How can I identify my koi?
Timothy, Lancaster, PA
Koi can be found with almost infinite color patterns which can make it hard to identify which type inhabit your pond and when studying the different Koi varieties it almost feels like they are speaking a foreign language. Actually, you are. The Koi phenomenon developed in Asia as Japanese villagers gathered and bred the colorful carp sometimes found amongst the masses of common carp they raised as food. Over time collecting and breeding these ornamental fish grew in popularity spreading around the globe. Competitions are held regularly where Koi are judged on color, shape, pattern and size with particular traits ranking more “desirable” than others. Show quality Koi need to be bilaterally symmetrical in body shape, with no irregular bulges. Their body should be proportional and consist of an inferior mouth with barbels arranged on a head that slopes into the body of the fish. Their pectoral fins should be well rounded and sturdy with spines that show little to now signs of warping or twisting as they maneuver in the water.
Unless you purchased Koi that were bred and selected specifically for their coloration or markings the chances are your fish have random patterns that will fall into a general category but lack the flare to be considered show quality. There are multitudes of color categories and variations within each category. The Kohaku tends to be the most popular amongst breeders and judges alike. The Kohaku is a white Koi on which hi (red patches) appear in varying patterns. The markings on the body should not spread down past the lateral line and there should be no hi (red) in the fins or tail. Another common color variation, Sanke, resembles a Kohaku with sumi (black patches) mixed in as well. It can be difficult to identify which type of Koi you have as some of the patterns appear strikingly similar. The Showa for example is a black Koi with hi (red patches) and white patches along its body. The Showa can look extremely similar to a Sanke as they consist of the same colors but the Showa should have a predominantly black head. A Koi with a singular spot of color centralized on its head is known as a Tancho which is borrowed from the Tancho crane which similarly has a single colored dot on its head. The Ochiba Shigure Koi which translates to “Leaves in the Water” is a grey Koi with brown patches which can sometimes appear as a blue and orange pattern. Beyond colors and patterns there are also Koi that have plain scales (Wagoi), scales that sparkle (Ginrin), or have no scales at all (Doitsu).
Another concern voiced by Koi owners is that they can not differentiate between male and female Koi. This can be rather hard to do and might take some practice. Young Koi can be near impossible to tell apart but differences emerge as they grow and mature sexually. Male Koi tend to have sleek torpedo shaped bodies while females are rounder and develop bulges as eggs form in their ovaries. Female Koi also tend to grow longer and weigh more than male Koi. Males sport breeding tubercles on their head, flanks and tail that will turn their usually smooth texture to one that can be described to feel as rough as sandpaper during spawning season. You can also tell the males apart from the females by their demeanor. Male Koi tend to swim faster and turn sharper than female Koi, they are also less trusting and usually the last to approach the surface of the pond when being fed.
While it is nice to be able to correctly name your Koi, the best part of owning these fish is the fact that they are all truly unique. What may be considered a show Koi to some is not that attractive to others and having the ability to select from such a large variety of options plays an overwhelming role in why these fish are so desirable to pond owners everywhere. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder so make sure you choose colors that intrigue you and fit well in your water garden as you are the only judge that matters in your back yard. If you would like to learn more about your koi check out some informational books like Water in the Garden and other great books about ponds.
POND TALK: What methods do you use to identify your koi?