Koi Crazy

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

In March 1973, Radice cracked the code of the African lakes — and became one of the first farmers in the world to breed the Lake Malawi cobalt blue cichlid. Soon stories about his find were published in trade publications such as Pet Dealer, Tropical Fish Hobbyist, and Aquaristik (Germany).

One of the people who heard about "King of the Cobalts" was a fellow in California named Jerry Scoggins. A newcomer to cichlids, Scoggins was among the country's better-known koi experts. "He didn't even call them koi," Radice recalls of an early conversation with the Californian. "Every fish had a specific Japanese name." Scoggins claimed his koi bore little resemblance to the pet shop variety.

Intrigued, Radice bought 35 fish for $5000. Some cost $300 apiece. "I'd never paid that much in my life." But within weeks of receiving his first shipment, Radice was on the phone to California. "I had never seen anything like them."

Colby Katz
Colby Katz

It's called koi kichi, and simply translated, it means koi crazy. Symptoms include a yearning for the intensity of a particular color, a fixation on an unusual pattern, or awe at the fleeting nature of living art. In Japan — where prized kokakus have been transported in the company of bodyguards, and one wealthy industrialist, Masao Kato (a.k.a. Kato-san), has spent tens of millions of dollars on his collection — koi kichi has a long, rich tradition.

But beginning in the Sixties and Seventies, the obsession spread to the United States. In its mild form, this simply meant staring for hours at a color pattern or pleading with an owner to sell a particular showa. But it also reached extremes: A Maryland dentist mortgaged his home and dropped $65,000 on a fetching koi. Others, hell-bent on finding a particular pattern, have spent tens of thousands of dollars to hire trained scouts to scour the farms of Niigata.

"It's sort of like gambling. It's addictive," says Brenda Atwell, assistant editor of Koi USA magazine, a 6000-circulation bi-monthly for hobbyists. Atwell became hooked in 1995 after finding a striking budu goromo, a white koi with a pattern that resembles bunches of grapes.

"It's because [koi] are vanishingly rare," adds Les Berkow, a retired gynecologist in Boca Raton who founded the Tropical Koi Club of South Florida and has spent tens of thousands of dollars on the fish. "They're so unique. When you see one you want, you have to have it."

For Radice it was the stunning first impression. "The intensity of the color," he comments, recalling his first box of Nishikigoi, "they were like works of art."

Very few other Americans in 1973, however, were koi kichi.

Several attempts to sell Nishikigoi had already failed, and Radice, who believed the quality difference was obvious ("You had to be blind [not to see it]"), found that some customers couldn't understand why one fish cost five times as much as another of the same size. Fancy koi was only a tiny slice of his business — less than one percent a year. Still his fascination grew.

The reason: Breeding show-quality koi was the ultimate challenge. Sure you could put them in a pond and they'd spawn tens of thousands of eggs — no problem. But the species, unlike other fish Radice had worked with, had a whole array of recessive genes. Meaning: The quality of a koi depended, in large part, on the parentage and grandparentage of the fish. Mating cichlids was, by contrast, simple: Put two blues together and you'd have a 99 percent chance of getting blue. Not with koi. In 1974, in an early test, Radice placed several of his best beautiful males in a pool with his best females. Result: mediocrity. He kept trying different combinations. Eventually, through trial and error, he learned that only certain females — not necessarily the most beautiful — reliably produced fish with certain characteristics. Being a koi breeder, he realized, was like being a genealogist. "You had to understand the spawning history of each fish. You had to keep detailed notes on your stock."

Radice also had to master what is considered the most difficult part of koi farming: culling. Berkow, one of only 29 certified judges of competitions in the nation, likens this meticulous practice "to finding Miss America from a pool of 100,000 babies."

As Radice progressed, slowly learning the science, art, and fundamentals ("If you don't feed a fish right, it's color will fade"), it became clear he had to do what any serious Nishikigoi breeder must do. "I had to see these people," he says.

Traveling with an interpreter in October 1993, Radice took a koi kichi trip. He visited 109 farms in eleven days, hitting every one in Isawa and then 95 in nearby Niigata. The notoriously secretive Japanese farmers were surprisingly open with Radice. He observed the culling process several times; in Isawa he was even given a great honor — the chance to participate in the final feeding before the koi began their annual five-month hibernation.

But all was not well. Radice has a theory about why the Japanese breeders were so willing to let him view their work. "They were completely unthreatened," he says. In fact some Japanese farmers, he believes, seemed to think the idea of Americans and koi — let alone a gaijan breeder — was worse than ludicrous. In Isawa, Radice spotted some fish with among the most intense colors he'd ever seen. Excited, he asked through an interpreter whether they were for sale.

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