We each have our own idea of perfection, whether it’s embodied in a car, a vacation, a job, or in our case — koi. Pursuit of such supremacy comes with costs, trade-offs and rules that govern all our decisions.
For starters, it is regularly said that koi-keeping starts and finishes with Kohaku, a simple, two-colored fish. It is not overly difficult to produce, unless your idea of perfection includes the characteristics that a true champion Kohaku might possess — such as the red color approaching but not touching the eyes, a symmetrical three-step pattern, sharp color edges and so on. Even this can be an incredibly challenging pursuit if you are looking for that perfect fish.
Whenever I start talking about high-quality fish, one of the most common questions is, “What is the difference between Japanese koi and koi bred in the United States?” A grin often precedes my response, which is, “Oh, about 7,000 miles.”
All jokes aside, I’ll explain my general thought process when it comes to sourcing the highest-quality fish for retail purposes, or for your own private collection.
When I was new to koi, I wanted the best of every variety. I felt the need to buy from each producer or dealer that might have those few perfect fish. I had to find, visit and buy from each. These are all normal thoughts to have.
I visited farms all over the United States and Japan. I spent tens of thousands of dollars on fish — and some were darned good ones! I placed them in my high-tech holding systems with some of the best filtration. Visiting specific producers helped me gain a lot of knowledge of what constituted a quality fish, and what the specific selling cost might be. I also learned that everybody conducts business differently, and some are fairer than others.
However, while flying around the country and the world was fun for a while, it started feeling like work as I spent more and more time away from my family. Not only that, but I’d learned that airline shipping delays meant spending a lot of time waiting in my car for the next flight (or the one after that). Air-shipping fish can be extremely stressful to both the owner and the fish.
Suddenly, my questions got a little more specific.
What if I could buy the best fish here in the United States in order to avoid shipping stress, permits, quarantine, language barriers and so forth? Could I find a producer that offered everything that would satisfy my clients?
This is the essence of the pursuit. Regardless of where a supplier is based, knowing their track record, their seasonal availability of fish (and the hassle factor), and whether you need a quarantine facility to separate their fish from other suppliers’ fish are critical factors in this process. I’ve mixed fish from multiple suppliers and thus exposed vulnerable fish to diseases of other fish, resulting in large losses and no ability to determine where the disease started.
Finding and partnering with a producer with a long history and great reputation helped us avoid a lot of the business-killer experiences that many of us in the industry have seen in the past. Perhaps greatest of all, our producer offers us a quality mix of fish that has satisfied 90 percent of my customers.
The Cost of Perfection
So what are you willing to do or risk for perfection?
From what we have seen as hobbyists and as longstanding growers, wholesalers and retailers of koi, I can confidently say that finding a quality supplier, or at most two suppliers, should enable you to acquire fish of a very high caliber. There is a large number of extremely high-quality koi produced right here in the United States every year. These fish find their way to discriminating pond owners as well as retail shops.
What you might not know is that these fish are often hidden and only offered to those buyers who are loyal, pay their bills, are enjoyable to do business with, and do not jeopardize the health of the fish that they worked so painstakingly hard to produce. It pays off to form solid mutual relationships of trust. This may be the best way to start and finish the pursuit of perfection — through trust and compromise.
So if you own a retail shop, what should you say to a customer who just chose one of your best fish, but is badgering you about when your next shipment is? Your response should go a little something like this:
“We work diligently to maintain a healthy, quarantined collection of all grades of koi from a small number of suppliers. This allows us to ensure that our customers get fish that will happily live in a pond or tank with proper care. There are hundreds of suppliers selling koi and goldfish. It’s our practice not to buy from numerous different places, as the risk of trouble increases. What you see online may not be what you see when you pick it up at the airport. Our selections provide a healthy, ready-to-enjoy pet.”