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Sizzlin Feature

Koi Story

Fishing for a Summer Project and Reeling in a Colorful Subculture

Photos by John Davis Jr.

Sizzlin Summer 2000

Hot Buttons Sizzlin' Summer 2000

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Koi Story Fishing for a Summer Project and Reeling in a Colorful Subculture | By Christopher Skokna

Lewes and Lark A Soul-ful Day-Trip Adventure | By James Michael Brodie

Stomp Maryland Wineries Bottle Up Regional Taste | By Eileen Murphy

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By Christopher Skokna | Posted 5/24/2000

Just as the snowball stands return to York Road, the need to start a "project" begins percolating somewhere inside me. In past summers, this has entailed training to run a long-distance race, helping some friends build a skateboard park, and trying to write a novel. (It turned out to be a few short stories, but who's counting?)Last summer, my project was rather modest: setting up a 55-gallon fresh-water aquarium in my apartment and filling it with tetras, rainbow fish, rasboras, plecostamuses, and various other colorful fish and plants. Recently, with yet another summer approaching, I began to think, I can do better than this, and pondered setting up a koi pond in my backyard.

This rumination lasted only as long as it took to realize the idea was doomed. First, I live in a studio apartment. I don't have a backyard, or even a deck or a patio upon which to build an above-ground pond. Second, the cost of getting koi would prevent me from partaking in that other great summer tradition, vacation. I scaled my ambition down to a minispring project: doing some research on just what it would take to set up a koi pond, and why anyone would do so.

Koi are, essentially, extremely inbred carp. Like those pedigreed pooches that compete every year at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, koi fish have been bred for certain qualities: colors, color patterns, body shape, fin shape, something called "depth-to-length ratio." While the Japanese have rightfully earned their reputation as the planet's koi-craziest people, the Chinese were the first to breed koi (Cyprinus carpio) and their close relatives, goldfish (Carassius auratus), in the 1300s. In fact, the word "koi" is of Chinese origin; the Japanese, who started breeding colorful carp in only 1800 or so, call the fish nishikigoi. (Koi first became popular in the United States after World War II.)

The carp is an extremely common fish that can be found in much of the northern hemisphere (they were introduced to the United States from Eastern Europe in 1877 and are now nearly ubiquitous in the mid-Atlantic states), and they are a major food fish in Israel and Eastern Europe. The Passover favorite (or bane, depending on your taste) gefilte fish is carp that's been ground up with breadcrumbs, onions, and eggs, formed into balls, and boiled.

Koi are decidedly more high-class than their carp ancestors. In Japan, the most highly prized specimens can fetch prices of $250,000, and koi dealers are listed in their own directories (which include photos of the merchants and maps to their stores).

I learn all this from Dr. Art Lembke, past president of the Mid-Atlantic Koi Club, as he shows me around his trophy room. But before visiting Lembke and his prize-winning koi, I trek out to Maryland Aquatic Nurseries (MAN) in Jarrettsville. This two-acre nursery in northwestern Harford County is one of the region's top suppliers of outdoor-pond plants, equipment, and materials for landscapers, botanical gardens, and retailers. As soon as I arrive, owner Dick Schuck insists that my article include the fact that MAN's retail outlet is open to the public only on Saturdays--excepting nosy reporters who make the long but scenic drive up from Baltimore on a Tuesday morning to ask annoying questions.

"It's less than 1 percent of my business, but it keeps me in touch with the public," Schuck says of his Saturday hours. "They let me know whose products are most popular. It provides good feedback for me."

After getting that straight, Schuck takes me for a short tour of MAN. It's a hectic scene--several kids are being looked after in the main office; a dusty dog, Bubba, runs around underfoot; orders are going out to New Jersey, southern Pennsylvania, Long Island, Staten Island, Northern Virginia. A tractor-trailer pulls up the long driveway to deliver . . . something or other.

Schuck's four greenhouses are quite a bit more tranquil. They're humid, but overhead fans circle above, and green, purple, red, and yellow plants sway in the breeze. The plants sit in tubs and buckets of murky water; frogs hop around and flies buzz by. Schuck starts pointing out different plants--water lilies, cattails, lotuses, irises, water lettuce, parrot feathers, hyacinth--but it's hard to keep up.

MAN also manufactures pond filters, pumps, and other equipment, and even garden ornaments such as gargoyles, water fountains, and birdbaths, at a site in Forest Hill. But it's all just so much tech talk after a while, and I'm here for fish. Which, it turns out, Schuck sells very few of: "We're mainly involved with plants."

Schuck and his 15 or so employees are beginning to sell equipment and flora for heavily planted aquariums--something I could use in my apartment!--and he does keep a gorgeous koi pond in his backyard. But plants are the obvious focus in this 10,000-gallon pond; they even act as the aquatic garden's filtering system, sparing Schuck the need for a complicated mechanical setup. But a few koi swim around, gulping air or maybe bugs from the surface, and painted turtles scoot into the pond as we approach. It's peaceful, and I can definitely understand why Schuck left his engineering job 12 years ago to start Maryland Aquatic Nurseries.

As I get ready to leave, he begins lamenting the encroachment of national companies into MAN's business. But he is preparing to meet them head on; his son owns and runs Charleston Aquatic Nurseries in South Carolina, and together they own the Indian River Lily Co. in Vero Beach, Fla. The three plan to eventually form Aqua-Link, which Schuck hopes will be able to compete with the bigger companies.

"We're making money at it," he says of the businesses. "You can't ever rest on your laurels, though."

Next, I visit Gloria Allen, one of several pond specialists at the Aquarium Center in Randallstown--which, belying its location in a particularly bland Liberty Road strip mall, is arguably one of the nation's best and largest aquarium stores. When it comes to koi ponds, Allen is a populist. She constantly preaches that anyone with a big enough backyard--and rowhouse yards are plenty big enough, she asserts--can start up a pond. Even those with just a patio or porch can keep fish and plants in a whiskey-barrel-size tub.

"It's a fun hobby," says Allen, who's been working at the Aquarium Center for 13 years and has been keeping her own 60-gallon, kidney-shaped pond at her home in Baltimore for about eight years. "I find working in the pond very relaxing, and I think you would too."

When not in sales mode, she walks around the Aquarium Center's maze of aisles--lined with fish tanks, equipment, food, supplies, plants, and, hundreds of varieties of fresh- and saltwater fish--spouting useful facts and tips that add up to a pretty good summation of what it would take to get a pond going:

"The best time to start your pond is in the spring. That way you get to enjoy it all year. . . . You definitely want to start before September, while it's still warm out. . . . You need to make the pond at least 24 to 36 inches deep to prevent it from freezing over in the winter. . . . If you want a lot of plants, I'd recommend starting out with goldfish; koi eat plants. . . . You're gonna want to create shade; plastic lilies will work. And you need some submersible plants in there to absorb nutrients; tadpoles and snails will help you out there too." (Allen recommends checking out Video for a Successful Garden Pond, produced by the Tetra aquarium-supply company [www.tetra-fish.com].)

It turns out that starting an in-ground pond would run you $150 to $250, not including fish. The Aquarium Center's koi and goldfish, most of which are bred in the southeastern United States, run from a little more than $10 each to hundreds of dollars. (The most expensive koi in stock when I visited were Israel-bred fish selling for $250 each.)

Allen says that on average, pond maintenance and cleaning requires only about a half-hour a week, not including the time it takes to feed the fish a few times a day (except in winter, when koi hibernate). But she acknowledges, with the enthusiasm of a hobbyist whose avocation pays her bills, that she spends more time on her own pond than she probably needs to.

Finally, I make the pilgrimage to Dr. Lembke's home in Gambrills. Approaching his house at the end of a leafy suburban lane, I note the vanity license plate on the pickup truck in the driveway--koi doc--and immediately recognize that this is not your average hobbyist.

Lembke, a dentist who has been taking care of koi since he was a high schooler in Bowie, represents the hobby's logical extreme. He and his wife, Nicole Lembke, have been showing koi since 1991, and they are both certified judges with the Associated Koi Clubs of America. Lembke frequently publishes articles in koi magazines, and he visits Japan every October to attend and participate in shows and, of course, to buy fish.

"I've been taking care of fish--cichlids, guppies, koi--all my life," he says. "Then, 10 or 12 years ago, I started getting serious. All of a sudden, I found a dealer in Olney who sold Japanese-bred koi. Before then, I had only seen domestics. . . .

"I became hooked on those," Lembke says of the koi. "You want bigger and better ponds and fish."

For Lembke, "bigger and better" means a 24,000-gallon pond and a shed full of filters, pumps, and other equipment. He keeps between 25 and 50 fish at a time, some worth as much as $10,000. On the pond's surface are flashes of white, red, black, and gold. He points out his most successful fish, a large black-and-white koi of the shiro utsori variety that has won several regional competitions.

"I'm playing on a national--even international--level now," he says. "It doesn't get much more high-tech than this." But the highest compliment he has received, he says, came not from a competition's judges, but from a Japanese collector who saw one of Lembke's fish and observed, "It belongs in Japan." (The term "collector" is apropos; Lembke says he views his fish not as pets but as art. "I don't name them," he says. "We talk about them as pieces.")

Lembke realizes that his approach and the time and money he puts into his hobby is not for everyone. He encourages others to start slow--perhaps by checking out the Mid-Atlantic Koi Club (for which his wife is the secretary and he is a past president) or visiting Koi Unlimited in Frederick, perhaps the only store in Maryland that imports koi from Japan. "You can play with koi at any level, and remain in the hobby at every level," he says.

To be sure, playing at Koi Doc's level is quite literally impossible for me, and probably for most people. For the time being, I think I'll stick with my modest, albeit quite charming, indoor tank. I still have to figure out a summer project, though.

For more information on koi and ponds, visit the Mid-Atlantic Koi Club's Web site, www.makc.com.

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