How do I know when to start feeding my pond fish? Is it bad to start too soon? This can be a tricky one so we are going to try to cover different aspects of feeding your pond fish to ensure health. In the Northwest, this question is in regards to properly coming out of the winter dormancy.
Higher Quality Diets will make a Difference. First, it is important to understand that feeding your pond fish not only contributes to a healthy life but may prevent an untimely death. Many hobbyists will group together all of the fish in their pond and treat them as the same. I recommend being very careful when doing this.
Goldfish and Koi are not the same fish and do have different feeding requirements. If health and quality appearance are important to you I believe that you should feed towards the needs of the koi. Many hobbyists tend to forget that we have created a relatively closed ecosystem so it is very important that we play an active role in the nutrition of our pond fish. The fish will certainly have the opportunity to scavenge for what ends up in the pond, but for most of us with smaller home ponds there doesn’t tend to be much. I like to equate it to having a dog. They can’t run up the street and grab a taco when they want so they rely on us. Since they primarily eat what we provide, investing in higher quality diets will make a difference.
It is important to start feeding your pond fish in what I call early spring. I say early spring but there is no real date I would tie to it. When the hours of daylight are increasing and average daytime temps are coming up the fish will start to become more active. It is common to hear a 45 or 55 degrees Fahrenheit as a rule but there is more to consider. When discussing temperature I regard it as average daytime water temp, not air temperature. On a warm enough day, you may get activity but that doesn’t mean winter is over yet. They will start becoming aware that the time is coming with longer days and when the water temperature is balanced out they will let you know. Your fish are excellent in letting you know it is time to eat.
If you intend on having healthy fish, water quality is very important. If you haven’t been running your pumps and filters all winter, be careful when observing the fish at the surface isn’t just them starving for air. It is dangerous to overfeed your pond fish too much and too early. If at any time they are given more nutrients than they can metabolize, it will sit inside them until it becomes fatal. Make sure you are monitoring the fish that they are actually moving around regularly and displaying the need to eat before you start feeding.
Many hobbyists mistake dormancy for hibernation. Though the fish are dormant and not doing much during the cold months they are still metabolizing prior stored food. The fish can be quite thin from the winter so it is crucial that you monitor them closely. If the temperature comes up too quickly and they start to get too active they can burn through stored energy faster than they can replenish it. This can cause long-term internal damage. Most koi will eat about all that you will give them so you need to know how much they will eat in a short period.
For many fish, I would say what they could consume in a minute or two if they were by themselves is good per feeding. You will have to make an educated guess when feeding as the size of fish and competition for food makes it hard to see how much is being consumed. Some of your larger koi, over 12 inches, may only need to eat every other day. The juveniles though should eat up to 4 times a day. Paying attention in these areas will help to ensure healthy good looking fish. In the spring, be very careful to monitor your big fish. As they mature they do get a little lazy and they may be out of dormancy but not as active as in years past. They may be lazily swimming around but they are awake and need to be fed.
As I said in the beginning spring feeding can be very tricky. You want to do it properly which requires a lot of attention on your part. One thing that I have found that can make spring feeding a lot easier is to fall feed properly. Most people think that when the water gets cold and the fish go dormant, you are done until spring.
If the pond fish are put into dormancy without being strong enough, in the spring they may have damage done to their internal organs which may be irreversible. A week fish in the spring will also be very prone to parasites and disease. Pond fish should be noticeably active coming to the surface and showing that they want to eat in early fall. Some of your fish will be rooting around in your plants looking for insect larvae or worms to bulk up on. They are looking for high protein and sugars to put their winter bulk on. As always be careful to not over feed. With time and observance of regular feeding habits, you will be able to accurately assess the amounts needed by your fish.
There are many opinions on what to feed your pond fish. For most of us, a high quality commercially prepared pellet is the way to go. I recommend pellets since the research has been done for you and they are very convenient. Most brands of pellets are made size specific for the fish and are formulated with different times of year and life stages in mind.