Language of Koi – Origin of Butterfly Koi

Butterfly Koi at Blue Ridge Fish Hatchery
Butterfly Koi at Blue Ridge Fish Hatchery

Butterfly koi have been available in the United States for many years. During that time they have become immensely popular and are now being produced and sold by Blue Ridge Fish Hatchery.

The History

The history of their development is an interesting story. First, let me state that they are not a hybrid of goldfish and koi as many people believe.

You may have seen it stated in books and magazines that “the long fins and tail of goldfish have been transferred to koi.” Nothing could be further from the truth. Koi and goldfish being closely related will readily interbreed, but the resulting progeny are unattractive, mostly resembling wild carp with very little color. In our experience so far, they are always sterile and offer no hope of continuing selective breeding.

The Story

Now, for the story of butterfly koi development here. Several years ago, we noticed an ad in a pet industry trade magazine, of a firm in New York City offering long-finned koi for sale. This immediately piqued our interest since we have been a national supplier of koi, goldfish and other coldwater ornamentals for a number of years.

We had to see some of these so-called long-finned koi. An order was placed with some anticipation. As I remember, we received about a dozen of these fish. They weren’t koi at all, but appeared to be a wild carp with long fins and a wild gray color. We have since learned that these fish came from a feral population of carp that inhabited the ditches and canals of Indonesia. No one seems to know the origin of these fish, their exact species or how they acquired the long fins and tails.

These long-finned carp weren’t very pretty and didn’t appear to have much commercial value. However, we decided to put them in a fenced and protected pond and grow them to maturity. We had only three or four fish left two years later. They had grown into brutes weighing six to eight pounds each. They were very unattractive, even down right ugly. We thought these fish wouldn’t sell, but what would happen if we cross- bred them with koi? Could we transfer their long fins and vigor to colorful koi? It was worth a try. We stocked two female long-finned carp in a two-acre production pond with two of our best Ogon (metallic) male koi. The males also had ginrin or sparkle scales.

We eagerly awaited the spawning and subsequent hatching of the fry. These hybrid offspring proved to be very strong and of rapid growth. But on closer inspection when they were still very young, they looked mostly like wild carp. We were very disappointed and discussed culling the whole pond and putting it to better use, but finally decided to let them mature to the end of the growing season. I am certainly glad we did, as some very interesting fish were beginning to appear.

A small percentage of them turned into extremely beautiful fish with color and long fins and tails. Some of them had long fins with a luminous metallic glow that could be described as pearlescent. We were admiring them in a small pool when I said to my dad, Wyatt, “They remind me of butterflies,” hence the name. We realized we had some diamonds in the rough and were pretty excited about their commercial possibilities.

We would now select the very best, grow them to maturity and breed them to each other to establish a strain.

We were hoping these hybrids wouldn’t be sterile as in the case of the koi/goldfish hybrids.

Of course we would have to wait two to three years to attempt to breed our F1 (first generation) butterfly hybrids. The selective breeding was pretty much done by my son Randy and my brother Rick.

The very best of these first generation hybrids were stocked together in one of our best ponds. We monitored the pond carefully. There was an excellent spawn and hatch. The fry grew rapidly in spite of being rather crowded. We noticed that they had hybrid vigor. However, by the time the fry reached about an inch in length, the prospects didn’t look so good. Again, they mostly resembled wild carp or bait fish, but we decided they may yet develop long fins and color. Sure enough, by fall, when they had grown to the length of 3 to 4˝, a good percentage of them had developed into beautiful butterfly koi. Their commercial possibilities began to look very good indeed. With further selective breeding, here was a koi that, unlike regular koi, was beautiful when viewed from the sides as well as the top. They swam with such grace and regal bearing. What a beautiful pond fish they would make! Due to their hybrid vigor they are stronger, hardier, and more disease resistant than either common goldfish or regular koi.

We subsequently learned that a very fine and beautiful strain of long-finned koi had been developed in Japan. We learned that they also used the wild Indonesian long-fin carp to develop their long-finned koi or “water dragons,” as they are known in Japan. They probably started their hybridizing program even before we did here in the US.

However, the ZNA, which sanctions all Japanese Koi shows, as well as shows in other parts of the world, refused to allow long-finned koi to compete in the shows. As a result, there are very few long-finned koi being produced in Japan at this time.

We were able to obtain some of the long-finned Japanese stock and cross breed them with our butterfly koi. This resulted in some beautiful new colors not yet seen in koi at the time. The metallic underlay in the skin and fins became very strong. Also the sparkling diamond scales or ginrin really glittered.

Butterfly koi start to develop elongated fins and tails at about six months of age, but really start coming into their own at about a year. After a year or two in an aquarium or small pond, their fins and tail will be almost as long as their bodies. We have such an aquarium in our office–quite a sight to see. Butterfly koi need to grow rather slowly, lest their bodies outgrow their fins and ruin the butterfly effect.

Butterfly koi, no doubt are here to stay and the supply is quite good now. We continue to select and breed new colors, particularly the red shades, with great anticipation. With the rapidly increasing popularity of garden ponds resulting in tremendous demand for pond fish, it is truly an exciting time.

Sidebar
Wyatt LeFever
Wyatt LeFever is the founder and past president of Blue Ridge Fish Hatchery, Inc., which was established in 1958. He is known for introducing several fish to the coldwater ornamental fish trade. Butterfly Koi, rainbow dace, and albino catfish are a few of the many. Mr. LeFever has been in the hatchery business for most of his life, breeding both coldwater, as well as tropical fish. He is a founding member of the National Ornamental Goldfish Growers of America of which he served as president from 1988-1990.

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