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The joy of raising koi

Mix together a fascination with aquariums, a love of landscape gardening and exotic adventure travel, and what do you get? For Dale Torok, the results are a hobby that initiates friendships around the world and the creation of an exquisite back-yard koi pond at his north Lexington home.

Torok had kept fish in an aquarium since elementary school, but after seeing an extensive, multilevel display at an open-air mall in Honolulu about 25 years ago, Torok tucked into his memory the vision of water falling into koi-filled pools.

"It was gorgeous," he says. "I told myself that someday I'd like to have something like that. By 1999, I was reading about koi ponds and visiting them to research the idea."

In 2001, he started work on the present ponds. It involved lots of digging and backhoe work, and elaborate planning and engineering skills were required to build a below-ground pump house.

Torok also worked with stonemason Doug Isaac of Paris to create a dry-laid stone wall border around the installation. The rocks were quarried by Stanley Kelly in Mercer County.

Torok has two ponds joined by an overflow waterfall feature, which aerates the pond water with the help of a turtle-shaped fountain. He discovered that koi need a deep pool, so he dug a 5-foot-deep pond that holds 6,000 gallons of water.

He also wanted aquatic plants like water lilies and taro, which have striking blooms and require an average water depth of 2 feet. To accommodate them, he built a lower-level water garden that holds about 3,000 gallons.

To keep a close eye on his fish, Torok also installed an underwater camera that is hooked up to his living-room television.

The koi have a striking presence because of their size and brightly colored markings. Various color patterns bear different names, like the familiar orange-red and white Kohaku. The largest in Torok's pond, however, is a koi he has named Silver Queen, a 21/2-foot-long Yamabuki Ogon, which means it is a shiny, solid yellow, named after golden-bloomed wildflowers. The 12-year-old fish recognizes Torok and lifts its head out of the water to eat from his hand.

During the winter when the drop in temperatures slows the kois' metabolism, feeding stops for about four months. It resumes when the fish become active in the spring.

Torok also finds message boards like www.koi-bito.com very useful. Supported by Koi-Bito magazine, whose motto is "Straight from Japan ... for the Serious Hobbyist!," it carries discussion forums and helpful articles. As he was planning a mountain-climbing vacation in Australia with a friend this February, Torok listed a short message on the discussion forum, asking whether there were any koi keepers in the area. The response was phenomenal, he says, and he managed to arrange a "whirlwind tour" of eight gardens near Sydney. He posted a photo tour and comments after the trip.

Joining a koi club also is helpful in picking up the "how-to" of creating and maintaining koi ponds. Kentucky's main organization is the Greater Louisville Koi and Goldfish Society (www.louisvillekoiclub.com). It's an easy way to test the waters and get in the swim of this fascinating hobby.

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