Springtime is the most critical time of the year for fish in the pond. As water temperatures rise it puts our fish in the danger zone also referred to as Aeromonas Alley. The danger zone is water temperatures between 50° and 65°.
During winter our fish have lost all of their immunity system and are weak from not eating. They will not regain a fully-developed immunity system until the water temperature reaches approximately 72º.
In many states during the winter the water temperature drops below 50° which kills all the bacteria (good and bad) and most parasites become inactive. Fish do not eat at these temperatures and the pond goes into a period of dormancy. Here in Georgia, however, spring's warmer daytime temperatures starts raising the water temperature but we still have cool nights. This causes the water temperature to remain between 45° and 60° for an extended period of time. Unfortunately these water temperatures are the most dangerous to our fish. It subjects them to rapid bacterial (aeramonas and psuedomonas) growth and also to several parasites (especially costia and flukes) that are prolific in colder waters. During this time our fish have no established immunity system to help ward off these bad elements. Ideally, if we could raise the water temperature from 50° to 65° over a two-week period and hold it at 65° or above, it would be great for our finny friends. Unfortunately, nature will not do it for us and it would be an expensive task to heat our outside ponds.
For the last few years Georgia’s winter weather has set new records in high temperatures. During this time water temperatures hover in the middle to high 50's. Fish are hungry and wanting to be fed. During this time of year I receive many calls regarding flashing (an indication of parasites) and many people call to report that they have already lost fish due to ulcers and bacterial infections. For example, on New Year’s Day, 2000 our outside temperature was 71° in the Atlanta Area. Pond water temperatures by January 2nd were reaching 62°. This break in the weather is very pleasant to us but subjects our fish to the danger zone. We enjoy our great Georgia weather but because of this our fish stay in the danger zone almost all winter. It would be better if the water temperature dropped below 50° and stayed there until spring.
Here are some steps you can take to help:
Clean the Pond
First, when another warm sunny day graces us, thoroughly clean your pond. Parasites and bad bacteria thrive in the leaves and mulm in the bottom of the pond. Remove this debris with a wet-dry vac being careful not to suck up your fish. It becomes an easier task if you partially drain your pond before using the vacuum. Clean the filter. Hose off the media if your biofilter is a gravity-fed kind or perform a power backwash on your bead filter. Clean all debris from stream beds.
Declor and refill your pond. If you shut down your system for winter you will want to start it back up. Turn on your pump and leave it running 24 hours a day — 7 days a week.
Perform a Salt Treatment
When the water maintains a temperature of 50° or higher add salt - 3lbs of non-iodized salt with no trace minerals added. Remove your plants before you salt the pond and place them in a holding tank for later treatment. Dose the salt in increments. 1 lb. per 100 gallons for 3 consecutive days. Leave the salt in for at least 3 weeks. The salt water can then be diluted and eventually totally eliminated by making water changes. By adding the salt you have killed costia and many other common parasites with the exception of flukes, anchor worms and fish lice.
Use Caution When Feeding Your Fish
When the water temperature reaches (and stays at) 55° you may start feeding your fish. I recommend only wheatgerm-based foods to begin the season. Wheatgerm is easily digested by your fish in colder water. Feed them sparingly, not nearly the amount you would normally feed them in summer. Remember that your nitrifying bacteria go dormant also and will not begin to re-develop until the water temperature reaches approximately 62° . Overfeeding can cause an ammonia surge. Be sure to test and monitor closely.
When the water temperature reaches 60° I recommend an antibiotic food - a food that has been milled or coated with antibiotics known to be effective with certain bacteria. Romet is a good choice. We developed our own medicated food called The Doc’s Prescription Triple Antibiotic Food. It is top-coated wheatgerm with oxolinic acid, kanamycin and ormetaprim sulfa. The purpose of the antibiotic food is to help booster the fish's immunity system since its immunity system is not yet fully developed. I can't stress enough the importance of feeding antibiotic foods.
During the period when water temperatures are between 50° and 65°, and after the 21 days of salting, you may still see your fish "flashing" (rubbing or scratching themselves against the side or bottom of the pond). This probably indicates flukes since you’ve already killed all the parasites that are sensitive to salt. Remember, flukes are immune to salt. Several Potassium Permanganate treatments would be in order. PP is safer in cold water because of the higher oxygen levels of colder water but will still require aeration. If the water temperature has warmed above 62° be sure to bypass your filter and aerate heavily. Potassium permanganate will kill any nitrifying bacteria present in your filter. If you have never used potassium permanganate please read our article entitled "The Professional Way to PP". DO NOT overdose.
Treat the Plants
Remember the plants you took out of the pond prior to salting? They need to be treated and returned to your pond after the water changes have diluted the salt. Because it is early spring you may only have a stub of a plant or what looks like just a pot of dirt. These still need to be treated. To rid plants of possible parasites treat with 37% Formalin. Immerse the plants into a water bath of 3 cc's of Formalin per gallon of water for 24 hours. You may also use potassium permanganate at 20 ppm (hard to measure in small quantities of water). If you hold your plants in a 30-gallon plastic tote full of water you can dissolve 1/2 tsp. of PP into a separate small container of pond water and mix well, then disperse the mixture all around the plants. Leave the plants in the PP mixture for 24 hours then change the water.
Take Advantage of the Convenience. Propagate the Water Plants
You have a wonderful opportunity to clean up and divide any of the plants that need it while they’re being held in this holding tank. Divide most bog plants as you would perennials by cutting into the root mass and planting in two or more containers. Waterlillies are separated by "eyes" where leaves begin to grow. Sometimes these eyes are not developed enough at this time of year to distinguish each baby plant so I would suggest you hold off splitting them until you see the eyes clearly.
A mixture of sand and red Georgia clay can be used for soil or you can purchase soil especially mixed for watergardening. Do NOT use indoor potting soil or anything that is rich in nutrients. Another technique that can be used in almost any water plant situation is soiless planting. You can place most plants in a container of rocks or use commercially available soiless potting media. One of our customers (Thanks, Steve Knight!) cuts sheets of coconut media (available through us) to fit his plant basket and uses it to pack in loose, spongy soiless potting media that is reusable (and also available through us)!
Once potted you should fertilize all plants to give them a jump-start on spring. Waterlillies love fertilizer and benefit from no less than two Pond Tabs each plant. Go ahead and pop two Pond Tabs into the bog plants as well. Make sure you are not putting in the long-lasting time-released fertilizer tablets that could fry the roots. Read the directions or be safe by purchasing the Pond Tabs brand.
Return your plants to the pond when no less than 50% of the salt has been diluted. Rarely will you find new plants to purchase and add to your garden before the first of April. Even hardy bog plants aren’t grown enough to sell yet. A nice supply of new plants will be available after the last frost which is usually around the middle of April. At that time you can add tropical waterlillies and tropical floaters such as water hyacinths and water lettuce. It’s always best to treat new plants before introducing them to your nice, clean, parasite-free pond!
Watch for Signs of Stress
Most importantly, this is a time of major changes in your fish’s lives. Watch for signs of stress or problems. If you see your fish flashing, gulping for air, tattered fins or reddish spots that are not part of its coloring DO NOT put any chemicals or remedies in the water unless you know it’s safe and the person prescribing the cure is a fish health professional. Even then, give us a call or bring a live fish in for us to check and do a skin scraping.
Now sit back and enjoy the serenity and beauty of your pond. Happy pondering and we hope to see you soon!