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Unique Pond Fish For Your Backyard Pond

Try some unique pond fish, instead of koi and goldfish.

By Joshua Wiegert |

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Whenever I visit a backyard pond, I’m always struck by how unique and personal each pond is. Each person has their own unique taste in, well, everything, from how the pond sits in their yard and the surrounding landscape, to the shape of the pond, to the stones used, to inclusion or exclusion of waterfalls and other features, to the various plants used in the pond. One person may love lily pads, while another prefers submerged growth. One person may choose to surround the pond in big, roundish chunks of granite, while – as one person I know once did – another may spend years painstakingly gathering flat rocks with fossils imprinted in them. Gravel, or bare liner, spitters or pink flamingoes? Each choice is unique to the "ponder.”

 

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Orange-throat darter
Orange-throat darter. Photo by Joshua Wiegert.
Crescent shiner
Crescent shiner. Photo by Joshua Wiegert.

However, one thing is always the same. Always the same. Always the same. Every single pond has the same fish in it. Koi and goldfish, koi and goldfish, koi and goldfish. Oh, sure, one person has gone to the local fish store and purchased beautiful "Select Domestic Koi,” while another has painstakingly researched the difference between a Kawarimono and a Madai-Usuzukuri . But, ultimately, they’re all koi and goldfish. Koi and goldfish. Koi and goldfish.

Both of these fish can cause huge environmental problems should they become accidentally released. As we mentioned last month, placing anything outdoors in a pond gives it a huge leg up (er, fin up) on potentially becoming released. A fish or other organism placed outdoors only needs a good rainstorm or a passing duck to get from your back yard to the local stream. Both goldfish and koi have essentially the same effect when they’re released into the wild.

Both fishes rapidly reproduce, and can quickly out-compete native fishes. They tolerate low oxygen levels far more than most of our native fishes – this is one of the reasons why they’re selected as pond fish. They handle poor water quality and can also be crowded quite well. Both are voracious herbivores and detrivores: they eat tremendous amounts of aquatic vegetation and tend to root in the soils. As a result, in wild ponds, they can greatly increase turbidity, lower available oxygen and exacerbate problems.

The problems that they create when introduced into the wild have always begged one huge question to me. We have two types of fish that eat plants, muck up the bottom, and reproduce rapidly, to the point of overcrowding. So, why, exactly, do we put this fish in our ponds? Further, goldfish and koi get rather big: meaning they’re not ideal choices for those of us with small ponds, or with streams and other "pondless” water features.

When faced with other options, many people are quick to point out that there really aren’t that many fish that can handle "cold water.” For summer-only ponds, many authors have written extensively and repeatedly on the use of tropical fishes outdoors. However, there is one other blatant option: native fish.

Obviously, the fish that live in our figurative backyards can survive quite well in our literal backyards, as can fish from similar regions of the nation. Plus, there are types of fish that can do well in almost any type of environment. So, let’s take a look at three different backyard ponds that are, well, different.

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Megalotis sunfish
Megalotis sunfish, suitable for ponds. Photo courtesy Stan "Robin" Sung.
Stoneroller
Stoneroller. Photo courtesy Stan "Robin" Sung.

The Sunfish Pond
The sunfish comprise the genus Lepomis and several other closely related groups. Within Lepomis, there are roughly a dozen species – though they are known to hybridise and regional varieties are numerous. The various species of sunfish range in size from the fairly diminutive dollar sunfish at about 4 inches to some species that are routinely caught on hook and line, with maximum sizes of about 12 inches (e.g., bluegill, longear, and redbreast are all bigger fish).

These fish are wildly variable: no two individuals look alike. Most species have wild splashes of orange, red, blue and green across their bodies, making them riots of unique color. I’ve found some that were bright yellow, almost albino. Unlike goldfish and koi, they also have a lot of personality. They do more than simply roam the pond hoping for pellets. They can be quite spunky, developing territories and creating sunfish breeding areas. In ponds with substrate bottoms, the males will dig a small pit, called a redd. He’ll create a harem, and invite females into the redd to spawn.

Interestingly, the nests of these fish are prone to parasitism: many types of minnows actually breed in the pits, dumping their eggs on top of the sunfishes’. The eggs are guarded by the sunfish, and protected from predators.

A beautiful pond could be set around a small group of sunfish (or more than one group, if it’s big enough). A good sized shoal of large bodied minnows can add some interest and movement – particularly if it’s one of the nest parasite species. Try golden shiners for a brightly colored minnow that won’t get eaten. If you can find them, one of the most beautiful native fishes out there is the Welaka minnow or bluenose shiner, which is a nest parasite. If there’s sufficient cover in the forms of submerged aquatic plants and other substrate, smaller minnows can be used. While sunfish will eat some of them, they probably won’t eat all of them. In this case, rainbow shiners, redbelly dace, or any number of species can be used.

The Fast Flowing Native Stream
One of my favorite water features is the "pondless” stream, where water flows through a channel, enters a very small basin and is returned, often by a waterfall, upstream. The water flows in a continuous circuit. These are beautiful features that can fit in even the smallest of backyards, and often make great divisions between other features (e.g., separate a rose garden from an herb garden, or shrubs, etc.). However, they’re just plain unsuitable for traditional pond fish. Aside from the fact that they’re often shallow, goldfish and koi are not adapted to fast moving water.

Darters, on the other hand, are, as are stonerollers and a huge number of other native fish. A great and beautiful water feature can be set around these fishes. Imagine watching the water bubble over a few large rocks as wildly colored male orange-throat darter flashes his fins, displaying and courting females to his favored rock. Add a dozen or so minnows, such as the beautiful crescent shiner.

Small Pond?
While the suggestion of a swamp usually conjures up a nasty image, in this case, I simply mean a smaller pond without much water movement. A single fountain or spitter that keeps the water well oxygenated, and a good number of aquatic plants can characterize this type of pond. Add to this a small group of least killifish (Heterandria formosa), while will rapidly reproduce to become a sizeable group, and perhaps a few pairs of one of the dwarf of pygmy sunfishes. Both of these, particularly the least killifish, are great mosquito controllers in smaller ponds.

The possibilities for a native fish pond are endless. With very little planning, you can design the pond to successfully overwinter these fishes. If you’re looking for more information on North American native fish or planning a native fish pond, be sure to check out the folks over at the North American Native Fish Association (www.nanfa.org). And, be sure to post a comment on this article!

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Unique Pond Fish For Your Backyard Pond

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Reader Comments

Dante    Hyde Park, MA

9/20/2014 1:03:15 PM

Had suggested this to a friend to consider.

Judith    dewey, AZ

6/10/2014 9:09:00

Thank you for the discussion of a Sunfish pond. No mention is made of advisability of mixing these fish with Koi and Goldfish.

Dante    Hyde Park, MA

6/5/2014 11:06:09

Never thought of it, but I happen to like the idea of the "pondless" stream! Tthank you.

joel    clymer, PA

5/30/2014 11:29:39

i have a small pond with just the gold fish in them...it seems every time i place a koi in the pond something eats them..20 out of the 22 fish were eaten...we have a pool where small children play so we can't do the 3 feet deep...we are close but not 3 feet...i would like to add some different species into the pond...can you mix fish with the gold fish...i read in here where they muck it up, outcompete can i put sunfish in this pond? i'd like to put some minnows in to make it nice too...will the gold fish eat the minnows?...maybe i just didn't read the article well enough...it just sounded like these ponds were exclusive to one species of fish..

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