There are over 100 bait companies in Britain, but what's it like to run one of the biggest? We find out...
Chances are you know of someone who ‘sells a bit of bait’. One online directory currently lists 160 boilie makers in the UK, but when Allan Parbery setup Mistral Baits nearly 30 years ago it was one of three. In the world.
Since then he has made an estimated 1,300,000,000 (1.3bn) boilies for his own firm and a host of other brands. Pumping out 300 tonnes of fishfood balls a year, Allan has seen it all and is straight talking when it comes to the proliferation of cottage-industry boilie makers.
“Most current bait companies will be tradesmen earning a bit on the side or the local ‘doley’ who can’t be bothered to go out to work. If genuine, bona-fide businesses want to get premises and pay rates and tax then you have to say that the rest of us will have to work hard to keep one step ahead, but when stuff is being sold around the bankside by ‘Fred in the Shed’ and cutting out the tackle dealer then that’s one of the nails in the coffin of the angling trade.
“We make bait for a lot of companies and it’s very surprising, some people have got no idea what to put in a bait. They just tell us they want it for a price. These people have no idea and are just jumping on the bandwagon, when the wheels fell off years ago!”
When Mistral began in the late 1980s, things were a little different.
“It started in about 1988 from the remnants of an old bait company. I’d got one or two customers who were possibly reliant on me making bait and it just started up from those ashes.
“We used to do tonnes and tonnes of cooked hempseed. I remember if I dyed the hemp red I could sell it south of Northamptonshire, but if we dyed it yellow and put aniseed in we could sell it north of Northamptonshire. I couldn’t give either away in the reverse role. I really don’t know why.
“In the boilie trade I do tend to think the more volatile, powerful flavours sell better up north than down south – I’ve no idea why.”
One particular boilie bridged the north-south divide and made Mistral a big player in the carp world – Rosehip Isotonic.
“It’s 20 years old now – I just don’t know how many tonnes of that we’ve made but it’s hundreds. It still catches loads of fish. In some of the French waters it is the only bait to use. It’s just one of those baits that continues to catch fish. We’ve already shipped 10 tonnes to France already this year.”
Buoyed by the success of the Rosehips, Mistral outgrew its original cowshed home and has upgraded twice more around Northamptonshire. These days there are between 12 and 18 staff depending on the time of year and huge amounts of materials flow in and out of the business.
“On a good year at the moment we are probably doing about 300 tonnes of boilies. On a bad year in the past we have perhaps done 40 or 50 tonnes, so at a guess we have probably averaged 100 tonnes for 25 years.
“We make boilies for around 10 other businesses, some big, some small. Some well known, some not so well known. Professional courtesy makes us refrain from saying who they are, but we put as much effort into ours as theirs and theirs as ours. We do like to make a good job and I think that’s why these people come to us for their products.”
Mistral currently uses the equivalent of three tonnes of eggs a week and, thanks to increased buying power and market forces, gets them cheaper than it did in 1988. But those market forces do not always go in a bait company’s favour.
“Fishmeal manufactures change their prices four times a year, but we’ve got to make a pricelist in October to last until the following November. Sometimes you will get caught out – three years ago fishmeal prices went up a lot. We try to see trends where possible but people on the commodities markets are selling things two or three years in advance, so it’s hard for us little guys to compete.
“On the consumer side, the weather plays a big part. A few sunny days does wonders for demand.”
Unfortunately, predicting trends in the bait industry is not always based on something tangible.
“The customers’ desire for something new is absolutely what drives the demand for new products. A good bait is always a good bait but when one of our employers started I said to her, ‘we’re going to get somebody coming through the door and ask what’s new’. They’ll say that they’ve had a good year on whatever bait but have got bored of catching fish on it. And right on cue, as though it had been choreographed, we had someone come in and ask just that.
“It’s a great big circle. Somebody reinvents the wheel. I remember when I was kid we were using trout pellets and then it got into more specialist baits like boilies, then all of a sudden people ‘invented’ the trout pellet and pellets have been with us ever since.”
With anglers seemingly so willing to chop and change baits every season, it’s perhaps easy to see why Britain boasts more than 150 boilie companies. But, according to Allan, there’s very little left of the pie to carve up – unless you know how to make an impact in a crowded market.
“You can have a really poor bait and get away with if you have good marketing. If you have a really good bait and poor marketing then you stand no chance.
“You need 20 big-name anglers on your bait, like Mainline, to make it work. You couldn’t do it with one or two. I had John Wilson using my bait for a while – with the biggest name in the sport I thought I couldn’t fail, but we just couldn’t sell it. You need a much wider reach.”
So what path should you take if you have a passion for bait? Allan says it’s important not to be blinded by science.
“Learning about bait is always trial and error. Anybody who goes on about science in baits is talking a load of crap. You quickly learn about what carp like to eat and, yes, you do learn about nutritional values and things like that, but maybe boilies are just like sweets for carp.
“People drink beer and wine, and some people smoke fags, knowing it does them no good, and fish are just basically going along eating things.
“A matchman doesn’t go fishing to feed the fish, he goes to catch them. We try to give them something that will do them good, but sometimes you don’t want to eat a plate of lentils.”
In terms of revolutionary wonderbaits coming on to the market in the near future, Allan is sceptical. “There isn’t much else to put in boilies that we are going to find growing in the UK. There might be some obscure spice growing halfway up a mountain somewhere, but I think it’s all going to be much of a muchness and we just go round in circles.”
Allan says his personal preference is for “ultra-soft baits, that are almost like liquid” but ascribes to the assertion that boilies are “the ultimate convenience bait”.
“Fishmeals are very good pre and post-spawning as they are an animal protein which the fish use to rebuild themselves, and I like milk proteins for the same reason in the summer. I personally like easily digestible baits with a protein content akin to a coarse pellet – 20 to 40 per cent.
“But I’ve seen fish that just do not eat boilies – some huge, some babies – so nuts are a fantastic bait as long as they are not overused. A handful of tigers will last all day for three rods.”
Paradoxically for a boilie baron, a handful of bait may last a lot longer than a day – if you simply don’t have time to get out on the bank. “Being in the fishing trade kills your fishing,” concedes Allan. “If you are on the phone talking about fishing then you are not getting your work done.”
But despite the long hours and the logistical nightmares, producing bait that catches hundreds of anglers’ personal bests every year remains a rewarding occupation for a man who has genuinely helped shape the carp-fishing landscape over the last quarter of a century. “I still love getting up and coming in to work each day,” he smiles.
- If all the boilies made by Mistral up until 2014 were lined up single file they would stretch from Birmingham to Berlin and then back to Coventry.
- April, May, June: the busiest months for bait-makers.
- Syria, Iraq, Russia and Australia have all received consignments of Mistral bait. “We’ve got some guys in Brazil who are looking to open a trade account,” adds Allan, “It’s just a pity the Americans aren’t interested in carp fishing. If half the guys who fish for catfish over there turned to carp I’d stick myself on a plane looking to set up business in America.”
- The name: “That was a friend’s idea. I started selling some stuff in France under a different name and I thought Mistral, France, French wind, the French like that, let’s go with that!”
- Less than one per cent of Mistral’s turnover comes from frozen bait. “Most customers have seen the light,” says Allan, who is a big fan of ‘shelf-life’ boilies.