Passion for Goldfish Runs Deep and Wide for Chester Man
December 3, 2020 by Ann Wishart

Dave Mandley was given his first bowl of goldfish when he was 4 years old and bored with being sick in bed.

Dave Mandley was given his first bowl of goldfish when he was 4 years old and bored with being sick in bed.

Today, he produces hundreds of thousands of designer goldfish and koi on 23 1-acre ponds in Northeast Ohio and sells them all over the world.

His “hobby” may be the longest fish story of the century.

Mandley, 72, remembers his father presenting him with a big bowl of goldfish to keep him occupied and, inadvertently, starting the “goldfish crave.”

He also recalls locking up the gutters on the roof of his family home, flooding them and turning his goldfish loose to get some exercise.

“I was into it, really,” he said during a phone interview.

As Mandley got older, he studied fish in local lakes and ponds, learning their habits and admiring the variety and adaptability of the wild fish.

When he netted an odd-looking goldfish while splashing around Shaker Lakes, his natural curiosity took a big leap.

Young Mandley contacted an expert in Great Britain to discover the fish was an import from Japan and had probably been dumped in the lake by someone who lost interest.

“I was going full tilt by the time I was 20,” he said.

Mandley, now a Chester Township resident, spent hours as a teen at the Cleveland Aquarium and SeaWorld, developing relationships that would last for years. When he learned SeaWorld was closing and selling off its 380 koi and its goldfish pond, he took the job of re-homing them.

It was a golden opportunity and he acquired a plethora of breeding stock and a new perspective on responsibility.

“It really made me go farther,” he said. “I really, really got into the real world of goldfish.”

He began importing goldfish and koi from Thailand.

Then, the broker who arranged the imports for him went to lunch with Vincent Price and another world opened for Mandley.

As directed, Mandley got in touch with Price.

“He got me into China so I could bring in new breeds,” he recalled.

That includes celestial goldfish, so called because their protruding eyes look up to heaven.

Technically, only monks were permitted to own celestial goldfish, but that didn’t worry Mandley.

“I’ve been breeding them ever since,” he said.

Famous Fish Aficionados

Over the years, Mandley has sold his goldfish and koi to dozens of well-known entertainers and famous people.

Price may have been his first movie star to take an interest in Mandley’s stock, but he wasn’t the last.

Grammy-award-winning-composer Bruce Sussman, who has written melodies for Barry Manilow, collaborates with Mandley on fish breeding.

Mandley said he has a number of contacts across the globe with whom he consults.

He became an advisor to Dr. Floyd Loop and his wife, Bernadine Healy, after a dear friend invited Mandley to visit their koi pond in Gates Mills.

Healy, at one time president of the American Red Cross and the director of the National Institute of Health, peppered him with questions and it became clear he had found koi devotees.

Mandley gave Healy a big koi she named Elizabeth, one of a collection of 13 in their pod. He and Healy would sit on a bench by the pond and talk about koi for hours.

Loop, former CEO of the Cleveland Clinic and a world renowned heart surgeon, called Mandley in a panic one day. He was in Europe and had heard from the housekeeper that Elizabeth wouldn’t come up to feed.

“If Elizabeth’s not there when Bernadine comes home, she’ll kill me,” Mandley recalled Loop saying.

Mandley got on the phone with the housekeeper and learned she was standing in the rain with an umbrella putting food in the water, to no avail.

“I told her, ‘When the rain stops, Elizabeth will come to shore,’” he said. And no surprise, he was right.

When Healy passed away, Mandley gave Loop a koi. He immediately named her Bernadine.

“They were dedicated koi people,” he said, and estimated their koi collection was worth thousands of dollars.

Genetics of the Pond

Mandley insists his fish business is a hobby. He made his living from his mortgage company, but koi and goldfish are his passion.

So, how Mandley’s name appear in National Geographic, how did he become a fellow in the Goldfish Society of Great Britain, and why do people pay huge sums to fish farms in the U.S. and abroad for Mandley’s fish?

Because of his patience, powers of observation and willingness to experiment.

“If you breed two blue gills, you get blue gill babies,” he said, adding if you breed two orange goldfish, you may get a variety of colors, scale patterns and tailfins.

“I’m intrigued with mutation and variation,” Mandley said.

His first commercial success was propagating yellow goldfish so they would breed true.

If someone acquires and breeds two of his yellow goldfish, they will produce yellow goldfish, he said.

One of his newer breeds is purple goldfish.

Currently, he is designing eight to nine lines of koi and goldfish, with tanks in his home loaded with eggs and babies at various levels of development.

He gets up at 4:30 a.m. every day to feed them, study them and plan for their futures.

Over the years, Mandley has developed comeil — which looks like a cross between comet and veil types of goldfish, but is much more complicated than it appears, genetically speaking — and a red blue-bellied goldfish.

He also worked with a couple of doctors on eliminating a herpes virus to which goldfish are prone.

In Demand

In 2000, Joe Smartt, of Great Britain, who is famous for his books on fish genetics and breeding, came to a fish show in Cleveland for a week and met Mandley.

Smartt spent a day with him touring his ponds and discussing his methods, observing his genetics and hybrid crosses.

Fish farms in American also develop new breeds and work to make breeding of certain characteristics, such as scale type and fantail, more stable so the genetic makeup of certain breeds carries through the generations.

“Now, I’m under contract with a number of farms. I supply them with genetics,” said the hobbyist.

PetSmart has a standing order for 40,000 goldfish a year from the farms that use Mandley’s genetics.

“Hundreds of thousands of my fish are produced by the farms each year,” he said.

In addition, he stocks some private ponds and keeps an eye on the fish that are free to breed and reproduce there.

Landscape Creations

Peter and Joanne Dautartus own and operate Landscape Creations Nursery at 13040 Chillicothe Road in Chester Township.

In 1976, they dug a pond on the property to supply their growing inventory and a few decades later, decided to de-silt the pond. That involved draining it and deepening it from 6 to 12 feet.

“Dave saw us working and asked if he could stock it with some of his fish,” Peter. “He said he is always looking for virgin water.”

The couple decided to volunteer their facility for Mandley’s research on a goldfish called the Camelot shubunkin.

Most that are sold have not bred true, with about half growing in to Camelot shubunkins and half into fish that can’t be sold, Mandley said.

However, Mandley went to work developing the breed so it now can be counted on to breed true, which saves the fish farms labor and land when they raise the Camelot shubunkin for commercial use, he said.

Peter and Joanne also have a small goldfish pool inside one of the 13 greenhouses.

Mandley said he was recently invited to evaluate the ponds at All Souls Cemetery on Chardon Road in Lake County as a home for some of his red and white Kohaku koi and his red blue-bellied goldfish.

In the recently re-dug pond in the cemetery, he turned loose some yellow single-tail veils.

“I just stocked it with one of my creations,” he said.


Fish for the Future

Mandley said the breeds he has coming out in 2021 were started in 2014.

“It takes between seven and 11 years to develop a strain and make sure they breed true for what they are,” he said.

What they are can be expensive.

“You can spend $100,000 for a good koi,” Mandley said, adding anyone koi shopping should look for scales individually colored, not red fading into white, and clear scale patterns on the koi’s forehead.

“If they are perfect, the value goes up,” he said.

But, when he talked about creating new or improved breeds, Mandley’s focus seems to be on goldfish, taking the mutations and making those genes consistent for his customers.

Starting with single cells and developing a creature that will throw perfect reproductions is his life’s work and his pledge to his customers.

“If you order purple fantails, you’ll get nothing but purple fantails,” Mandley said.