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Information About Ponds and Plants

Information about Koi, Hardy and Tropical Waterlilies, Lotus, Watergardens, and Koi Ponds

Interesting facts, comments and articles about the outdoors and the environment

  This article was printed in Pond Keeper Magazine in 2007

  • Backyard Butterfly Koi
  • When people enter our place of business looking for fish for their pond or watergarden, they don't focus on the Sanke, Showa, or Kohaku.  They see the Big Fish, the Yellow Fish and especially, the fish with the long fins of the butterfly koi.  If we happen to have a large yellow (Yamabuki) butterfly koi, that is the one fish they get exited about.
  • My own interest in these fish began when I distinctly remember seeing a twelve-inch yellow fish in a client’s pond about 18 years ago.  I hardly knew such a fish existed; much less that one could purchase a fish like that to put in a pond.  That single event started my interest in koi, and for that matter in watergardening.  Until then, we had been a tree service firm, diversifying into other aspects of the landscape industry.  We were in the process of starting a landscape department and decided that water features would be our focus.  We started with a 300-gallon above ground tank and a number of  garden-variety koi.  We installed our own 6000-gallon koi pond and observed our fist natural spawn shortly afterwards.
  • This introduction led to my desire to learn more about these beautiful fish and their propagation and to describe some of my observations about butterfly koi and to share some facts and figures about their spawning and treatment.  My hope is that if you have a pond you will want to have some Butterfly koi, and that you will have a better understanding of butterfly koi and their growth and habits. 
  • Many of you probably know the Butterfly koi is not recognized by the ZNA, which is the governing body for the Japanese koi Industry.  There are too many variations and judging would be difficult.    Still many koi clubs in the United States are recognizing that butterfly koi have found a place in pondkeeper's hearts, and awards are often given at local koi shows.  If judging butterfly koi interest you, Ray Jordan has written a piece on the Internet (www.ponderings.com) about some criteria for judging butterfly koi.
  • The way that we started raising fish was a result of concern over mosquitoes breeding in some of our tanks.  We had many small containers where we were raising hardy and tropical waterlilies.  We knew that small fish would eat mosquito larvae, so we decided to harvest the koi eggs when the fish spawned naturally.  Our first experience, about 16 years ago, with spawning was when the entire pond spawned, and we placed parrot feather and water hyacinths in among the very active spawning fish.  We separated the parrot feather, which is a floating plant with a rather loose growing habit.  We placed a small piece of plant material in each container and a week later had many baby fry.  Toward the end of the growing season we saw that some of the fry had grown into very attractive fish.  From that point on, we refined our techniques by mating specific males and females.   
  • At the end of the typical growing season, we have some rather good-looking butterfly koi, but they are really not big enough to sell.  We have found that if the fish grows slowly the finnage really develops well.  For a year or two after they are born, we have been keeping a few butterfly koi in a couple of small aquariums in our office.  I have been surprised at how beautiful these fish are.  I have since learned that if butterfly koi are raised too fast, the bodies outgrow the finnage, and you get large fish with poor fin quality.
  • I talked with Wyatt Lefever from Blue Ridge Fish Hatchery about his butterfly koi.  Wyatt, his son Randy, and Wyatt's brother Rick developed the butterfly koi in the US by mating a long finned carp from Indonesia with some of his other brood stock.  They purchased about a dozen of the Indonesian carp and kept them in an isolated and protected pond for three years.  At that time, only three or four of the fish survived, and they were mated with two solid colored (ogan) koi that had metallic scales (ginrin).  The young offspring were not very attractive and only developed their color at the end of the growing season. There were only a few koi that showed real promise, but Wyatt, Randy and Rick were extremely excited about the commercial possibilities.  They found that the butterfly koi grew fast and were hardy.  They appeared to be more disease resistance than Japanese koi and goldfish.
  • At about the same time that Blue Ridge Fish Hatcheries were breeding their butterfly koi, there were some efforts in Japan by Atsushi Suda to breed koi with the Indonesian colored carp.  Since Suda used the methods of the Japanese koi breeders, he has developed his own strains of butterfly koi.  You will often see the name Dragon koi associated with Suda's butterfly koi.  Now in the US there are a number of companies breeding butterfly koi.  As far as backyard breeding is concerned, one needs to have some desirable parent koi.  It takes about three years before koi reach a suitable age for breeding.  
  • In the commercial fish hatcheries, chemicals are used to induce spawning.  Joe Pawtek, from Blackwater Creek Koi Farms, says that about 10 % of the females die after injection.  One of the reasons is that the body fat in some koi keeps the eggs from being released.  In addition, the entire process causes stress, and often the point of injection develops infection.  Joe also believes that the koi's reaction to the injection chemicals causes problems.  In our situation, my females are allowed to breed naturally, and I have found that when the water temperature in my main pond is between 60 and 68 degrees, the mating process will proceed.  My situation is unique in that I actually let the koi spawn in a 300 gallon above ground tank.  The sides are black and the water temperature is always a few degrees warmer than the water in the main pond.  I do not like to have them mate too early in the spring, because the eggs need to hatch in warm water.  Joe says that if the temperature cools off or it is cloudy and overcast for two days, the entire crop can be lost.
  • I have found that if I place one female and two or three males in with her, and if I add a large clump of parrot feather, the female will instantly start nosing around in the parrot feather.  Since in nature, koi spawn in shallow water in the grass, then I suppose she is saying to herself, "this looks like a good place to have some babies."  Meanwhile, the male koi must know what she is thinking because they get excited and the spawning process begins.  Actually, I have done this for over ten years, and the koi have always spawned by the next day.  I am told, and have observed, that natural spawning often happens in mid-morning around ten o'clock.   Now when I come around the edge of our building and am 30 feet from the pond, I can smell the acrid odor of the spawn.  I believe the triggers for spawning are that the fish are ready, that the water in the above ground pond is a few degrees higher than the main pond, and that a suitable medium is available for spawning.
  • I discussed butterfly koi with both Wyatt LeFever and Joe Pawlak.  They confirmed many of my questions about the growth habits and the breeding of butterfly koi.  The LeFevers of Blue Ridge Fish Hatchery are in Kernersville, North Carolina and Mount Airy at the North Carolina / Virginia border.  Joe and his wife, Cheryl Pawlak, of Blackwater Creek Koi Farms are in Eustis Florida.   The most striking difference between North Carolina and Florida would be the temperature of the air and water, and to accommodate this, I am sure the techniques for raising koi must be different.  It was interesting to hear that many of my observations about butterfly koi were the same as theirs.
  • A koi that is about 12 to 14 inches in length weighs about one pound and will lay approximately 60,000 eggs.  A larger fish in the range of 27 inches can lay 200,000 eggs.  There will be a high mortality of about 30%, which would mean that the 12 to 14 inch koi should have about 42,000 viable fry to start with.  In controlled conditions, with specific feeding rates these fish can grow to the point where they can be culled in three months.  One problem with butterfly koi is that most of the fry will just be small, brownish-gray fish until they are 6 months old.  Joe says that he culls nine out of ten koi.   I always let most of my baby koi overwinter; and some of them will develop wonderful colors after the first year.
  • Predators for small koi can be a problem. I like to have lots of aquatic plants and a natural environment for the fish to feed on, but at the same time these plants provide a haven for predators.  Dragon Fly lay their eggs in shallow water and the larvae appear in great numbers in still water.  Dragon Fly larvae are able to eat a lot of baby fry.  I find that when I use very new water from the faucet and let it sit for a few days, the Dragon Fly crop is delayed, and the koi fry outgrow the Dragon Fly larvae.
  • Since I grow lots of fry in a 1500-gallon pond which is also growing tropical water lilies, I have a problem with the plants.  Having plant containers in the pond with baby fish makes it very difficult to net out specific fish.  I have found each year that something new is eating my baby koi.  A few years ago, I saw large garter snake swimming in one of our 1500-gallon ponds.  This pond has sides that are forty inches above the ground.  The garter snake showed up just after the fish spawn, and I am sure it was because of the odor.  If you have ever been around a pond after spawning you will have smelled the musky odor.
  • I have often felt that Tobies were my biggest problem with eating baby fry.  A Toby is a fish that grows faster than its siblings and eats them.  This past season I had fry after four months that were 1 inch long and a Toby that was 8.5 inches long.  Unless I seine the pond it is almost impossible to catch the Tobies.  I am always surprised with the size difference in baby fish.  After a few months most of the fish will be three or four inches long, but some will be one inch and some will be six inches. 
  • Last year I also discovered that frogs are a much greater predator than I had imagined.  I know that they get in the bottom of the filters every year and I see them in the bottom of the water lily containers.  When we seined the pond for Tobies, we captured eight leopard frogs.  I seined again a few weeks later and got another two or three more.  Meanwhile, my fish population kept getting smaller and smaller.  It’s pretty hard to keep frogs out of a body of water. 
  • Shortly after spawning, usually within about four or five days, I can see thousands of koi swimming around my ponds.  Unless care is taken this population rapidly disappears.  One of the first years I tried breeding, I had a 300-gallon tank of small fry.  I had to go on vacation in August and anticipated a great crop of baby koi.  I had lots of fish when I left and was very excited about returning home and observing my new fish.   When I returned, I could not find any small fish.  I did find two live fish; one was barely alive and appeared to have been half eaten.  The other koi was big, fat, and healthy.  I think he must have consumed all the other fish in the small 300-gallon tank.
  • Year in and year out, we seem to manage to get about 500 small fish through the summer.  They really range in size from 3/4 of an inch to four or five inches.  Most are worthless, but perhaps 200 are good enough to keep to see how they will look the next season.  We have found that the second year often brings out the best in the young.  Since we do sell fish and bring them in from other sources, any nice small koi that we have do not stay around long but are purchased by our clients.  I suppose that over a two-year period we might sell 100 of our own fish.  I do not think we are any threat to the commercial breeders, but we have developed some rather pretty fish, and it is fun to see customers pick them out.
  • Often newcomers to the pond hobby think that koi cannot grow in small ponds.  Both Wyatt and Joe say that butterfly koi need to have controlled growth so the bodies do not outgrow the fins.  We have found that our best fish are the really slow growers, and I do not think they will ever get large.  If a fish is stunted in its early growth, it never catches up.  Butterfly koi like Japanese koi, are measured from the tip of the tail to the end of their tails so the body size is not as massive as Japanese koi.  It makes sense to me that one can develop a smaller breed of butterfly koi through selection, just as breeders have selectively bred very large, fast growing fish.
  • Hobbyists often ask me if koi in general and butterfly koi in particular can survive in a small pond.  I do not discourage the hobbyist with a small pond from experimenting with a butterfly koi since I have seen that many of my butterfly koi that are two or three years old are still quite small.  Butterfly koi are readily available from many dealers, but I have observed that the prettiest ones are selected very quickly.  If you find a dealer who gets in regular shipments of butterfly koi, make sure you get there early.  Butterfly koi’s popularity is strong and growing every year.
  • If you want to try to raise a few of your own, here are some simple steps that I use.  Of course where you live and your own circumstances will dictate exactly what you do, but these steps work for me.  In the early spring when the water temperature reaches 60 to 68 degrees, move one female and ideally one to three males to a separate tank.  If this tank is above ground, then the temperature will be warmer than the pond that is in the ground.  Add some type of plant such as parrot feather, water hyacinth, or other material on which the koi can spawn.  When they spawn, the water will turn a milky white from the milt.  This milt and the eggs will pollute the water very quickly, so the water must be changed if any fish are to be replaced in the same container.  Remove the koi immediately, and place them by themselves, if you can, or return them to your main pond.  You will discover koi eggs stuck all over everything in the spawning tank.  We remove the parrot feather and place a bit in each container we have.  In a week, we have baby koi everywhere, and they do take care of the mosquitoes.   This year we will raise our main crop in what we call our long pond, which is about 1500 gallons, and above ground.  The photo to the right (not shown here) shows our long pond with some of our tropical water lilies and also an automatic feeder.  The battery operated feeder helps maintain consistent feeding for the young butterfly koi.  

    JackMcNeary.com               3521 Monroe Road           Charlotte, NC 28205
    Telephone 704-618-6214        E-Mail   jack(removethis)@jackmcneary.com