As any enthusiast knows, koi are not the aimless, unintelligent creatures that people often perceive fish to be. Because koi have well-functioning, long-term memories, as well as some reasoning skills and understanding of social order, they are capable of learning to eat from your hand. Whether they actually will depends both on your training methods and their personalities.
Hand feeding is one of the hallmarks of koi ownership for many hobbyists, as it enables you to experience a real bond with your carp. It also can be a family-friendly activity or a memorable experience for your guests. Koi are non-aggressive fish and do not have teeth in the front of their mouths, so you will not have to worry about anyone getting bit. Hand feeding also will allow you to catch any signs of illness or injury right away.
If you’ve owned koi, you have surely learned firsthand that each fish comes with a distinct personality ranging from bold to bashful. What is true for most animal species is true for koi as well–the most confident are likely to respond to humans more quickly and the nervous ones need a little more time.
Capitalize on your more sociable fish and don’t take others’ rejection personally. Koi varieties from the Kawarimono class, especially Chagoi, are most likely to be instant best friends and are more food motivated. In fact, Chagoi are sometimes explicitly purchased to help tame the rest of a group. As the leaders of the group catch on to the routine, many of the reluctant ones will eventually follow.
Time of Year And Temperature
Seasonal outdoor temperatures will greatly influence your koi’s feeding habits. The cooler the pond water, the less interested your koi will be in eating, particularly if temperatures fall below 60 degrees. You are setting yourself up for failure if you try to start hand feeding in the late fall or early spring months when your fish are getting ready to enter or are just exiting torpor.
If your koi are unaccustomed to close contact with you, then you will want to begin the hand-feeding process slowly. It’s easy to let the excitement get the best of you and rush the process, but this could actually cause the fish to perceive you as a predator rather than a caretaker. Expect that several weeks could pass from when you first decide to hand feed to when it actually happens.
Additionally, don’t bring others into the process too soon. Your koi can recognize who typically brings them food, so only people in your household who are accustomed to feeding them should start the hand feeding process. As the koi warm to it, they will more likely accept new feeders.
Similarly, don’t force hand feeding upon koi that are new to your pond. They need time to acclimate to their environment, their new pond mates, and to your feeding routine. Forcing new fish to hand feed right away could cause them to see you as a threat and want to avoid you.
Also, customize your pond to deter predators. Koi that are kept in environments prone to predators will be less likely to swim to the water’s surface.
Make Sure Your Koi Are Hungry
A hungry koi is a more compliant koi when it comes to hand feeding. At first, reduce the amount of food you give at each feeding so your koi are more eager to eat (you can increase the number of feedings to compensate, if necessary). As the koi become comfortable with hand feeding, slowly scale back to your normal feeding times and quantities.
It also helps to start hand feeding with high-quality food that your koi have demonstrated an affinity for, such as Blue Ridge Koi & Goldfish Food.
Establish A Routine
Koi are creatures of habit. They’re more likely to respond to something that happens the same way every day. To set a mealtime routine, visit your pond at the same hours of each day. They’ll get to know your patterns and learn to recognize you–and feeding time.
Pick a specific spot where you will always conduct the feeding. The fish will learn to associate your standing there with a meal. Over time, they will begin to gather in that location as soon as they see you.
Inch Your Way In
Make note of your usual position when you feed your koi and how forcefully you toss food into the pond. If your fish are happily eating with you at a distance, take one small step closer to the pond when you feed them next or don’t toss their food so far. Repeat this process until you are standing or kneeling right at the edge of the pond. Stay put until they finish eating to help cement the connection between your presence and food.
Introduce Your Hand
Once your koi seem comfortable in their feeding routine and location, you can begin to introduce your hand. Gently lower your hand into the water holding the food in your fist. Move your hand very slowly while allowing a few pieces to escape. This will force the fish to swim close to your hand but not yet have to eat from it. Avoid rapid motions and do not push your hand toward the fish–allow them to approach you. Eventually, the koi will recognize your hand as a food source.
The next step is to get them comfortable touching you. Slowly lower your hand into the water with a fist full of food like before but don’t immediately let any escape. The hope is that the fish will prod your hand for the food, at which point you should release small bits of it for every touch you receive. At the end of the session, you can open up your hand to present the remaining food for the ones that have been too shy to nudge you.
The last stage will involve simply cupping your hand with some food in it, placing it at the water’s surface and enjoying the experience of your koi eating right out of it. You might have one or more greedy fish that want to hog the supply. In this case, submerge your hand as in the previous step to allow access to the more polite fish. Of course, always toss some additional food in afterward if you are not completely certain that each of your fish has eaten.
One thing to look out for as you begin to hand feed is giving your koi too much food. The process can be so fun and enjoyable that you might find yourself wanting to feed them more food more frequently. (Multiply this risk for every person in your household.)
Overfeeding comes with a host of problems for your fish and the water quality in your pond, so It is important to stick to controlled portions. Your new feeding routine might be very different after you have taught your koi to eat from your hands, but the quantity should stay just the same as before.