Friday, 28 December 2012

Ever thought of provenance..By Neville Fickling

Mr. Laws asked me to write a bit about the deadbait business and I’m happy to do so as long as readers understand that I’m not doing it to drum up business! (As if people were so cynical.. Ed)

Years ago when you wanted some deadbaits you only had two choices, catch your own or go to your local fishmonger or Mac Fisheries. As kids we couldn’t afford many baits so a pike trip would see two of us with two herrings and a bag of sprats between us. We seldom ran out of bait, after all we were not that good at pike fishing. Despite that my mate Adam and I had four fish of 21, 17, 14 and 10 one day on two herrings. The sprats were useless. Smelt were sometimes available at the fishmongers and were like a wonder bait to us. Unfortunately there were no deep freezes in common use, so the baits bought had to last the weekend and were then useless. In the summer we caught coarse fish such as roach, bream and eels but again could only use them for eels and zander because there were no freezers.

Sad to say when I got my first vacation job in a canning factory I bought a freezer. Most 19 year old would have bought cloths or shoes, but dull old me bought a freezer! However it did mean that I had deadbaits to hand whenever I wanted them. This didn’t do my pike fishing any harm.

When I went to Hull University I was not far from the docks where any amount of herring, sprats and mackerel could be bought. My early experiments with prebaiting started then, A few years later in the early 1980s quite a bit of effort went into baiting up. It didn’t always work, but by mid 1980s it was paying off quite well. In the 1990s I wrote about lamprey as bait. Baitbox (who I get on with fine) suggested that they “discovered” this bait, but in reality we were catching pike with them down their throats in 1973. Baitbox did manage to get sufficient lamprey to sell them on a large scale as did we all in the end.

I got into the bait business because I couldn’t advance in my job in fisheries. My wife was set up in a good practise and moving was out of the question. I became friends with Trevor and Carole Moss who owned The Tackle Shop in Gainsborough. We got hold of some decent smelt from Ronnie Pendleton in St Helens and started to sell them. Later on I bumped into a Norfolk smelt fisherman and in March and April I was driving 300 miles a day to collect fresh smelt. The business grew slowly until Trevor spotted the obvious. The Tackle Shop had always specialised in mail order so why not mail order frozen fish. Luckily because Grimsby is quite close, poly boxes were easy to obtain for nothing. (To buy even a small one is £2). That solved the packing; finally we needed a reliable courier. We started with Parcel Force, but eventually switched to ANC/FedEx and have remained with them ever since. By the way we have never been able to claim for parcels that are delayed. Instead our carriage rates contain a small extra amount which means we in effect self insure. This way we can afford to replace the odd ones that go to Brighton instead of Ireland. (I kid you not!)

Since then we have grown steadily but the frozen fish are still only 35% of the shops business. The two sides complement each other though because in the summer when deadbait sales are slow the shop is busy with general sales. In the depths of winter the frozen fish keeps us going.

As far as bait firms are concerned we are not the biggest. One of the reasons we cannot get much bigger is the fact that there are only so many quality smelt and lamprey to sell. Herring and mackerel are not a problem, but you need the special baits to attract a wide range of customers. It is a bit like a one stop shop, customers want to get everything in one go. Sadly we normally sell out of the larger smelt by November and often are down to 5 inch smelt by the end of the season. This isn’t a problem because nearly all the other bait companies either never had any decent smelt or run out at the same time as us.

Changes in legislation have helped us. You can no longer legally raid your clubs waters to get enough dead roach for a season. Angler generally buy them now. You cannot take eels for bait though most bait companies sell either farmed eels or discards from the export trade. I’ll not go into the pros and cons of selling eels other than to say that they are a useful bait, but if anglers stopped buying them we’d stop selling them. The discards would go in a skip though which hardly helps.

There have not been many new baits lately. Baitbox brought in the bluey or Pacific saurie which is a really good bait. I looked at getting in silver smelt from Chile, but you need to bring in a forty ton container to get them. Even spread around the other bait companies it would take a while to get rid of forty tons. Fish does not last forever in cold storage so that idea has been knocked on the head.

The one advantage of running a bait business from my point of view is the flexibility it gives me. I can work evenings and fish mornings. As long as I get the work done my time is my own. How much longer will we keep going? Well there’s a chap in Ireland who runs a bait firm, he is 84 for I’ve a year or two yet.

Every predator angler will have their own views on which baits work best for them. Unbelievably there are pikers who cannot catch on mackerel still. A lot of it is confidence, after all a pike will pick up just about anything sometimes. At other times they can be a bit fussier. There are plenty of places to buy deadbaits though the oft quoted “They are fresher on Tesco's fish stand” is rarely true. Edible yes, but not as fresh as something frozen a few hours after capture. Freshness is good because a bait lasts longer in a cool box if it is fresh to start with. Pike though will eat quite rank baits, but with all the cuts and grazes we get from unhooking pike, handling rotting baits isn’t exactly a great idea! My wife has just nodded in agreement with this point(For those that don't know, Nevilles long suffering wife is a GP..Ed). It’s quite simple really, an off bait will have a high bacterial load and if you put loads of bacteria into a cut you are taking the risk of localised blood poisoning at best. If you must use crap baits wear gloves!

Finally some predator anglers complain about bait prices. If you can buy anything at source you can always get a bargain, but most of us do not have the time to drive to Lowestoft to stock up with herrings. Unless you are local there is nothing to be saved anyway once you consider fuel costs. What does add to the costs of bait is wages, transport costs, storage and of course running a walk in cold store. Even packaging is expensive. We use some rather expensive (but nice) bags which hold their seal better than the usual bags. At 12p a go though it is a large part of costs. No costs have actually gone down in the past 2 years so there is constant pressure on margins. Fish prices continue to rise slowly, but in the end you can still go pike fishing with a fivers worth of bait and catch pike. The average bag of boilys is £9.99 so £5 to £7 for a days piking is not that bad.

Finally am I glad I took the employment route I did? Yes I’m my own boss; I can work when I want. It might seem a crap job, packing fish, but it is not demanding either mentally or physically. There is no real pressure which is fine by me. I like the quiet life at work! 

Neville Fickling
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