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A Fish Story : Owners Go to Great Lengths and Depth for Koi


Banker Bob Bonner sat at his dining room table leafing through the plans for what may be the biggest hand-dug, back-yard hole-in-the-ground in Reseda.

When it's done and filled with water, a visitor asked, how many koi will be in there?

"Oh, about a hundred."

In the kitchen, Jeff Hirshfeld laughed and shook his head in disbelief.

"Sure," he said, "like we're going to stop at a hundred."

Beyond the dining room window yawned The Hole.

Two and a half years ago, when they started to dig in their back yard, it was planned as a nice little pond for waterlilies and maybe a few goldfish.

But Bonner and Hirshfeld, who is an insurance adjuster, went past the nice little pond stage. Far past. Now the hole is over their heads. It is so deep they can't see out of it and so wide it practically is the yard. If it were filled with water, the hole would hold almost 20,000 gallons--more than many back-yard swimming pools.

And the koi-obsessed duo is still digging.

Koi, the spectacularly colorful fish prized for centuries as pets in Asia and the Middle East, are coming into their own in Southern California. The membership rolls of koi clubs are growing, the number of home-based koi importers are on the rise, and several nurseries have begun to carry pond supplies.

"Everyone has already done dogs and cats," said Alex King, who runs a koi import business out of his Lancaster garage. "It was time for something new."

Koi won't fetch the morning paper or crawl into your lap while you are watching the tube, but fans claim that the fish are intelligent, come to recognize their owners and even eat out of your hand. But koi keeping is not just about fish.

Get some koi folks together and the talk quickly turns to filter systems, parasites, ammonia removers, aeration pumps and other topics guaranteed to glaze the eyes of the uninitiated. Many hobbyists even make their own filtration systems out of PVC pipe, plastic barrels, various types of filtering mediums and electric pumps.

"Once you get involved in koi, you better watch out," said Bonner, who is president of the 200-member Ikiru Hoseki koi club in the San Fernando and San Gabriel valleys. The club name is Japanese and means "Living Jewels."

Collectors of rubies and sapphires lock their obsessions away in velvet-lined jewelry boxes. The koi compulsives dig holes in their back yards.

"You get hooked and then it is all over," said Bonner. "Next thing you know there is a very big hole in your back yard and you are dreaming about new filter systems."

Until Bonner and Hirshfeld complete their project--which will include a 25,000-gallon pond, an adjacent waterfall and stream system, granite boulders, bog gardens, a bridge and a 1,200-square-foot addition to their house designed for optimum viewing of the water environs--the koi they presently have reside in large plastic tubs under shade cloth on the edge of the yard.

They have named several of them--one is Charo, another is Tanuki (badger in Japanese) and another called Gamon, which had to be nursed back to health.

"If anyone would have told me a few years ago that I would be emotionally involved with a fish," Bonner said, "I would have said they were nuts. But when that fish got sick, I really went through it."

Few get hooked on such a grandiose scale as Bonner and Hirshfeld. But for many, koi becomes almost all-consuming. Joe Estrada, a respiratory therapist, has already spent about $8,000 on a back-yard waterfall, boulders and stream bed--all made of fiberglass--that he had installed at his tract home in Quartz Hill in the Antelope Valley. He is now putting in a 4,500-gallon fiberglass pool, which is sold as a swimming pool, for his koi.

"It's all part of that cocooning thing," said Estrada, wearing a Makita tool cap as he gave a tour of his future koi oasis. "People have bigger lots up here, so they have room to put in and enjoy a setup like this."

Local nurseries are responding to the interest. "When I took over the nursery they didn't have koi at all," said Jacklyn Nagasawa, owner of a nursery in Sunland. Until the early 1980s, the nursery, which she took over from her grandfather, specialized in cactus. The business now deals exclusively in pond fish and plants, prompting Nagasawa to change the nursery's name to Sunland Water Gardens.

Nagasawa's koi, which she sells at the nursery for $3.50 to $3,000 each, are obtained from Asia and domestic sources. She now buys about 300 fish a week on the wholesale market--that's up about 25% from last year.

"There is much more interest in water gardens in general these days, but koi is the part that is really growing," she said, sitting on the edge of a large concrete pond that was screened on the top to keep the larger koi from jumping out. "It's more and more of my business."

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