TOWN AND COUNTRY — A minor frenzy arose on a steamy Sunday afternoon last month outside Pam and Rick Jokerst’s garage when a spirited koi, striped like a tiger, catapulted itself from a plastic tub of water and onto an empty canvas chair.
The fish flipped. And flopped. It looked sideways — the only way it can — at the men rushing to scoop it back into the blue bucket.
Then, the bidding began.
The black-and-orange koi was one of dozens for sale at the Gateway Koi and Pond Club‘s auction in Town and Country. Koi devotee Brent Vancil of Wildwood and his 8-year-old son, Max, had seats next to the one temporarily occupied by the scaled escapee.
“Everybody has their dumb hobbies,” Vancil said. “I like wine and whiskey and sitting outside looking at my fish.”
In the United States, raising koi is still a niche pastime, but its adherents spend countless hours and thousands of dollars buying and caring for what many of them consider living artwork. They find community in each other, swapping techniques to thwart predators, sharing photos of their backyard ponds and offering advice on filtration systems.
In the two and a half years since the Jokersts started the koi club, it’s grown to 150 hobbyists. Members are plumbers and engineers, real estate agents and retirees, from Edwardsville to Affton and Imperial to Ladue. Koi is what connects them.
The colorful carp draw in enthusiasts with their calming demeanor and distinctive features: all googly eyes and gaping mouths; in a rainbow of shades, some shimmery, some matte. Japanese koi, from the Cyprinidae family, have been bred for certain pigments and patterns since the 18th century and now come in 120 varieties. In the right environment, they can grow to 3 feet and live for decades. The oldest known koi, Hanako, died in 1977 at age 226, according to scientists who counted the rings on her scales.
When Pam Jokerst was a kid, she kept an aquarium. So did her future husband. After they got married, they graduated to outdoor fish. Their landscaping became more intricate. One pond turned into three. Waterfalls were added. The couple took trips to Japan and learned more about bloodlines and breeding.
Their best koi swim in temperature-controlled water and eat from an automatic feeder that doses handfuls of pellets seven times a day. But the club welcomes entry-level koi-keepers, too, said Jokerst. There’s something for every budget.
“In the koi world, you will have the Bentleys and Rolls-Royces down to the Chevys,” she said.
Local stores like Ponds Plus in St. Charles sell koi that are bred in Ozark fisheries or other U.S. fish farms. The cheapest ones are a few inches long and cost about $10.
“They kind of skyrocket in price quickly,” said Joe Bindbeutel, whose father opened the store as Pets Plus in 1981.
Five years ago, their focus narrowed to ponds and fish. The shop moves about 1,000 koi a year.
The majority of Ponds Plus customers are casual fish cultivators, Bindbeutel said: “But the people who are into them are into them.”
Koi with sought-after patterns, called moyo, and scale types — highly reflective ones are known as kin-gin-rin — can cost hundreds of dollars. Exhibition koi, which are entered into competitions similar to dog shows, climb into the five figures. Three years ago in Japan, a fury of bids soared to a record-breaking $1.8 million for a show-winner named S Legend.
When Steve Metzler of south St. Louis County first started “ponding” years ago, he didn’t understand the fuss. They’re fish, he thought. The nomenclature — a dictionary’s worth of words describing the nuances of hues and scales and markings — meant nothing to him.
But eventually, everything crystallized. He dumped his goldfish and stuck with the koi. He met others who were building backyard sanctuaries and traveling the koi circuit to shows in Chicago and Louisville, Kentucky. He joined the club here as soon as it was founded.
“You do graduate to this,” Metzler said. “I kind of fell in love with them. I’m a koi snob now.”
The Gateway Koi and Pond Club is one of 50 members of the Associated Koi Clubs of America, based in Orange County, California. The nonprofit, founded a half century ago, has seen the fascination over the mosaic-skinned swimmers stream in from the coasts to the middle of the country.
The pandemic has been a mixed bag, said national vice chairman Jeff Fleischer. More people have been spending time at home beautifying their yards, but importing fish has been difficult.
“It’s not hard to keep koi,” said Fleischer. “It’s hard to keep them healthy. It takes so much time and energy to do it well.”
Sallie Serkes fell into koi when she bought a home in Town and Country that already had a 2,500-gallon pond. She had never kept fish before, but she became enamored with how flicks of color — persimmon and amber, snow white and dusty orange — would dance below the surface of the water as the koi darted by.
Eight years ago, Serkes replaced her entire soft-finned set after some particularly bold minks helped themselves to a snack. Once, her veterinarian had to make a house call to stitch up a wounded fin.
At the auction, Serkes was on the hunt for a few more fish. She didn’t need them, exactly. Her now-8,000-gallon pond holds a couple dozen koi.
“I’m about maxed out,” she said.
The koi club had 60 carp to sell, all bought from a Japanese breeder. The proceeds would go back to the club, for monthly events and its annual koi show in September.
About 50 members gathered in lawn chairs along the driveway, which Pam Jokerst had adorned with koi windsocks. Paper plates took on double duty as bidding paddles and fans, which proved mostly futile against the sticky heat.
A couple of pools inside the Jokersts’ four-car garage served as holding pens. Koi glided around as they awaited their moment with the auctioneer. After they were claimed, they floated inside plastic bags like goldfish prizes at a carnival.
Bidding started at $50 and ticked up in $5 increments. Most fish fetched between $100 and $200.
“These are a steal,” Rick Jokerst would repeat to the crowd before a new fish was paraded in front of the would-be buyers.
Metzler, the self-proclaimed koi snob, nabbed one with golden stripes. Matt Seggerman spent $240 on a pair of fish for a new pond at his St. Charles home. Linda Jeeninga of Edwardsville also took home two koi, though she was tempted by a third, “a metallic one that looked pretty.”
The big winner, though, was Serkes. She outbid Vancil and his son on the day’s top prize, a $430 looker with green-and-black skin. And she claimed four others, a few with scales that sparkled and one that seemed kissed by the blaze of a setting sun.