West Slope Koi breeders enjoying ‘tranquil hobby’
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Dee Theis loves the view out of her kitchen window in Eckert, Colo.
Not only is her hilltop home surrounded by a manicured lawn with plenty of flowers, but thanks to her husband, Mike, there’s a beautiful Koi pond as well.
Decorated with rocks, lily pads, cattails, a waterfall, and a small bridge, it is home to dozens of the large, colorful fish, which Mike raises and sells for a hobby.
“They spawn, or lay their eggs, all at once under the floating plants,” he explains, crouching by the water and carefully lifting one of the lilies.
“I remove them so that they aren’t eaten — Koi don’t exactly make good parents — and take them over to a special tank in my shop.”
Not much longer than the joint of a finger, the most recent batch of “fry” started showing patches of color (which ranges from bright red to orange, yellow, cream, white, black and a soft gray) at three weeks of age and already, they are stunning.
“Koi are highly prized in Japan,” he continued. “They can live to be over two centuries old and are passed down from generation to generation.”
Although technically “just a type of slime-eating carp”, Koi have been around for over 2,500 years and can be traced back to large, black fish known as “Magoi.”
Color mutations began to appear around the 1800’s and with the advent of railroads and airplanes to aid in transporting them, the breeding, showing and selling of the dazzling fish (no two are ever alike) became a popular pastime.
Serious enthusiasts have been known to construct deep and elaborate concrete ponds to keep them in, consisting of both real and artificial plants, statues, colored sand, shrubs, Japanese lanterns and subtle outdoor, as well as underwater lighting.
“It’s a very tranquil hobby,” Mike explains.
The fish, which grow to about 22 inches long (one national champion at a Koi show was between 30 and 33 inches) can be trained to eat from their owner’s hands when started out with feedings that are small, and made often.
In addition to the pellets, sticks and flakes made especially for Koi, which not only keeps them healthy but enhances their rich coloring, it helps to use treats like lettuce, earthworms, prawns or brown bread to tame them.
However, do not feed white bread since some brands may contain a form of bleach.
“I knew one guy who had a Koi, which was so tame he could place his hand under water and hold it like a sled, allowing his pet to swim into it. He would then pick it up and lift it out to look around.”
Once the owner of Aquarium Service and Ponds, as a certified “Pond Master” with the National Pond Society Institute (“it’s like being a Jedi master only different,” he jokes), Theis sold everything necessary to create a miniature aquatic ecosystem.
He also conducted educational seminars on how to do water gardening.
“I used to be a guest lecturer for Norwegian Cruise lines,” he said. “Dee and I got to go on two to three cruises each year.” What makes the Koi challenging is that they must have a deep pond to live in, “500 gallons or larger,” or between 5 to 8 feet deep, because, not only do they swim vertically instead of horizontally, but they must have protection from enemies such as herons or raccoons.
Plus, although these fish are hardy enough to survive in temperatures from 36 to 85 degrees, they do better in fluctuations that don’t go over 5 degrees within a 24 hour period.
Mike used to travel to different homes, helping to set up thermostatically controlled heaters as well as the filtration and draining systems needed to remove such waste materials as ammonia, nitrite, and pesticides (left in water that is unclean, fish will suffocate).
He used to import Koi, also, from such places as Vietnam and Malaysia, plus made many trips to California in order to hand-pick what he wanted based on color, confirmation and pattern.
But his real niche was in putting together an underwater color camera system that could be hooked up to the family television. “It was actually a security camera with modifications that were good for up to 100 feet underwater. Serious Koi people hired me to install everything in their pond systems, and then they could turn to a certain channel and actually watch their fish swimming around underwater.”
Winter is no problem for the fish, and Dee adds “the Koi go dormant then and just hang around the bottom of the pond until spring without eating. Mike puts a small stock tank heater on top to keep a few inches open for the exchange of gasses.”
Although he no longer attends Koi shows or sets up water gardens, Mike is clearly still enamored with the fish.
“I just breed them for a sideline,” he concludes, “selling the fry when they are about ½ inch long, and only to hobbyists.”
And unlike aquarium fish, “with Koi the intensity of color and patterns change as they grow, so you never quite know what you’re going to get.” ❖