Koi Crazy

It's expensive, exotic, hard to breed, and here

Rumors of the $10,000 fish began trickling in this past December. The idea that people would pay as much for a single fish as they would for a used BMW was outrageous, of course. But the more intriguing thing about this fish was its purported location.

Paul Radice owns a four-bedroom ranch house next to a palm-tree farm in the Redland. On a sunny day this past February, the beefy, mustached 56-year-old walks through his back yard, also known as Angels Hatchery, a maze of nearly 100 concrete tanks. He points to row after row of brilliantly colored fish — cobalt blues, blood reds, jet blacks, metallics, albinos, species from the mountains of Africa and the jungles of Brazil. There are two-inchers labeled "$40 a piece," red ones at "3 for $100," tri-colors for $150, a sixteen-incher for $500. Not a single fish for ten grand.

But then Radice goes to his front yard, to a small pool lined with palms that he calls "the show pond." This lagoon, which looks like it belongs in a Hawaiian hotel, holds much larger, more complicated creatures — twenty-pounders with multiple colors and complex patterns. All of these roughly 100 fish have names: The kohaku. The showa. The doitsu. The dragon. Gazing out at this mob, Radice points at an unusual fish, black-and-white with a red belly, that is slowly tracing its way along the pool's bottom. "The beni kumonryu," he says, almost solemnly, elongating each vowel. "The beni. I could have sold that a thousand times."

Paul Radice sits in front of his show pond, home of the 
prized koi
Colby Katz
Paul Radice sits in front of his show pond, home of the prized koi

When asked for a price, though, he shakes his head, as if the question were absurd. "Not for sale. Never will be."

But several days later, Radice — again probed for numbers — is more specific, recounting an incident that happened during Game 4 of the 1997 World Series. In the second inning of the Marlins-Indians matchup — a game that Radice badly wanted to watch — a sheik, in full turban, rolled up to Angels along with a ten-person entourage, an SUV, a van, and a limo. The sheik — Radice won't reveal his name — toured the tanks, spent several thousand dollars, and then, when led to the show pond, became fixated on what Radice calls "my hi showa." This fish, which has red markings and highly unusual black-and-white pectoral fins, was in the private, not-for-sale collection.

The dignitary's English-speaking emissary, clearly unaccustomed to such impediments, said emphatically: "The sheik wants that fish."

Radice wouldn't budge. The showa was, he said, "like a relative."

The sheik, however, continued to point, and his interpreter said simply: "Name your price."

This exchange — sheik pointing, interpreter asking, Radice rejecting — repeated six times. "I probably could have got," he says, pausing, "well over $10,000."

Later that morning, Radice reveals that $10,000 was, relatively speaking, chump change. Back in his small office, Angels' headquarters, he points to a calendar on his wall with a picture of a red-and-white fish. "That kohaku," he says, "sold for $500,000 in Japan."

Radice uses only Hikari, a Japanese fishmeal. His office is stuffed with Japanese-language fish magazines and books. He considers his career's greatest moment to be when Japanese immigrant Takayana Moriyama, whom he calls the "greatest fish breeder in America," looked at one of his prized kohakus and uttered two words: "Good hi." (Hi means a distinct red pattern.) But Radice is not the only one in his neighborhood who would be thrilled to hear "good hi" from Moriyama-san. There are others in the Redland who specialize in raising koi, the colorful Japanese fish: Doug Ward at Fancy Koi, Phil Marraccini at Summerland Tropical Fish Farm, Oskian Yaziciyan at Goldfish and Koi USA — and that's just within five miles of Radice.

With roughly fifteen farms specializing in everything from African cichlids and angelfish to guppies and goldfish, plus plenty of back-yard hobbyists, the Redland area has long been South Florida's ornamental fish capital. It's a multimillion-dollar industry in South Miami-Dade.

And the granddaddy of the ornamentals is no newcomer. Says Radice: "We've been growing koi here since before most people knew how to spell it."

Although plenty of people in South Dade can tell you the difference between a kohaku and a doitsu, and whether Niigata has better tosai than Isawa, there is one thing Radice does that no one else in Dade — and few people in the nation — will dare try. He is attempting to breed show-quality koi — i.e., fish that can wow the Japanese and, at maturity, cost as much as a decent Tokyo apartment. When longtime Redland neighbor and fellow farmer Marraccini heard about this, he was dumbfounded. "He's trying to grow show-grade koi...." he said, raising an eyebrow. "Like the Japanese? Do you know what they have to do?"

What they do, which is inconceivable to some, is called selection, a meticulous culling. And on a gray Tuesday last month, Radice dips a small blue bowl called a ling into Angels Tank 96. "The key to this," he says, as ten two-inchers trickle into his ling, "is the basic idea that out of every twenty fish in an aquarium, there are one or two good ones." In searching for show koi, he says, the numbers are much different. "We're looking for basically, out of every spawn of 20,000, maybe ten extremely good fish." He pauses. "But if you're looking for a great fish, an All Japan Show fish," he says, referring to the Super Bowl of koi farming, where winners routinely sell for $500,000, "you're looking for one out of, say, every ten million."

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