Beware of what you Fish For

The following story may sound like a fish tale, but, it is the true adventures of the frazzled but happy owners of a very productive garden pond – known in the sophisticated horticultural world as a Water Feature.

Approximately 30 years ago, on a beautiful summer morning, I told my spouse that we needed a fish pond in our yard. Knowing that this would involve lots of digging (mostly him) and purchasing of water plants (mostly me), he said “Let me think about it for a while.” He thought about it – for a slightly longer while than I thought necessary – and then a month or two later said, “Sure. Toby would like it.” (Toby was our cat – a majestic mix of Maine Coon and Norwegian Forest Cat. Big guy! An aside here – Toby was an avid hunter who brought home a variety of items such as a deflated rubber ball, a hot dog in the bun with mustard and relish, a T-bone steak from my neighbor’s patio table, and a stray kitten. The kitten loved us; my neighbor, not so much.) Anyway, we made the decision to install a small pond. Bill, my spouse, went to a local hardware store and bought a small, kidney-shaped preformed pond shell. The little pond had a depth of two feet which we figured would be perfect for easy maintenance and cleaning. After the installation and rearranging of soil, we added a few large slabs of paving stones around the perimeter. It was lovely. Then we stocked the pond with water plants and goldfish. Lots of fish. I added 12 little goldfish after letting the water sit for three days, as instructed. Within one week, we saw an enormous increase of bird population in our garden. Within a month, we had received the following visitors: raccoons, an enormous heron, a seagull (!), and a small hawk. And, of course, Toby had a great time playing with the fish. Within two months, the plants had doubled in size and the fish disappeared.

Fast forward to 20 years ago. By this time, after a series of frustrating and heart-breaking fish losses and the pond shell cracking due to freezing weather, Bill had removed the shell and dug a much larger pond. This pond, which remains to this day, has a four-foot-deep section covered by a permanent water plant where the fish overwinter. Under the plant and in the deep, they are protected from weather extremes and hunters. In warm weather, the fish come up to the two-foot-deep section where I feed them and check for health problems. And for all the work involved with owning and caring for a large fish pond (about 700 gallons when full), the rewards are immense. The fish are beautiful, interactive, and a true joy to own.

But arriving at this point wasn’t easy. Over the years we have used many different methods for protecting the fish from predators in the hope that the fish would survive to old age. From fences to sturdy wire covers, from long boards covering the pond at night to spraying the perimeter with anti-predator spray, nothing worked. I’ve unwillingly fed countless visitors over the years. One early summer morning, around 5am or so, after having made a cup of coffee, I opened the front door to let in the morning breeze. I noticed something out of the corner of my eye over at the pond. I walked out unto the porch and saw a coyote – head down and butt-up – fishing in my pond. I yelled at him. He looked up at me while munching on something, and casually loped down the front yard to the street, giving me the side-eye as he went. I muttered “Bad dog!” as he strolled away, happy and no longer hungry. About 10 years ago, our beagle almost broke through our living room window when he saw an enormous heron land in our pond. The bird got away with a couple of the most beautiful multi-colored fish in the pond and Pippin, after getting outside, had a wonderful time running through the garden, tearing up plants as he charged after the huge bird. The most irritating incident occurred three summers ago. Bill and I were in the living room – front door and windows wide open for the breeze – when we heard the rocks surrounding the pond being moved. Scrape, splash, scrape, splash, chatter, more rocks scraping, more chatter, and then a loud splash. Bill charged outside with a flashlight to find a raccoon family having the time of their life pushing rocks into the pond. No fish were lost during that event but it took them two full days to come out from under the plants for food.

The result of all this work to protect the fish to old age is now a population of almost 30 beautiful, brightly colored fish ranging in ages from one year to four years. All the protecting and feeding of the most recent five fish I purchased has resulted in a large population of babies and one very fertile breeder. She pumps out those babies like there’s no tomorrow! These days, I offer free fish to anyone who visits. We’ve removed all the barriers to the pond and allowed wildlife to help themselves. Last summer, I returned to the store where I bought the fish and explained that the original fish I purchased are huge now (close to eight inches long) and one is very, very fertile. “Will they ever stop breeding?!” I was assured that they will limit their population due to the size of the pond. The smallest fish may die over winter due to cold or lack of food (I don’t feed them during cold weather), a couple of the oldest fish will die during winter, and if the biggest fish get hungry enough they will eat the smallest fish. Nature takes care of itself sometimes. I hope.

In the meantime, if you want a free goldfish or two, you know who to call!

Our fish winter-over comfortably at the bottom of the deepest section.

Gone fishin’.

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