3 things to keep in mind when you buy koi

What to consider regarding health, colour and the number of fish in your pond

Koi are freshwater fish ideally suited to garden ponds. When carefully nurtured, they can grow to a metre in length and live for over 30 years. You too can keep a tranquil pond of sparkling koi in your garden. We are fortunate that South Africa’s climate is ideal for koi and they thrive in all regions of the country. Here are some tips for when you choose and buy your first koi.

There are some 16 major varieties of koi and hundreds of different types. Average koi-keepers may not care much about the various show categories, but usually choose the colours and patterns that they personally prefer.

1.Choose a healthy koi

A healthy koi is the shape of a cigar Basic principles apply when purchasing any koi. Check on the overall health of all the koi in the tank where you have spotted a koi that you like. Are the koi swimming naturally? Are there any koi with fins clamped and sitting on the bottom? Are there any dead koi in the tank? Are there koi piping – gasping at the surface or near the water inlet? Any of these observations could indicate that all is not well with the koi in the sales tank. It is better to be safe than sorry. Also check body shapes. Are the baby koi thin and eel-like? Are the koi bloated and round? A nice cigar shape is the preference.

2.Go for the colours you like

Look for koi with defined patterns. If it’s a kohaku (red and white koi) you are selecting, make sure there are clear red/orange patterns and clear white areas. Having black speckles on the kohaku type koi is not good. Check that the pattern colour is thick in appearance; avoid thin, fading pattern – especially when koi are young. In small, young koi try to avoid fancy, small patterns.

A healthy koi is the shape of a cigar
Metallic Koi

As the koi grows these will become out of proportion and shrink, resulting in a koi that is not so pleasing to the eye. Another important factor to keep in mind when selecting koi – the red pattern often shrinks and can even fade away. The red is deposited very close to the surface of the skin.

The sanke developed from the previous variety when some black markings (called sumi) appeared together with the red and the name thus means ‘tri-coloured’. The black, however, should not be as dominant as the red and should be scattered along the body of the koi without appearing on the head at all. Furthermore, the pectoral fins should have streaks of black but no red, although balance between the two fins is more important than specific colour. The black areas often increase in size and intensity as koi grow. Therefore, if you are selecting a koi with red, white and black or white and black, select individuals with small black/grey areas and larger red areas.



The showa is a more modern variety than the previous two (debuting in 1927), and together these three can be considered to be the most important of the 16 recognised varieties. While the showa also has the black, red and white of the sanke, it differs in that it is essentially a black fish with red and white markings. Thus the black takes up at least as much space as the white and this generally serves to differentiate it from the sanke. Further distinction lies in the fins and the pattern: the showa has black at the base of the pectoral fins and not stripes like the sanke, and should have black on the head forward of the eyes. Furthermore, the black in the sanke is restricted to the dorsal surface (top of the fish), while in the showa it should run down the sides towards the belly.

Metallic koi
Metallic koi (also called ginrin) are very attractive in koi ponds. They have individual shining scales. Make sure the scales are even when selecting young metallic koi (also the older ones should have even rows of scales). The metallic pattern should have a good lustre.

The plain-coloured koi – cha goi (chocolate koi), beni goi (plain, non-metallic red), ochiba shigure (non-metallic grey with brown patches, beautifully translated as autumn leaves on running water) – make lovely koi in a pond. They grow quickly and most can be easily tamed.

Beni koi (plain red)

Utsuri mono and bekko
This is a black fish with a second colour such as white, red or yellow. It is a two-colour variety, and thus differs from the sanke and showa, which have three colours. It should also have black bases to the pectoral fins. The opposite pattern, a black pattern on a coloured or white background, is called a bekko.

3.Do not overstock your pond

Rather keep fewer koi, but make sure all individuals are of good quality rather than large numbers of lesser quality. The poor quality koi will distract from the good ones. Visiting koi-keepers to see what they have in their ponds is a really good way to learn. The koi shows held around the country by the South African Koi Keepers Society is also a very easy way to learn to develop an eye for a good koi. The bottom line is you must choose what you like and will enjoy in your pond. As no two koi are exactly alike, you will have a unique koi collection.


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