1. Large zooplankton such as Daphnia play a fundamental role as consumers of phytoplankton in temperate lakes. These organisms are scarce in subtropical lakes where smaller cladocerans or copepods take this niche. However, such smaller grazers appear to be less able to exert an effective top–down control on the phytoplankton community. 2. We experimentally analysed the ability of zooplankton typical of subtropical, nutrient-rich lakes to graze effectively on the phytoplankton community. We conducted two outdoor mesocosm experiments in a hypertrophic lake, with combinations of three different zooplankton densities and three different omnivorous fish densities. In the first experiment, the zooplankton community was dominated by a small-sized cladoceran (Moina micrura) and in the second by a calanoid copepod (Notodiaptomus incompositus). The phytoplankton community also differed between experiments, with dominance of large size classes and less palatable species in the first experiment and edible sizes in the second. 3. In both experiments, the effect of fish on the largest zooplankton was strong and negative, and low fish densities were sufficient to eliminate the larger zooplankton. Fish presence had positive effects on the biovolume of the largest phytoplankton size fraction (30–100 μm) in the first experiment. This effect was more pronounced in combination with high zooplankton biomass, suggesting that nutrient recycling by both fish and zooplankton may have been an important mechanism promoting phytoplankton growth. 4. None of the zooplankton communities tested had significant top–down effects on the phytoplankton community. In view of the phytoplankton species that dominated the communities at the end of both experiments, inedibility, toxicity and antigrazer defences may explain the absence of significant effects of zooplankton grazing. 5. Our results support the idea that in subtropical nutrient-rich lakes, drastic removal of small omnivorous fish may be needed to allow an increase in zooplankton biomass. In addition, our results imply that for such a change to result in effective top–down control of phytoplankton, a shift in zooplankton community composition is essential too, as the experimental increase in small-sized grazers had little effect on the phytoplankton communities.