If you've been around the game a while, the name Geoff Bowers is synonymous with a couple of things - boilies, and a sense of humour. Anyone that calls their catalogue a 'comic' is saying something... Instrumental in playing a very large part in what we recognise as the modern fishmeal, Geoff, and his original company Premier Baits, did a lot to shape what we use today. In lots of respects, this the story of the conception of the modern day boilie, told in Geoff's inimitable style. Sat at his desk at ABS, surrounded by bottles, bait samples, and 35mm prints of crusty old blue backed mirrors from the Darenth Valley and beyond. Enjoy, we loved doing this one.
Fire up the kettle, kick back and take in some great old images and history
SSJ: What were your first encounters with the boilies? Can you remember how you were introduced to them, and what were the first type of baits you rolled?
GB: It was while I was fishing a little lake called Fordwich, near Canterbury. I’d come in on the bottom line, like you do when you start out, and I was knocking together my own basic paste baits, but there were a couple of lads on there, unbeknown to me at the time, already using boilies. I’d only read Maddocks’s Carp Fever book; I wasn’t clued up enough about the scene to go out and be buying and reading books, but there were anglers that were far more advanced than us out there, so our baits at the start were based what we’d heard, or seen, or learned from mates, or played about with ourselves.
SSJ: What was the first actual boilie you rolled?
GB: It was a milk protein, that we’d put together off the back of the Maddocks book; Complan, Cow and Gate baby milk, Casein… we did tweak it a bit and we’d put some of one of Geoff Kemp’s flavours in there. That first year, we caught nine fish from the same lake, whereas the previous year we’d only caught one on the old pastes we’d been using. We caught the biggest one as well, a 28-pounder, which was a huge fish for that time. I fished through the winter and even caught a couple then, as well.
SSJ: That’s a big jump from one, to nine? What do you think was the cause of that? Was it just the baits?
GB: I think it was a few things; the boilies obviously coincided with starting to put the hookbait onto a hair, whereas the year before we’d been fishing the pastes directly on the hook. That first year, when I’d only had the one, there was a lad who was doing really well, and it turned out that he was on the hair before everyone else. He was in with the right people, and in the right circles.
SSJ: Being in the right cliques and moving in the right circles must’ve made a huge difference back then, when information just wasn’t readily available?
GB: Oh, it did. Once you’d actually got into it properly you soon learned who the ones in the know were. It was much more secretive back then. I met lads during those first few years who were some of the first that ever had the hair rig. They were the chosen ones, and they’d have killed anyone who let it go any further. That was their edge, and it was a massive one.
I met lads during those first few years who were some of the first that ever had the hair rig. They were the chosen ones, and they’d have killed anyone who let it go any further
After that first year on the boilies, we decided to make some improvements to our bait, or at least we thought we were improving it. We made another milk protein, naïve in the knowledge of how certain ingredients worked, and how some of them break down, and what they brought to a bait in those days. All we knew was that certain things happened, not why they did. We knew that the Cow and Gate would set the bait off on a reaction and it would start to spot white, and that was when it was best, so we knew that particular ingredient was bringing something active to the baits. We just didn’t know yet why these things were happening.
That year we decided to pre-bait before the traditional start of the season. There were six of us in our little area who were all coming in on the same bait, but no one could agree on exactly what we would put in it. I was always pretty headstrong in those days, even though I was probably the least experienced at the time, but my view was that it was my idea, or none at all! Another of the lads, who’d already been carp fishing for five or six years, had his own idea, but there was no way I was going with it. I just didn’t agree with his thinking. So the little group split, and two of the others came along with me, and the other three went with him.
'Early days at Forwich'
That first week, on the lake where we thought we’d done well the year before catching nine, the little group who’d come along with my idea had 27 fish that first week. It wasn’t the done thing to bait with loads of the ‘milks’ back then, and it was nothing compared to what we did later on, or by today’s standards, but we put a lot in. It was all by hand as well, and it was a bastard to roll as well, that bait! We’d go down and put maybe a thousand 18mm baits in, which wasn’t a huge amount, maybe three or four kilos, five at most. We knew our swims prior to the start so we’d baited up like that a few times in the weeks leading up to the off. The other lads couldn’t buy a bite!
It was all by hand as well, and it was a bastard to roll as well, that bait! We’d go down and put maybe a thousand 18mm baits in, which wasn’t a huge amount, maybe three or four kilos, five at most
SSJ: What had they put in theirs, then?!
GB: They’d gone with things like calcium caseinate, gluten, and they had this idea of an aniseed oil flavour, which I really didn’t like. I’d heard all the old wives tales about carp liking it, but I just didn’t, so we went with a flavour which was a mixture of strawberry, clove, liquorice, and softened down with evaporated milk and ice cream.
After those first few weeks the action slowed right off and Phil, who was my original partner from Premier, was doing quite a bit of fishing in those days. He was putting quite a bit of the bait in, but it had just slowed right down. Around that time, I was also fishing Layer Pits and I was in a lad called Rob Murphy’s swim one day when he caught a good common. I noticed his bait had loads of black spots in it, I’d never seen anything like it at that point, and it turned out they were niger seeds. I’d asked him what it was and he’d said it was called ‘CLO’. I had no idea what that meant, but found out it was a bird food ingredient, so I was straight down the local petfood shop and they used to sell Sluis CLO in 1lb bags in those days. I bought a couple, it was only cheap, and took it home to roll some baits with. We were struggling on our new milk bait so thought it was worth a try.
We made a load up, changed the flavour as we thought it had blown, and added a few extra bits, piled a load in, and caught bugger all on it. It was a total failure for a variety of reasons, in hindsight. A little later on, Phil had a trip planned and he decided to make some changes again. He still had some of the original milk lefts, so he decided to put 50% CLO in with the milks, and went back to the old evaporated milk and ice cream flavour from the first year. Phil made it all up, piled a load in as we did, and lo and behold he caught nine fish that week! They were shitting it out. He could see the seeds everywhere in the sacks and realised straight away it must be really digestible. Our milk protein was bonded together like glue, and at the beginning they loved it, but we fucked it up by putting too much in. We just didn’t understand how undigestible it was.
Our milk protein was bonded together like glue, and at the beginning they loved it, but we fucked it up by putting too much in. We just didn’t understand how undigestible it was
SSJ: Where did the fishmeals come from originally? Were they being used elsewhere in baits before you started? How did you come to start rolling them in baits?
GB: Well, again, originally that came from someone else. We’d heard that another lad on Fordwich had been doing well using fishmeal ingredients and a fish oil. I wondered if that could be another answer to our digestibility problems with the baits and thought it was worth looking into. I went along to a tackle shop and got myself whatever fishmeals I could get my hands on. Hutchy used to sell the fishmeals in pints back then, Sardine meal, Capelin meal… but it was always different and inconsistent. You could never get your hands on the same stuff because supply was so poor.
I got as much of it as I could and knocked up some different baits. It worked, and we caught, but I was still making the mistake of just mixing it with the milks. The following year I had started to get the fishmeals in larger quantities, and thinking back now, I can’t remember why but something had clicked. I thought, ‘why not start mixing the fishmeals with the CLO as well?’ We knew what the CLO was bringing to the bait now in terms of digestibility, because Phil had mixed the milks with it and we’d persevered with that, but I thought why not put the three together? It also rolled like a dream, which was heaven after struggling to get other mixes to bind and roll and it was also a lot cheaper.
SSJ: So you combined some milks with the fishmeals and the CLO?
GB: Yes, exactly. Around that time we’d made another discovery, as well. In the first fishmeal that we’d made we’d used 15ml of Seven Seas cold liver oil from Boots and 3ml of pilchard oil to give it a bit more smell, which was okay but we were continually searching for new ingredients back then, and so by the time we’d moved on to the new base consisting of the CLO as well, we also had some new oils, partly thanks to Big Tony Moore from Coventry who we’d met at Darenth. I’d met him down there on a recce at the end of the 1985 season and he’d noticed that we were using oily baits and he queried what we knew about them. He’d got a small sample bottle of Fosoil from Seven Seas, the same one Mainline brought out later on, but we’d had that back in the early 80s. Tony was after a garlic oil but had been sent this sample instead, asking if he’d give them some feedback on whether it was any good or not, so he sent it on to me.
I wanted to get hold of some to use but didn’t really think a big company such as Seven Seas would sell directly to me, but I gave them a call anyway and spoke to someone there. I gave him a load of old bollocks, said I was a university student and asked what would be the chances of sending me a sample of this Fosoil that they’d sent a ‘colleague’ of mine. The guy said he’d send a sample, but he asked if I wanted to buy a 45-gallon barrel of it. That was great… but blimey, we’d have to get a few more people on it if we got that much of the stuff!
SSJ: … and at this point you still haven’t even fished with it?
GB: No! But we did have this tiny sample bottle so I rolled some baits with it and went around to see my mate who had this huge tank at his house with some fish in there, just little three- and four-pounders. So off we went with the attractor to have a play around with it. We put some in there, all glugged in the oil, and they went beserk! Dave stood there with his mouth open, and said he’d never seen them do anything like that before and that maybe I was on to something. Tony actually wrote about what I’d said to him in the 1991-92 Premier Comic we did. ‘ It’s amazing! Al’s carp are bouncing off the shag-pile, saying thank you and jumping back into the tank!’ He obviously exaggerated that a bit, but the reaction from the fish was mental so we did buy a barrel of this oil, which cost us 80 quid for 45 gallons, including delivery. So, we got a little crew of lads together to come in on this new bait I’d designed; 50% fishmeal, which we’d settled on as Sardine and Capelin by then, with the CLO, casein and lactalbumin (the old-fashioned one) the new Fosoil and I think that first year we went with a spicy-type flavour. We were all glugging our baits up, big bags full of glistening oily boilies, and we slaughtered them that first year, properly slaughtered them. I think we had something like 116 twenties between our little crew from Fordwich that season.
We were all glugging our baits up, big bags full of glistening oily boilies, and we slaughtered them that first year, properly slaughtered them
'Phil Milton, Geoff's original partner with a lovely brace'
SSJ: From one that first year on the paste, that’s a pretty big leap in just a few years!
GB: Oh, it was mad. We did really well with them! We had got the mix right and it was doing really well, and as it developed that was what was to become the basis of the first Fish Base Mix that we made commercially available when Premier started in ‘86, along with the newly renamed ‘Fish Feed Inducing Oil’.
Late on that last year on Fordwich, I had a trip down to School Pool in Kent with Phil. We couldn’t get tickets for the place, so we had to buy day tickets. We’d spoken to a mate of ours, who had filled us in and told us that we could get on at dawn, and that the House Bank was worth a try, so we got there just before it came light. It was pitch black when we arrived so we had a walk round, and found the houses and guessed that must have been what he was talking about. Phil pitched up there and I went around the other side because there were another couple of lads on.
The light came up and we were seeing a few show, and then after a couple of hours along comes an excited Phil.
“I’ve got one!” he said. “I think it might be She!”
I’d never seen a 30-pounder before, so off we trotted and there in his net, sure enough, was She.
“Fuck me!” I said. “That’s She all right!”
I couldn’t believe it! We hadn’t even seen the lake; we’d cast out in the dark, and he’d only gone and caught it on his first cast, hadn’t he! It was 34lbs 4oz I think. It was a lovely fish in those days, too; a proper nice one.
After that Phil just wanted to go back to Fordwich and have a dabble back on there, but I wanted to go elsewhere. I had a Darenth ticket but I’d only done a recce trip at that point and it was getting on in the year, November I think. I went down there anyway and caught one one the first night, a 20. On the Tip, any bite was a result so I was well chuffed with that, on the new fishmeal as well, and then next night I had another 20, I ended up with three that first trip so I went home feeling like ‘the man’, and keen to get back ASAP before the cold weather really set in. I was back soon enough and lost a real good’un to a hook pull right at the net. It was one known as Chubby and I’d seen it in the gin-clear water, up close.
I met quite a few of the Darenth lads that trip; John Pope, Blair Clayton, Phil, Steve Wade… they’d all been in my swim when I’d lost Chubby and John had said how I’d be gutted by the end of the week to have lost that one. I’d said I was pretty sure that wouldn’t be my only bite of the week and I think he was quite taken aback you know, like, ‘This is the Tip! Who the hell are you?’ To cut a long story short, I caught three more that trip, but that was the last time I fished Darenth that year. I’d met Terry Pethybridge by that time, though, and he was really into it and pretty keen to get involved and use the bait, so we decided that we’d do it properly up at Darenth the following year.
'Action in the Dry Dock at Darenth - Andy Wilks'
SSJ: So when did you decide to take Premier that bit further, what had you been doing previously?
GB: Well, I’d been thinking about doing the bait a bit more seriously for a while. I hadn’t worked for about 18 months and had just been fishing and trying to get the baits right. We lived like paupers down the lake, just enough gas to make tea, brown bread and pilchards to eat… you might have had enough money for one curry a week if you were lucky, but that was it, we just scraped by. I applied for one of the Government grants you could get for new businesses, it gave you about 40 quid a week and we set up Premier in a 15 quid a week unit about as big as a living room. That was it, but we turned over some bait that first year.
We lived like paupers down the lake, just enough gas to make tea, brown bread and pilchards to eat… you might have had enough money for one curry a week if you were lucky, but that was it, we just scraped by
It was ’86 when we started it properly. I had already made some inroads before Premier started to begin tracking down proper suppliers. Of course, back then there was no Internet so it was ‘wild goose chase phone calls’ for a while until you got to speak to the right people. CLO was branded by Sluis, so buying it in that form was expensive. We worked out a deal with the manufacturer to get an ever-so-slightly different version so that there were no royalties to pay. They showed me the recipe and I left a couple of things out that I didn’t feel were adding anything in a fishing sense, and that sorted that part of the bait out.
When it came to the fishmeals, someone had put me on to this one particular company that apparently supplied some of the best. I didn’t know it at the time, but I’d got in touch with the biggest supplier of fishmeals in the world. If I’d said I wanted a hundred tonnes of each, that would have still only been a drop in the ocean to them. That first year just one tonne was big potatoes to us, but I had struck up a relationship with the sales guy and managed to secure us some supply. We got our Sardine and Capelin meals from them and quite quickly it kicked off and we were buying five tonnes, then ten and so on. In Premier’s heyday, we were selling ten tonnes a week; remember that’s just base mix and not finished baits.
In Premier’s heyday, we were selling ten tonnes a week; remember that’s just base mix and not finished baits
SSJ: What else was commercially available at that point?
GB: Richworth must have had some machines, because they were already doing their little ready-mades that you could buy in the shops, but other than that, there was nothing much really, that was the thing! Gardner brought out the Rollaballs toward the end of the ‘80s, I think, but we weren’t rolling it. There was no point because everyone still did that themselves, so we were just selling the mixes and oils, bagged and bottled.
Tony actually wrote about what I’d said to him in the 1991-92 Premier Comic we did. ‘ It’s amazing! Al’s carp are bouncing off the shag-pile, saying thank you and jumping back into the tank!’
Pop back for part two in a few days time, heads up on the newsletter as to when it drops on! The story continues with the Terry and Tony Darenth days, Robin Red, Yateley and more