A true fish story

Would you shell out $50 for a fish? How about $10,000? These fish fanatics will.

Mitsue Falkner takes koi-purchasing trips to Japan to find the most beautiful specimens.

Mitsue Falkner takes koi-purchasing trips to Japan to find the most beautiful specimens.

Photo By David Robert

John Schmidt wanders aimlessly through the aisles at Ofishal Aquarium on Lakeside Drive. Like many avid fish owners, he spends hours here, just to check out what new fish have come in and to stock up on supplies. His 50-gallon saltwater tank houses two sea bass, three pajama cardinals, a long-nose puffer fish and a fire-headed goby.

“It’s relaxing, having a fish tank in my bedroom,” Schmidt says. “I like watching them eat.” Schmidt, 26, and his roommates spent hours watching the tank when he first brought it home. After a while, his roommates bought a 150-gallon tank for the living room. “They’ve got big fish in that one,” he says.

Many people have had a bad fish experience. A colorful fish is brought home in a little baggie, thrown in the aquarium and fed. Then one day a few months later, when the poor fish is found floating belly-up, lifeless, it’s unceremoniously flushed down the toilet, and the conclusion is reached that fish make lousy pets.

But John Schmidt disagrees. He and others like him see much more than just a novelty in a tank—they love their fish.

“Some fish have personalities, like my puffer fish,” Schmidt says. “He likes to eat from my hand. He does it with everybody. They’ve got personalities, and you almost feel bad for them because they don’t have a lot of room. They’re just stuck in there.”

Ofishal Aquarium’s manager, James Duncan, says that keeping fish alive and healthy isn’t as hard as people think. “People don’t realize fish can live up to 12 or even 20 years.”

Koi, a variety of carp, are sometimes called “living jewels” and “swimming flowers.”

Photo By David Robert

Duncan says that fish owners are either made or broken within the first six months: “The first six months are very tedious, and you feel like you’re just throwing money at it. But once you get past that initial investment, if you take those six months to get fish in the tank properly, you’ll start seeing them grow. You’ll start naming them. Then five or six years down the road, they’re pets.”

It’s at this point, Duncan says, that this casual hobby turns into a habit and, in some cases, an obsession. It can be a costly one. Saltwater fish average about $25 apiece but go up to $700. While freshwater fish cost less, some varieties run up to $300. And that’s just the fish.

“We have a particular group of young men who compete with each other over fish,” Duncan says. “They come in on the days we get freshwater shipments, and some of them will wait up to three hours. They read, get coffee, just hang out and wait to see if we cut open a bag and there’s a good, rare fish in there. And our saltwater people are even crazier. On average they spend weekly, on equipment alone, about $50.”

Ofishal also carries some shark varieties, octopi, eels, anemones and most anything else someone might custom order. A rose anemone runs about $80. One smoothhound shark went for $150 to a shark collector with a 10-foot tank. For the rare-clam customer, lighting alone runs about $1,500.

Schmidt chuckles when he thinks about how much he’s actually spent. “I’ve easily invested $1,700 in my tank in the seven months I’ve had it. Easy. It’s expensive. But after you start it up, then it’s like $10 a week, and maybe $30 a month for filter changes.”

Think $1,700 is a lot to spend on fish? That’s nothing compared to Mitsue Falkner’s pond full of koi.

“My whole pond? Oh, a whole lot of money, you don’t want to hear!” Falkner laughs. Her pond, in her back yard at Arrowcreek, holds 10,000 gallons. She owns about 45 of the most highly sought-after Japanese fish. They total more than $100,000 in value. Just one of them—imported directly from Nigata, Japan—cost her $10,000. The cost of her pond added another $30,000 or so for initial construction, various filters, a special heater, air pumps and all the rest.

Mitsue Falkner has spent at least $100,000 on her pond, which holds about 45 of the most highly sought-after Japanese fish.

Photo By David Robert

“Now remember, Mitsue’s [pond] is the cream of the crop here! Most koi ponds don’t have this much,” says Janelle Raabe. Janelle and her husband, Steve (pictured on cover), own Oasis Water Gardens on Glendale Avenue. They sell everything for building, stocking and maintaining water gardens and koi ponds. They also sponsor seminars on fish health. The Raabes have gotten to know Falkner well in the last few years. Janelle even went with Falkner on her last koi-purchasing trip to Japan.

Falkner doesn’t seem crazy (although her husband, George, will joke that she is). She’s just a delightful woman who loves her fish. And when you see her pond, you can understand why. The colorful, large, freshwater fish, a variety of carp, are sometimes called “living jewels” and “swimming flowers,” and for good reason.

“Where I lived in Tokyo was not much property to have a koi pond, so I dreamed of having one since I was little. When I moved to Reno, I found space.”

Koi are fascinating to watch. They come in as many varieties as there are color combinations, but certain ones are rarer and thus more expensive. They can live 25 or even 50 years. But what’s probably best about koi is how pet-like they can be.

“I put my feet in there, and they suck my toes,” Falkner says. Koi know their owners, and they know where their food comes from. They seem to have no hesitation in swimming up to people and opening wide. It can be intimidating, all those big mouths coming at you, but they can’t bite; their teeth are too far back. There is specially made koi food, but they’ll eat most anything—Cheerios, lettuce, watermelon. Janelle even feeds hers oatmeal. Just hold a bite of something above the surface, and those big, vacuum tube-like mouths will come right to it, sucking at your hand to retrieve it. It feels a bit slimy and strange at first, but fun. The fish will even let you pet them, like big, wet, expensive dogs.

Falkner takes extra care of her fish by heating her pond in the winter. Fish amenities such as this, plus the sheer number of koi she owns, are why Falkner’s costs are so high. Some koi enthusiasts show their fish at the International Koi Show in Japan, which is an event that rivals the Super Bowl in the United States. One koi was reputed to have sold for $1.7 million. But the average koi owner doesn’t need to spend nearly this much to support her hobby.

“Initially, the cost of the pond is the most expensive,” says Steve. “You’ve got your filtration system, building the pond, then the cost to put fish in there. You can get a nice, small Japanese fish for $50 or $60 that will grow up to be nice. For a 1,000-gallon pond, you’d probably spend a good $2,000. Then maintenance is basically fish food and water treatments for algae.”

Most koi owners simply enjoy the tranquil environment a koi pond creates. “They’re pretty, they’re peaceful, they’ll eat out of your hands. … At the end of the day you go sit beside your pond and listen to the waterfall, feed your fish, just kick back,” Steve says.

Costs aside, Falkner and other fish enthusiasts are ultimately like most pet owners. It’s about love."They’re really calming. If I have a headache, I go sit there, and I watch them and call to them," says Falkner. "Oh, my koi love me!"