The winter of 2009 was brutal in the Midwest. The lows on January 15th and 16th hovered around minus 21° F. in central Iowa. To overwinter koi in outside ornamental fish ponds in these conditions is something a lot of koi owners have never experienced. It can be done, however, and it is not that complicated.
There are three basic techniques for overwintering koi where there are heavy icing conditions.
1. The koi can be removed from their pond and brought inside a heated building or greenhouse.
2. A structure can be built over their pond that collects heat from solar radiation, and/or heat can be added.
3. The last technique and the easiest by far, is to leave them in their pond with the addition of aeration, and let it ice over naturally.
Most koi owners are very nervous about keeping koi outside under ice. This is a very “touchy” subject to serious koi hobbyists. They simply will not trust leaving their valuable fish in these conditions. They may not see the fish for three months, and when the winter winds are howling and it is minus 20° F., most hobbyists fear the worst. To make matters worse, there are articles warning that water colder than 39° F. can be lethal or at the very least, deform koi. Unfortunately, this kind of information is misleading and not factual, and, in fact, the ice layer actually protects them from the brutality of winter.
We can get some clues as to how our koi can overwinter by observing carp that overwinter just fine in Midwest lakes and streams. Streams will have open water in the channel where the water flows fast. It is churning and mixing the entire water column all the time. The water is continually being exposed to subzero air temperatures. The actual water temperatures in these streams are very close to 32° F. In my own aerated 10,000-gal koi pond system that is 5.5´ deep the bottom temperature was just above 32° this past winter. I have checked my thermometers for accuracy and they are correct. All of my 38 large koi survived the winter in great shape. I have been using the same technique for the last 17 years and have always been successful.
How to be Successful
So, just how can a serious koi hobbyist successfully overwinter their fish under thick ice? Let me explain some steps that will work for you.
Pond design is always important for many reasons but having the right design for overwintering fish is rarely discussed. The best design for a koi pond is one that is open without a lot of convolutions to the edge. Avoid overcomplicated designs, such as islands, channels, peninsulas and similar additions that can create what are called “dead zones.” These zones are exactly that – DEAD – devoid of life due to low oxygen (O2)! It is difficult to adequately circulate the water in these areas and consequently they usually have lower O2 levels. They are likely to be lower in O2 all times of the year, but during winter when the pond circulation is even less, it can become a lethal area for your fish. You can reduce the possibility of these anoxic conditions in the dead zones by adding aeration points. If this is not done, then be very aware that these areas can contribute to fish kills during the winter.
It is important to start preparing for winter about a month or two before freeze-up (ice formation). Go through the fish collection and remove fish that are not wanted. Do this in the fall rather than the spring. The goal is to have as low a fish population as possible going into winter.
If there has been any salt added to the koi pond, water changes are needed to significantly reduce the concentration of it. Salt can lower the freezing point of water. So, a pond with salt can become super cooled. I do not have any direct experience with this situation, but I would venture to say that it could be lethal to fish.
Right before ice forms on the pond, the organic matter needs to be removed. If this is done any earlier, leaves can still blow in before it freezes. Once frozen the leaves do not blow into the pond as much. A lot of organic matter is not good for even a summer pond that is being circulated and filtered but this stuff in a pond that is going into winter spells almost certain death to our fish and the ecosystem of the pond.
By the time winter arrives, most of us have reduced the pond’s water circulation by shutting down high volume water pumps. Biological filtration becomes almost nonexistent due to bacteria going into their restive overwintering stages. These conditions can be lethal with a load of organic matter in the bottom of the pond. A few leaves are okay, but a thick layer of leaves during the winter can be lethal to large koi resting on the bottom next to them. These leaves give off toxic gases and reduce the O2 levels in that area. With heavy aeration this area’s O2 concentration can be increased, but whether it will be enough is in question. So, get that organic matter out of there to ensure the koi’s survival.
With the fish in good shape and the organic load is minimized, the next step is to add aeration. Kloubec Koi Farms owner, Myron Kloubec, uses aeration in his earthen basin ponds. That is how he overwinters his large high quality beautiful koi in East Central Iowa. This is what Myron practices and recommends. That is how I also recommend overwintering ornamental koi ponds under heavy icing conditions.
The important aspects of aeration are to allow O2 to enter the water column and allow toxic gasses to escape. These toxic gases include carbon dioxide, hydrogen sulfide, among others. These gases arise from decomposition of organic matter as well as from fish and other critter respiration and excretions.
Adding aeration lowers a pond’s water temperature more quickly than without, but the temperature does not go any lower than what it would have been anyway. The ice in a typical Midwest pond that is 4000-gal and 30˝ deep can be as thick as 15 to 16˝. I have not seen ice thicker than that on this type of pond. Without any aeration the ice forms to within only 15˝ from the pond bottom. That water temperature at the very bottom is as close to the freezing point of water as it can get. By aerating the water you will lower the water temperature of the pond’s water more quickly, but the ice will actually be thinner especially around the area where the bubbles rise. The earth is an incredible heat source. It will continually supply enough heat to successfully overwinter our hardy fish in the Midwest without the pond completely freezing.
A lot of pond owners feel that they need to add a heater of some sort. Some common choices are stock tank heaters that may float or lie on the bottom. Of course, the heating element must be kept away from a rubber liner. The wattage of these can run in the 1500 watt range. This can amount to a lot of dollars to operate, but they do keep a hole in the ice open even in the coldest of conditions. There are smaller ones that use less wattage but the hole that is kept open is much smaller. Some O2 exchange will still occur in these ice free areas that in some years may be enough to overwinter fish. However, for the majority of fish ponds especially koi ponds, it is simply not enough. Circulation provided by aeration is still needed to aid in O2 exchange and to dissipate toxic gases. I cannot emphasize this enough.
Most of the time, I recommend not using any kind of supplemental heat. Lots of energy (and money) is wasted because the heat outside the hole that is maintained is immediately lost to the surrounding air. The heaters do not significantly raise an in-ground pond’s temperature. However, there may be specific instances where the use of supplemental heat is justified. For example, it is important to keep the area around the mouth of a skimmer box ice free if the main water pump, located there, is kept running. However, I generally recommend shutting these large pumps off and removing them as well as any kind of heater.
Use silicone grade aquarium air line tubing. It stays flexible even during cold conditions. At the end of the air line use a heavy air stone. This needs to be placed in the very center of the pond and on the bottom. In larger ponds more than 20 to 25´ long, it would be wise to create two aeration points with two air stones.
The amount of air that should be supplied to the air line is enough to create what I like to call a “good bubble” – a steady rise of bubbles. I do not like to see a raging boil, which can create currents in the pond. Situations where the fish have to fight a current can be lethal during those long winter months under the ice. They simply do not have that much energy with those kinds of cold conditions. They must be able to simply rest during the winter. After you add the air, watch the fish and see if they are swimming against a current. If so, then reduce the amount of air.
The aeration set-up needs to be checked every day to make sure that it is working. If it fails, for whatever reason, the O2 levels can drop in just a couple of days. If you are going on vacation, then either have an extra air pump running or have someone check what you have while you are gone. The extra air pump is a good idea anyway.
When the outside temperatures are 10 to 15° F or higher there should be an open hole in the ice where the bubbles rise. However, when the temperature drops lower the hole will “dome” over with a thin layer of ice. This is okay since you are pumping air under that dome. O2 is still being supplied to the area and the toxic gases and excess air can escape through micro pores in the dome ice. It is never smart to pound on the ice due to the possibility of shocking the fish but I like to just poke the thin dome ice to make sure that air is still escaping. Leave most of the dome but still poke a small hole. I like to see this dome form, since it keeps a lot of the really cold air from reaching the pond surface.
Some may think that a water pump placed in the center of the pond with the outlet shooting straight up will provide the same benefit. Yes, it will until the intake of the pump plugs or it domes over. In this dome situation the pond surface is sealed off from the atmosphere and there would be no O2 exchange. Both disadvantages are difficult to deal with when you have heavy icing conditions. Use the air pump instead of the water pump.
Shoveling snow off the pond is something I would not do. You do not want to disturb the fish, and by shoveling you are creating quite a disturbance on the ice. You also could get to close to the thin ice near the aeration hole and fall through. Leaving the snow also creates more quiet dark areas in the pond, establishing a better winter environment for the fish. Besides, it can be a lot of work that is not necessary.
Overwintering valuable koi outside under heavy icing conditions is about as stressful to the koi owner as any other fish keeping task. You have to have faith that your aeration technique is going to work and your fish will come out of winter looking a bit thinner but still very healthy.
The other techniques that you can use to overwinter fish are to bring them inside or build a structure over their outdoor pond. Both of these options are a lot of work and expense. Leaving them outside in your properly designed pond, keeping the organic load low, keeping as low a fish population as possible and finally, providing adequate aeration, will ensure that your fish will be fine. These simple techniques discussed here can allow the hobby of keeping koi to prosper in areas where it is very cold.