Rest in Peace, precious Ichiban

Is it wrong to cry over koi? Well, I did last night when I came home to the news that my husband found our prized koi (prized by us) floating on the pond. And I shed a few tears. Of all the fish we have (13) she was special.

We’d had her since 2001, one of three, 3-4″ koi fish we bought at a local pond supply. She was beautifully marked in red and white. We didn’t know at the time she was a girl – but we named her Ichiban, Japanese for ‘number one.’ She reigned supreme as the queen of the backyard.

https://delawaregardener.wordpress.com/2013/05/23/ponds/  As the koi grew, they became accustomed to our habits and movements and Ichiban was the one that always approached us at pond’s edge, let us pet her on the side and after a short amount of training, ate trustingly from our hands.

She was a show stopper and a performer. After two seasons of being well fed, she grew gregarious and had a friendly, if not curious personality.

She’d spy us and swim over, her mouth opening and closing. “Feed Me! Feed Me!” she seemed to say.

When we had to replace a pond liner a few years ago, she didn’t fight the net and calmly let us transfer her to a temporary pool – one where we could pet her with ease.

When we added a butterfly koi around 2009 or so, her behavior changed to that of a spawning female. She’d race around the pond, thrashing, side to side, and flipping in the air, sort of playing hard to get, or so it seemed to us.

Ichiban is one of our original four koi we bought in 2002. She is very friendly, lets us pet her and feed her. She is a piggy and a show off!
Ichiban was one of our original four koi we bought in 2002. She is very friendly, lets us pet her and feed her. She is a piggy and a show off!

We knew little of the game of koi courtship. We had a lot of plants in the pond that year. By the end of the summer, we found  many new baby koi with Ichiban’s markings along with swishy, graceful butterfly tails.

We always have had to fight off predators.Southern Delaware has an abundance of waterways, but Blue Herons nevertheless found our small patch of water irresistable. In 2013, we bought a dozen or so copper shepherds hooks and placed them around the pond – this allowed a net to be stretched across the entire length and width of the pond and raised up 8 ” or so off the surface of the water.

koi in Delaware pond
The leader of the pack

Each year, as temperatures cooled, we watched all the fish begin to huddle together in the deepest section of our pond, about 5 feet deep, and there they’d reliably stay until the warmth of spring called them back to us.

Ichiban was always the first to feed and always the one that got the most chow.

We don’t know what happened to her. She did not seem to want to hibernate this year and came up to the surface often during the odd warm spell.

We also had our coldest winter, and like all winters in the past, we ran a warming stone that floated on the surface. We found her coming up to that several times and then go back down. She appeared confused.

Confusion, something internal, we don’t know – the snow and ice and collected leaves lowered down to the water’s surface. We’re not entirely sure, but we think she came up during a warm spell (in the 40 degrees) and the net might have stopped her from returning back down.

We found her, and one of her pretty offspring lifelessly floating together.

It is natural to love our pets and grieve over them like family. Ichiban wasn’t exactly like a cat or dog, or horse – but we had a relationship with her. Unlike the other fish, she had a personality, or we attributed one to her. For 14 years she entertained us. We had a bond. Our pond had a personality.

At pond's edge. Feed me!
At pond’s edge. Feed me!

Our pond

When we bought our house, it was brand new. We had .75 acres and about half of that was the pie shaped back yard. In 2002, my husband began to map out a free-form outline for a future pond, which he began digging out during the summer and fall 2001. We estimate it to be about 5,000 gallons. We didn’t have one tree or shrub in our entire yard. We had no experience with ponds – knew nothing about filtration, liners, skimmers, etc. We figured it out all on our own.

Early pond. We ended up removing most of this landscape.
Early pond. We ended up removing most of this landscape.
A year later we added plants and bought four koi. Three of which still survive today. Figuring they were at least a year old when we got them, they are at least 12 years old! I also got the bright idea to buy some cheap goldfish, you know, the kind you win at a church carnival? Big mistake, for all they did was eat and poop. We also bought some other fish, none of which survived the year due to Blue Herons that would visit our pond, usually at dusk and dawn. Somehow, the koi knew how to avoid being served as dinner!

Later we added more plants. The only fish that reproduced were the goldfish. Goldfish and Koi, essentially both carps, are able to breed, but their offspring are rather muddy looking and sterile. We ended up giving away as many of these fish as we could.

In 2003 or 2004 we put stone from our deck to the ponds edge, so that we could have a patio.

We eventually created two garden paths from either side of the stone patio that converge to the shed. Most of the leylands shown here came down during the 2010 bilzzard.
2003-2004. We eventually created two garden paths from either side of the stone patio that converge to the shed.
Most of the leylands shown here came down during the 2010 blizzard

Garden path
We also carved out garden paths to the left and the right of the pond, which converged to a point at the garden shed.Backyard pond

We sculpted out a heart shaped garden path that points back to our storage shed
We sculpted out a heart shaped garden path that points back to our storage shed

Ichiban is one of our original four koi we bought in 2002. She is very friendly, lets us pet her and feed her. She is a piggy and a show off!
Ichiban is one of our original four koi we bought in 2002. She is very friendly, lets us pet her and feed her. She is a piggy and a show off!
A serious leak in 2009 forced us to drain the pond completely. We bought a kiddie pool to put the fish in, and it was a good time to weed out all the mutts. My husband put them in a cooler and took them to a natural pond nearby. I couldn’t bear to kill them. With fresh water, we decided to buy two more koi (after four years we had lost a white one due to natural causes). OhNo,  a pretty yellow gold koi, stayed in the pond for about two months before a Blue Heron got to him. We found him alive, but floating on his side with a puncture wound.The other koi was a butterfly or fantail, almost white with some pale orange coloring around the head. We didn’t want to lose “Choucho” too! That is when we decided to get a net. We bought copper hooks and put them around the pond and their purpose is to hold the net taught.Kou at feeding timeWaterfall

Once we put the net up, we also bought a lot of water hyacynths and parrots feather. That year, the vegetation just went wild. We could hardly see our fish, but the water was very clear. And something else happened, we started seeing babies! Breeding koi is difficult because they tend to eat their own roe. The combination of the net, lots of roots floating on the surface and vegetation in the pond for roe to attach, plus perhaps the addition of OhNo and Choucho (Japanese for butterfly)provided an ideal habitat to make koi babies. More than a dozen survived. We’ve given a lot away, but kept eight to enjoy. We see many of the characteristics of our original koi in this second generation. One in particular, we dubbed Rising Sun, for his nice round orange spot on the top of his head. I also like the name because it is one of my favorite George Harrison songs.  He’s very shy and quick and its hard to get a picture of him.

The pond net makes getting nice photographs difficult In the spring, the net catches various seed pods and leaves, and it can get kind of junky. We’ve got to figure out a way to vacuum this debris off. But it is necessary and acceptable if it means our koi are safe!

We changed the water in the pond this year (startling a mother mallard that nested at the pond’s edge and pump)  and I made my husband take out most of the plants that had overgrown their pots, and which had also accepted many weeds. He removed them under duress, but we needed a fresh look. So we launched this spring with one pickerel plant, and plan to get some more. We need the plant life to fix the nitrogen and help shade the pond. Algae is a problem, though the fish don’t mind it.