Koi Pond Wisdom

Published on June 26, 2023

Koi fish
The secret to keeping stunning tancho, sanke and showa is all in their water.

Koi pond wisdom on water quality and pond maintenance based on keeping koi over 20 years

I live in Arkansas. In the surrounding 50-mile radius of my home, there are a few hundred fish farmers that mainly raise rosy reds, comets, koi and carp. I have noticed that carp that have some color are affectionately called Japanese koi. Interestingly, they mainly raise them for bait unless some unwitting newbie pond owner wants to overload their pond just after having it built.

Ultra Balance

I have also been to the Niigata prefecture in Japan two times. What’s the difference Arkansas and Niigata? Both have muddy holes where they feed and grow the fish. Both feed frequently during the warm weather, and not so much in the winter. Both have issues with predators that constantly consume or kill their valuable fish. However, in the fall, people travel to these areas for different reasons. In Arkansas, they go to duck hunt. In Japan, people from all over the world flock to the different breeders where the water is clear, and the living jewels they have bred are displayed and sold to anxious buyers.

Do the farmers in Arkansas have well constructed greenhouses that display minnows or carp? Of course not. The Japanese do have well built or overbuilt buildings that see customers come in, who buy and leave. What makes their koi better than koi in Arkansas? Several factors actually contribute to the amazing colors and confirmation of the fish.

Trickle-Down Aquaculture

If you have not been to Japan, the Niigata prefecture is a mountainous region where people build ponds, houses and gardens on every imaginable hillside. Earthquakes push millions of tons of soil upward, creating mountains of soft soils that can come tumbling down any minute.

But wait, what makes this area grow such colorful fish? It is the water that trickles down and minerals that are in that particular area. I have noticed that on one side of a mountain, gorgeous platinum and yamabuki (yellow) koi are grown. On the other side of the mountain, koi with intense red and black markings make incredible Sanke and Showa koi. These minerals combined with exceptional, soft water from the surrounding hills help the Japanese breeders continually create and maintain blood lines of fish that are sought after the world over.

Skip forward a few months, and these special fish are shipped globally to koi sellers. Anxious koi enthusiasts then purchase these specimens for their pond and hope to maintain or accentuate their newfound pets. Will these new additions keep their color? Will they survive? Did they bring home some new virus or bacteria that will decimate the other fish in the pond? Why does this happen? It’s all in the water. Water quality is the issue.

Quality Control

Koi inspection
I had to visually inspect all the fish that would
come home with me from Japan.

When I was very young growing up my grandmother lived on a farm with a bayou. There were lots of fish that were plentiful for the taking if you had the time, a worm and fishing pole. The thrill of catching a 3-inch bream or catfish was always exciting. However, they never got large. The bayou was overstocked, and the water quality was poor. During the heat of the summer, there were large fish kills due to lack of oxygen in the water. The smell of ammonia was pervasive.

Skip ahead 40 years, and we now can control the oxygen levels in the pond, along with ammonia, pH, kH, gH and other water-quality parameters with better pond-construction techniques. For instance, simply adding an aerator can increase oxygen levels in the hot weather from 3 to 4 parts per million to 9 to 10 parts per million. Low oxygen levels make fish weak and lethargic. Higher oxygen levels will keep the fish and beneficial bacteria healthy and growing. Installing a better filter that is easy to maintain will keep the koi enthusiastic about their living jewels.

Getting into a well-designed pond that is easy to maintain is not necessarily easy on the wallet. But a poorly designed pond will almost certainly make maintenance a nightmare. In times past, green water was an issue. The addition of a properly sized UV light will clear up the water in short order.

Koi Pond Wisdom on Filtration

UGF filter for  koi pond
My favorite type of drain is a well plumbed undergravelfilter (UGF) system. This one is 55 x 75 feet and required over 4,000 drilled holes.

What about muddy water in a lined pond? There are two answers to that issue. An inexpensive filter with pads or sponges will not be hard on the pocketbook, but it will be maintenance heavy because the pads have to be washed frequently. A better solution is a backwash filter that contains a plastic media along with a blower that can agitate the internals. This will be more expensive in the short term. However, the media does not usually need to be replaced like the sponge pads. Prices vary for these filters. Generally, the consumer will be the judge of their investment, but the more spent on filtration, the easier maintenance and water clarity will become.

What about pumps? I sell both submersible and external motors. Submersibles are an inexpensive way to get water moving, while external motors generally last longer and are sometimes cheaper to operate.

This brings me to my pet peeve when building ponds. Do you use a bottom drain or design an under-gravel filter (UGF) grid? I have queried well known pond builders from all over the United States. E.T. from California likes both types of filtration depending on the customer. L.L from California likes bottom drains but will put in UGFs. B.C. From Arizona likes UGFs hands down. M.T. From Texas likes UGFs. S.R. from New York has never put in a UGF but does not like the idea of all the debris in the gravel, so he likes bottom drains. B.T. From North Carolina likes UGFs as well.

Here in Arkansas, I’ve had several ponds with passive bottom drains that continually get stopped up from pine needles, oak tree leaves and hickory nuts. Since meeting Mike White at a Helix summit in California, I started putting in UGFs with much better success in keeping water clear and not having to clean the pond yearly. White states that he has not had to clean his pond in over 20 years. The gravel looks great, the water is clear, and the fish are healthy.

Granted, bottom drains are easier and cheaper to install, but a well designed UGF with a properly sized motor will keep the bottom cleaner with less maintenance than a bottom drain. My customers with bottom drains here have to annually drain the ponds and suck out the debris from the lines going under the liner. Why go to all that trouble? What customers want is beautiful fish, clear water and easily maintained life support or filter systems.

The last pond build I did was 55 feet by 75 feet. The pond is 3 feet deep, and the water is clear. The surrounding area has pines and oaks that drop debris all year long, yet the pond is amazingly easy to maintain. That is what customers need and want!

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