When I first started out with fancy goldfish about 20 years ago, I was fortunate enough to acquire a few top quality fish from a local hobbyist who had recently imported some young Ranchu and Edo Nishiki directly from Japan. This friend traveled to Japan regularly for his job, and it was through one of his Japanese work associates that he was introduced to the goldfish hobby. I was thrilled with the baby Ranchu that I received; in fact, the Matsuyama-X Ranchu that I have to this day are descendants of those original Japanese imports. However, I was less impressed with the Edo Nishiki. To me, these fish lacked the refined body type and wen that the Ranchu had. The Edo Nishiki were more egg-shaped, which is characteristic of the breed, and the calico color was mostly a mottled orange and black. I wished I could find a fish that looked like a calico version of the Japanese Ranchu, but with the same blue base color that is typical of Bristol Shubunkins. But unfortunately, it seemed no such fish existed, and I soon realized that any attempt to breed a Japanese Ranchu (a red metallic) to a calico fish would be futile, since the demelanizing genes of the Ranchu would destroy the desirable blues and blacks of the calico color.
At about the same time that I started with my Ranchu, the internet goldfish community was really taking shape, and the Goldfish Keepers website had become a major hub for serious enthusiasts. It was there that I first saw photos of excellent quality calico orandas that were being bred by a hobbyist in Italy. These fish were the typical short bodied, large wen Orandas but with beautiful sky blue color and cherry red accents. The color was very similar to that of good quality Bristol Shubunkins. I was so impressed with these fish, that I was set on someday having fish like them.
Photo Credit: The Goldfish Keepers, posted by member Mikroll, from Italy
Photo Credit: The Goldfish Keepers, posted by member Mikroll, from Italy
After some online discussion about these beautiful blue-calico orandas, other members began posting pictures of the (at that time) rare Japanese Azuma Nishiki. I had never seen real Azuma Nishiki before, but I was struck by how they seemed to have a lot of the same body characteristics that I loved about the Japanese Ranchu: these were long-bodied, top view fish with square heads and long flowing tails. The Azuma Nishiki quickly became my new bucket-list fish that I had to own.
A nice pair of Azuma Nishiki with excellent color on the body and fins
Since there were no known Azumas available in the U.S. at that time, a small group of goldfish breeders decided that we would try to recreate this fish in the U.S. from any available stock that had some resemblance to this breed; we called it “the Azuma Challenge”. At about this time, many PetSmart stores were popping up all over the country, and they were receiving some decent imported calico Orandas. We scoured our local big box pet stores and tried to pick up any promising orandas that had decent blue color or perhaps a longer body type. I had a lot of fun working with these random pet store Orandas, and several generations of them were swimming in my pond, but I must admit, none of them were ever close to looking like genuine Azuma Nishiki.
The Azuma Challenge was where I first learned about calico genetics. Since calico fish are heterozygous for the matte gene (also called the Transparent gene), only 50% of the fry are calico colored, and the remaining are wild type metallics (25%), and pinkie mattes (25%). Consider that after culling for single tails and fused tails, and any other deformities, you then have to cull 50% of the remaining fry that are not calico, so you can see how difficult it is to produce good quality calicos in a large quantity. Ironically, it is the strict culling requirements that actually help the breeder to most efficiently reduce the spawn size at a young age, and thus avoid the pitfalls of overcrowding, which can easily ruin an entire spawn.
At this time, I was raising my fry in 20 gallon long aquariums, and I noticed that when I used an aquarium that was painted black on the bottom, the resident fish had much better color than when the bottom glass was left clear. However, when I moved these more colorful fry into a white bowl, their color quickly became “washed out” and pale. It turns out that the chromatophores (pigment producing cells) can shrink or expand which has the effect of lightening or darkening the skin to allow the fish to better match its surroundings.This is very similar to the process that chameleons and squid use for their camouflage. For this reason, the background color is an important consideration when evaluating calico fry. Another important factor in the development of good calico color is exposure to sunlight, and inclusion of some algae in their diet. This was evident when comparing my relatively drab looking indoor-raised fish with their bright blue siblings that enjoyed life in an outdoor pond with plenty of plants and algae to munch on.
My first true Azuma Nishiki came to me via a fellow breeder, Harris Zane, whom I met at one of Gary Hater’s Goldfish Breeders’ Social events. Harris lives in Hawaii, and he was able to import some genuine Azumas from Japan. He had great success breeding these fish and offered to send me some young ones via Priority Mail. Needless to say, I jumped at the opportunity, and I have been working with this line ever since. In fact, there was a time when Harris unfortunately lost all of his Azuma Nishiki, and I was able to replace them by shipping some of my home bred fish back to him in Hawaii. This brings to light one of the great benefits of sharing your line bred goldfish with other breeders- it serves as an insurance policy against a disastrous loss of all your fish.
A young fish with great color balance: blue base color with black spots and a red patch (original line)
After many years of breeding these fish, I have learned a lot about their genetics, and how best to breed for good calico color. In general, I try to breed for the blue base color, black markings on the fins and body, few to no metallic scales, and preferably one or two small bright red patches. It is best to breed calico to calico (even though this produces only 50%
calico fry), as it is important to select for the best calico phenotype when choosing your breeders. Although it is possible to get 100% calico fry by breeding metallic to matte, this strategy does not usually produce the best calico color. When selecting breeders, I avoid using fish that have a large amount of red-orange color on the body, as this color tends to take over, and the underlying blue base color is hidden. Likewise, breeding very pale fish together eventually leads to a loss of melanin (black and blue colors), and the resulting fish may demelanize or lack black spots and streaks on the body and fins. I usually allow my breeders to flock-spawn, but I always make sure to keep a dark bodied (kirin) fish in the mix. Whenever possible, I try to retain my best Oya females for breeding and mate them with several younger males. Not only do older females produce larger and more eggs, but breeding back to earlier generations, as well as flock spawning, helps to prevent excessive inbreeding.
A young female Azuma with dark color, good tail spread and a thick strong body. I will use this fish for breeding. (original line)
When culling, I first select for well divided and balanced tails and remove any with other deformities such as bent spines. The colors develop very gradually, and it would be a mistake to try and cull mattes and metallics at a very young age. The lighter calicos often look like mattes, and dark calicos may look like metallics. I usually cull my fry under bright lights and confirm metallics only by the reflection from their scales under bright light. I keep the mattes for a while longer as they sometimes have black markings on their fins when they are very young. The transparent “pinkie” mattes will often stop growing and become bottom sitters, and these fish are culled as soon as it is apparent that they are weaker than the rest. The fry grow quickly on newly hatched brine shrimp, steamed egg, and a 1mm sinking pellet. I usually wean them off of the brine shrimp at about 8 weeks old. I have found shallow black plastic cement mixing tubs to be better than aquariums for raising these fry. I do think that the black surface helps with the early development of color, and these tubs have greater surface area than most aquariums of similar volume. My Azumas spawn on plastic cheerleader pom poms which I then place directly into one of the black tubs for hatching. Constant aeration and a steady incubation temperature of about 70 degrees F are important for best results.
Some of my breeders that were overwintering in my pond
Recently, I was able to acquire 5 new Azuma Nishiki from a different line, and while the new line is excellent in its own right, I plan to make various crosses between the two lines. Not only will this expand the gene pool, but as a goldfish breeder, this keeps things interesting and fresh. I now have two spawns from this cross that are developing nicely, and very recently a backcross spawn between the F1 males and one of the new females from the new line. I hope that more goldfish enthusiasts will begin to recognize and support this hardy and beautiful breed.
Some of this year's babies from spawn 2 (F1 outcross between original line and Zhao’s line)
Some of this year's babies from spawn 1 (F1 outcross between original line and Zhao’s line)
Yours truly and my 700 gallon above/in-ground goldfish pond