We have a fish bent and unable to right itself most of the time, slowing dying in our current pond.  This reminded me of something I wrote years ago when fish began to die in the ponds at our former home.  Watching fish is therapeutic, they say, but watching fish die is more of a reminder of our own helplessness.  Not sure what sort of therapy that is. 

Fish Dying

We put about a dozen minnows in each of the two ponds. When the bait store guy asked us what kind we wanted, he meant, what were we fishing for. “We want to put them in a pond,”I said. “I guess you can do that,” he said. And we were off.

In the deeper, newer, pond, the fish seemed more social, or more dependent on us—those traits may be the same. Within a couple days of routine, when the fountains were turned off, the fish in the newer pond, assembled toward the surface like circling sharks waiting for their fish food. The fish in the other pond weren’t interested. They hid in the blacks of the pond bottom.

A couple things surprised us after introducing the little minnows into our ponds. First, was how well they could hide. Most of the time, we thought the fish had disappeared, that some bird or frog had eaten them all. We half expected a heron to be standing in our little ponds in the morning, its wingspan matching the length of the pond as it returned to the air. As destructive as such a visitor would have been, I would have made a trip to the store every day to get minnows
to supply a backyard heron. I’m not sure who would envy such a living lawn ornament, but we would find such people and brag for sure.

If new rocks were introduced, the minnows would speed around them, poking their heads one after the other into newly formed crevices. Otherwise, they were oddly secretive.

The other surprise was how they grouped. They did everything in unison, moving as a school from the beginning. One of them had to be the leader, but with their speed and similarity, we couldn’t begin to make that determination. How did one so quickly become the leader, though? And how did all of the others so quickly become followers? We had split the bucket of randomly netted minnows into the ponds. What if all the leaders had been in one pond rather than the other? What if none of the fish we had taken from the bait store been leaders? How did they establish this pecking order? And so quickly? If a power struggle took place, as it does on the TV nature shows, it must have been quickly settled and performed at pond bottom.

Back to the differences. The new pond fish were more social, more hungry, and seemed larger. We were certain that some would be legal catching size within weeks.

We were proud that after three weeks, not one of our fish had died. “They are hearty fish,” said the bait guy. He was right.

Then one died. Immediately, I thought that we were wrong to be bragging—even to each other—about our good fortune. If I have any belief system, the “jinx” is a central tenet of it. “We shouldn’t have said anything about that,” I said.

I tried to save the fish after I first saw it looking like a bobber, treading water perpendicular to the surface, its mouth wide open, sucking in full yard air. I figured it needed more oxygen. I set up the sprinkler near the pond and, after soaking myself a few times due to hose unfamiliarity, I had a nice arc of artificial rain going into the ponds. I had heard this oxygenated the water and helped cut down on chlorine and such that the city likes to enhance our water with. Why water that kills fish is appropriate tap water for us to drink I’ll never understand.

I hoped my rescue would work. I felt a little protective panic. I couldn’t let something I had brought into the yard die, especially if there was something I could do to prevent it. Despite my efforts, the fish died anyway. It was going through its dying dance before I began the spraying.

When I see a person under the weather, I’ll say to him “you’re swimming awful slow and close to the surface today.” If the person was minnow savvy, though, they would think I meant they were about to die.

Others would die as well, and the worries that accompany illness and death would become a regular part of my backyard life.