Selecting, Growing & Sourcing Elite-Level Koi

Published on June 27, 2024

No matter how many koi shows you attend, no matter how well versed you become in the hobby and industry, and no matter how much of an expert you are on what judges look for when assessing an elite-level koi, there is no such thing as a sure thing. Ultimately, the contest is left to the subjectivity of the judges.  

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I stood near the tank where Jennifer Anniston, the stunning 89-cm Dainichi female Kohaku, swam while the judges read off their votes. My nerves fluttered even though I had calculated all I know about koi shows, the quality the judges look for, and the koi in front of me. When the koi owner, Andrew Sandler of Polo Reef, and I heard “Kohaku” announced as the winner by a vote of 4-3, Sandler’s jaw dropped. People began congratulating us, photos were taken, and it was truly an incredible moment.  

On the flight back home after the celebrations, we were relieved and elated to have won grand champion. We also reflected on the journey to this moment. Also, the journey of the koi itself from a small fry to grand champion. How does one grow, select and purchase a winning koi? What does an emerging koi hobbyist need to know about the elite hobby, if they want a grand champion?  

Selecting a Promising Koi 

This koi was bought and left in Japan on Azukari. It was 51 cm at 2 years old and grew in one season to 60 cm. You can see the definition in color from year to year as well.

Cultivating a grand-champion-winning koi is a labor of love that requires patience, skill and a deep appreciation for the species. The selection process begins with breeders sorting the fry with the most potential for growth and development. They carefully assess young koi (approximately 1-2 years old) for desirable body shape, coloration, pattern, finnage and overall health. By choosing koi with promising traits early on, breeders set the stage for their potential success in future competitions.  

As the koi grows and develops, these qualities are constantly monitored and the documented. Is the koi showing improvements in these areas or declining? In addition, breeders perform specific grooming and conditioning techniques to enhance the koi’s appearance. This includes feeding a high-quality diet and maintaining high standards of water quality to provide the koi with optimal conditions. 

Oftentimes a koi that is on track for champion level will be entered into a young koi show early on. This way, true feedback from judges regarding the koi’s winning potential can be shared. Judges evaluate each koi based on specific criteria, including body shape, coloration, pattern, finnage and overall presentation. Feedback from judges and recognition at shows offer insights into the quality of the koi and its potential as a future grand champion. Overall, grooming a koi for the grand champion award is a continuous process. It requires careful observation, evaluation and ongoing care to ensure the koi reaches its full show potential. 

Benefits of Azukari  

The First All American Koi Show Grand Champion, an 89-cm female Kohaku from Dainichi Koi Farm; supplied by Fitz’s Fish Ponds to owner Andrew Sandler
(Polo Reef/Polo Pond).

To grow a winning koi as a hobbyist, one can buy the koi young and grow it out in their home country, or one can buy a promising koi in Japan and leave it in the care of the breeders. In Japan, this is called Azukari, which translates to “under custody.” A hobbyist is not only buying the koi,nthey are also paying for the breeders to care for, groom and grow that koi to an impressive size.  

Regardless of either choice, water quality conditions are of the utmost importance. Water parameters such as pH, ammonia, nitrite and nitrate levels, should be constantly monitored, and water changes performed as needed. Clean and well-oxygenated water supports digestion and nutrient absorption.  

Although this can be monitored at a tank or in a large pond, many will argue that there are no better growing conditions than in the mud ponds in the mountains of Niigata, Japan. Geographical conditions such as high elevation, high amounts of rainfall, humid day temperatures and cool evenings fuse together to create ideal conditions for rapid koi growth. Furthermore, the snow runoff after the winter combined with the nutrient rich clay at the base of the mud ponds naturally regulate water quality. Koi also crave foods that are high in protein and the microorganisms found in the mud ponds, such as tadpoles and shrimp, nourish the koi, and promote its overall health and coloration.  

In addition to the natural benefits of the mud ponds, breeders are strategic about their feeding regimen. While different size and age koi have differing needs, in general, koi should experience gradual feeding for maximum growth potential. Rather than one large meal, koi should be fed periodically throughout the day in smaller portions. Automatic fish feeders help maintain a strict and specific schedule to ensure koi digest food properly and are not overfed.

Select a specifically formulated food for koi with essential nutrients and vitamins, balanced in carbohydrates and fats, with 30 – 40% protein. Younger koi especially need more protein to support development. This heavy, scheduled feeding regimen is seasonal and recommended for spring and summer, when the most growth occurs. Throughout the winter, a koi’s metabolism slows down, and its feeding schedule and food type should be adjusted.  

A koi growing in the mud ponds via Azukari has the potential to grow at a much faster rate. The breeders monitor the koi on many levels, measuring their size, tracking coloration change and examining them for signs of disease. They look for changes in how they are swimming, changes in appetite and physical abnormalities that may indicate a problem. This allows them to address it promptly.  

Grooming and Conditioning 

As koi mature over time, their colors, patterns and body shape change and develop. By the time are between 3 – 7 years old, koi typically reach a stage where quality is at its peak. These koi exhibit the desired characteristics that judges look for in a competition, making them ideal candidates for grand champion. 

Mature koi have the advantage of experience and conditioning, which can contribute to their overall presence and showmanship in competitions. Koi that have been well cared for and maintained are more likely to showcase their best qualities in a show setting. In addition to age, ongoing care, grooming and maintenance play crucial roles in preparing koi for competitions. Breeders and hobbyists invest time and effort to ensure their koi are in top condition and ready to compete. 

At the heart of sourcing grand champion koi lies the foundation of strong relationships with breeders of high-quality koi. Koi dealers cultivate partnerships with breeders known for their expertise, integrity and dedication. Masaru Saito of Shintaro Koi Farm and Shigeru Manu of Dainichi Koi Farm, among others. These relationships provide access to top-tier koi and insider knowledge about upcoming spawns, promising fry and potential show contenders. 

Grooming and conditioning practices such as skin treatments and fin trimming enhance the appearance of their koi and showcase the koi’s best qualities. Attention to detail and meticulous care during grooming can make a difference in how the koi is perceived. 

A Dealer’s Perspective on Elite-Level Koi

Behind the scenes, this FFP koi-dealer team sources the AAKS Grand Champion Koi.

For koi dealers, the pursuit of sourcing grand-champion koi is a thrilling and challenging endeavor that requires a keen eye for quality, a deep understanding of koi genetics and strong relationships with reputable breeders. As intermediaries between breeders and enthusiasts, koi dealers play a crucial role in connecting top-tier koi with discerning buyers.

A deep understanding of koi genetics and the standards for show-quality koi is essential for koi dealers. Dealers must be well versed in koi varieties, color patterns, body shapes and finnage characteristics that judges look for. By staying informed of industry trends and evolving standards, dealers can identify koi with the potential to excel.

Beyond sourcing grand-champion koi, dealers play a pivotal role in supporting their clients’ success in koi competitions. Dealers provide guidance on koi care, grooming techniques and show preparation to help enthusiasts maximize their koi’s show potential. By sharing their expertise and knowledge, dealers empower clients to showcase their koi with confidence and compete at the highest levels.

Read Next: A Grand Champion of our Own

Kloubec Koi Farm

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