall plants, open water surface

Tank Mates

Calm, peaceful community fish that won’t startle them.

Tiger Barb
Tiger Barb | Source

9. Tiger Barb

So far this article has covered small, peaceful schooling fish, but here is one with a bit of an attitude. Tiger barbs are attractive fish with striking black stripes. They are semi-aggressive, and they have a reputation as fin nippers.

Still, many fish keepers love them for their spunky personalities. You can stock them in a shoal of six or more to help keep them calm, but I would still house them with other semi-aggressive fish. Avoid stocking them with fish that have long, flowing fins.

Adult Size

2-3 inches

Minimum Tank Size

30 gallons

Tank Setup

Plants, river rock

Tank Mates

Medium-sized and small semi-aggressive fish; medium-sized community fish; avoid fish with long fins.

White Cloud Mountain Minnow
White Cloud Mountain Minnow | Source

10. White Cloud Mountain Minnow

White cloud minnows are cold-water fish. Where tropical fish do well in temperatures between 75 and 80 degrees, these minnows prefer temps about ten degrees cooler. They’re beautiful, but clearly it is not smart to stock them in a community aquarium with other tropical fish.

Some fish keepers keep them in species-only tanks, but others house them with fish that tolerate cool temperatures such as cories, guppies, and zebra danios. You always want to do the research before you bring fish home, but that is especially true with white cloud minnows.

Adult Size

1-2 inches

Minimum Tank Size

10 gallons

Tank Setup

Plants, river rock

Tank Mates

Other minnows; hardy fish that tolerate cooler water

Silver Dollar
Silver Dollar | Source

5 Large Schooling Fish

Don’t like little fish? There are some beautiful large schooling fish out there. But be warned: These guys need very large tanks and aren’t appropriate for most home aquariums. However, if you are brave and willing, they are very rewarding fish to keep.

1. Silver Dollar

It is easy to see where these round, shiny fish get their name. They grow to a diameter of about six inches, and because they are schooling fish, they need to be in groups of six or more. That means you need a big tank if you want to keep these guys. Think 100 gallons. It’s also best to choose a long tank rather than tall as they are very active swimmers.

2. Bala Shark

Bala sharks are tempting as tiny juveniles, but these fast-moving fish grow to over a foot in length. They’re active swimmers, and you’ll need at least a 300-gallon tank for a school of six. I suggest avoiding them unless you are an experienced fish keeper who either has or will invest in an enormous tank.

3. Tinfoil Barb

This is another fish that requires an aquarium 300 gallons or bigger if you intend to keep them in the appropriately sized school. Bala sharks and tinfoil barbs are both peaceful fish that should be kept with other large, peaceful fish.

4. Clown Loach

Clown loaches are popular bottom-dwelling fish. They help keep your tank tidy, and they may even eat snails. But many people don’t realize they are schooling fish that reach an adult length of a foot or more. If you intend to keep them, you’ll need a 150-gallon tank with plenty of hiding spots.

5. Iridescent Shark Catfish

Here is the big daddy of all poor aquarium decisions. Pet stores sell iridescent shark catfish as small three or four-inch babies. They don’t tell you this fish can grow to four feet as an adult. So, to keep a school of six or more you’ll need a tank that’s at least a thousand gallons, I guess.

You know what? Just don’t get them. Aside from ponds or huge, professionally managed tanks, this fish has no business in the aquarium world.

How to Choose Schooling Fish for Your Tank

While some fish mentioned in this article are appropriate for tanks as small as 10 gallons, in my opinion, you need at least a 55-gallon tank to get the full effect.

A larger tank means you can have a bigger school. Your fish will experience less stress and the whole setup will be more appealing. A school of 20 neons looks incredible in a large, planted tank.

As will any stocking decision, the most important thing is to research the fish you are interested in before you bring them home. Good luck!

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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