Top Surface Dwelling Freshwater Fish

Written by Randy Martin


Some fish stick to the middle of the tank, others to the bottom and a few stay at the surface. It’s harder to find surface dwelling freshwater species, so I did some searching and made a list.

What are some surface-dwelling tropical freshwater fish? 

  • Hatchet Fish
  • Celebes Halfbeak
  • African Butterfly Fish
  • Some Killifish species
  • Some Rainbow fish
  • Some Danios

When you are trying to fill the space of your tank you should be aware that different species of fish spend a majority of their time at a certain level. Finding the surface dwelling species is challenging, there are very few true top dwellers; luckily there is many mid-level species to choose from that frequent the surface.

The most common surface dwelling freshwater species

Important: Most species that spend their time at the surface are typical jumpers, so you gotta make sure you cover your aquarium well to keep these guys safe and in your tank.

Freshwater Hatchet Fish

Group of hatchet fish

The Hatchet Fish is probably one of the most common and available species that spends all it’s time right there at the top of the water. It’s called the Hatchet Fish because of the shape of the abdomen.

It’s labeled in the fish community as a moderately hardy fish and most people have an easy time keeping them, well, if they can keep them in the actual tank, but we will get to that in a moment.

The Hatchet needs to school and should be kept in a group of at least 6-8 fish together.

It’s a more timid and shy fish so you wouldn’t want to keep them in a tank with aggressive fish. And it wold be best to have plenty of surface floating cover and plants for them to find shelter in. If you can’t keep sheltering elements on the surface then at least have the tank heavily planted and reaching up to the surface.

Hatchet are capable of jumping out of the water and controlling some of their flight in the air with their wings… err fins—so you gotta make sure you have a secure lid over your aquarium when you are keeping these.

There are 9 different types of hatchet fish, including the Marbled Hatchet that is pictured above, and Pygmy Hatchetfish which are gaining popularity and becoming more available.

With the Pygmy Hatchetfish it is even more important to make sure your aquarium is covered well. They have been known to jump out of the tank from tiny gaps in the cover where the filter slot comes through for example.

You can cut down on the opening of your aquarium cover by using a canister filter. I recommend the best aquarium filters here, and using one of these you will only need small slots for the intake and outtake hoses. 

Also if you give them a lot of cover and shelter on the surface this should help calm them so they won’t feel the urge to leap out of the tank.

Celebes Halfbeak

Another species that will stick up towards the surface is the Halfbeak. These are good community fish but not as hardy as the Hatchet Fish.

The thing about Halfbeaks is the males are very aggressive towards each other. Seriously, just look them up on youtube and it’s like wrestle mania.

To offset this I would outnumber the females to males, so it’s not so competitive. Keeping them in about a 40 gallon tank or bigger would be ideal.

Provide lots of cover on the top to break up the contact between the males. And if a fight does happen to break out, I guess just enjoy.

Here is a video so you can see what a Halfbeak looks like (youtube video).


Killifish reflecting off the surface

There are some Killifish that will stick pretty close to the top, for example the golden wonder killifish will spend lots of their time hunting up at the surface.

These are a beautiful fish and can grow to about 4 inches long. They are carnivores and will eat most live food you can give them. But they have also been known to feed off flake food.

Again you have to be careful with these jumping out of your tank as they are used to hunting and jumping for insects on and above the surface.

They are easy to care for in your tank and very peaceful and personable fish. However, it’s possible they could dip to the bottom of the tank and hunt out any shrimp you might have dwelling on the bottom. So be careful if you have a shrimp population you are trying to keep around.

African Butterfly Fish

This is a really neat fish. It’s a little bit bigger than the others, could expect it to be a tad over 5 inches. It spends all of it’s time floating at the surface waiting for insects to prey on.

If you were standing above the fish and looking down on its fins you would know why it’s called a Butterfly, because it has these beautifully patterned designs winging out.

It’s mouth and eyes are turned forever pointing towards the surface which is pretty common with most top dwelling fish. It will always be waiting for the next cricket or insect you can feed it.

As this fish is a carnivore and an aggressive hunter you have to be careful what you keep it with. Even though it stays at the top, I wouldn’t put it past it to dip down towards smaller fish you have living in the same aquarium. Though some fish keepers seem to be keeping them together without any casualties yet, so probably the trick is keeping it will fed and conditioned with insects on the top.


So that is a small list of truly dedicated surface dwelling fish. But like I said there are simply fewer of them. I chose those for how interesting they are and how available they are to fish hobbyists.

Top to Mid level fish dwellers

When it comes to Mid level fish dwellers there is a vast variety. Many of them also like to venture to the top as well.

Rainbowfish will spend time going back and forth from the surface to the middle zone of the tank. Certain Danios as well, like especially the Pearl Danio. In fact it seems to be more towards the top than not.

The Bala Shark, as I talk about here in the Bala Shark Information and Care Guide, also tends to frequent the surface, is a jumper, and actually is very active and will be all over the tank. 

Several different Tetra species like the Congo Tetra, Bloodfin Tetra, and Black Neon Tetra, all grace the surface with their beautiful presence.

Even Mollies and Guppies make their way up and down quite a bit.

Feeding top dwelling species

For the most part a fish that is staying at the top is hunting for food, waiting for a insects to come along. So feeding these species small insects is usually okay. 

Flies make a great snack for almost all these species. Anything really that is small and would float at the top. Even bigger insects like crickets as mentioned would be doable for the African Butterfly. 

Live food works well. Worms, and certain brine shrimp, or pellets that float for a while before sinking.

Then of course flake food is perfect since you can get different brands that float more than sink. A nice variety of everything will keep your fish happy and healthy.

Related Questions

What species is a top dwelling schooling fish? The Hatchet Fish is the most common true surface dwelling schooling fish. They should be kept in schools of at least 6-8 fish to feel most comfortable. They spend all their time at the top focused on the surface for any prey.

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