It starts innocently enough. Sometimes it's nothing more than an impulse buy at Walmart. But a simple purchase of a goldfish can whet the appetite for bigger and more colorful purchases. Before you know it, there's a sizable hole in the yard and large Japanese fish are waiting to be fed.

What might have once seemed like an exotic pastime might become much more if the owner takes the bait: hook, line and sinker.

Koi is the Japanese word for carp. Some of these colorful fish can cost hundreds, even thousands of dollars.

In Japan, a koi is highly respected because this carp is composed and never panics. The bony fish is a symbol of love and friendship.

Would it surprise you to learn there's a koi farm just outside Charleston's city limits? And on this farm, as the old song goes, are half a million koi.

It's near the end of a dirt road off S.C. Highway 162 in Hollywood that you'll find Carolina Koi Farm. Seven days a week, the co-owner, Robert Lewis, will be there tending his crop.

Lewis, 57, started this business with Johnna Hansen about six years ago. Like most other koi owners, he considers what he does a hobby and admits they try to sell enough fish to pay their light bill.

Don't bite the hand

Koi are like zebras in that no two are alike. They can come in a variety of colors: white, black, red, yellow, blue.

Some of the colorful fish can be fed by hand and some owners are certain the fish recognizes the person who regularly feeds it.

The owners are passionate about this hobby. They also warn it can be a bad idea to keep track of how much money is spent.

Owners also can develop pump and pond envy. No matter how sophisticated your air filtration system might be, it's fairly certain somebody else has one that's better.

From all I can determine, every koi owner has tried to build at least three ponds. The first one was too small, the second one a bit bigger, and the third one is the one that should have been built in the first place.

At the Carolina Koi Farm, Lewis dug 11 ponds with a large earth mover. There are, in addition, a dozen or so tanks that house koi of various sizes and coloration.

There's also a breeding pond that Lewis uses to introduce the girls to the boys.

Koi can get very big, very quickly depending on the size of the tank or pond they're in. They also can live 20 years or more.

Really dedicated koi owners put their fish in competitions. The best fish have the best coloring.

Lewis wants, most of all, to see a grand champion come from his farm. It's just something that's on his wish list. If it happened, it wouldn't bring any additional money, just some validation for all the time he spends baby-sitting these colorful, slippery creatures.

Just a cold fish?

Lewis has been raising koi for more than 15 years. He was once president of Charleston's Koi Club.

He apparently still has many friends in that organization. Six months ago, as he finished chemo treatment for a cancer that's incurable, the club raised some money to send Lewis to Japan. He would spend 10 days there watching the No. 1 koi show in the world. He still smiles when talking about that experience.

It seems these folks, who proudly care for their koi, also do a pretty good job in spreading love and friendship toward regular people, too . And that's no fish tale.

Reach Warren Peper at 937-5577 or wpeper@postandcourier.com.