It’s been described by some as angling’s biggest con trick. A rip-off so widespread and prevalent that it’s even spawned its own joke. A dry, sarcastic one but a joke nonetheless.
‘What,’ so the gag goes, ‘is the difference between fishery pellets and those you buy from the tackle shop?’ Punchline: ‘About £2.’
Yes, it’s fair to say that fisheries who force their customers to pay over the odds for bait before they can fish stir emotions in anglers that range from anger to annoyance and everything else in between. For many it’s an abuse of power done in the name of profit. Pure, unashamed, profit.
Naturally, though, there are two sides to the argument. Put that accusation to any of the owners who have introduced the rule and they’ll tell you something entirely different. Fish welfare, not finance, is the sole motivation. Don’t blame us for protecting our livelihoods - and the fish you want to catch ¬ they’ll say.
The latest fishery to go down this road is Alder’s Farm in Milton Keynes.
Anglers visiting the complex, who want to use pellets, will now be required to buy them from the on-site shop. All other brands are strictly banned.
True to form, the bosses claim it has been done solely in the name of maintaining the long-term welfare of the stocks and the water they live in.
There’s not, unsurprisingly, a mention of the extra revenue it will inevitably bring in any where.
“The decision to follow this path was taken on the advice of a top fishery scientist, for the good health of the fish stocks now and for the future at the fishery,” says the venue’s website.
On one level, you can completely understand it. Ultimately anyone that runs a fishery has the right to decide who brings what on to their water - bait included. The fish are, after all, the most important commodity of all and to knowingly put them at risk is an act of extreme folly. The question is, though, just what is the risk? Are the fish really put in peril by certain pellets? And where does protection end and extortion begin?
The answer, typically, remains somewhat ambiguous.
According to one independent fishery consultant I spoke to, the general standard of pellets is significantly better than what it was even a few years ago. The days when those designed solely for swelling trout as quickly as possible were simply repackaged for the coarse market are largely gone.
Such was the oil and fat content in each of these tiny morsels they ought to have come with a health warning.
But evolution in the bait market has been as swift as it has dramatic.
Pellets are now specifically designed for the species they are aimed at catching - predominantly carp - and the ingredients are of sufficient quality to help, not hinder, their health. Almost exclusively, they are an excellent source of nourishment.
However, exceptions still exist. There are, according to the same expert, still products out there with a high enough oil content to be problematic if fed in too high a quantity. Excess can still be dangerous. Hence the need for certain fisheries to employ what are perceived by some anglers to be strong-arm, financially-driven tactics.
We shouldn’t, at this point, be naïve. Despite legitimate claims that control can be justified, insisting anglers buy pellets at the fishery is still an additional - and lucrative - revenue stream.
The strained pleas made by many venues - Alder’s included - that prices are always competitive just doesn’t wash with me. Bags are generally smaller than those available in the tackle shop and invariably more expensive too.
I can just about buy the need to do it for the good of the fish, but to try to hide the financial benefits behind this welfare veil is a massive insult to our collective intelligence.
All that considered, even if these fisheries do charge well over the odds, is it really too much to pay for the kind of sport on offer? If you visit, for example, a stretch of river you still have to pay for whatever bait you intend to use - without the near guarantee of catching a netful of fish.
Having the chance to take anything like 100lb or more from any given peg comes at a price.
And, of course, you have a choice. A choice to avoid using pellets altogether and a choice, more importantly, to visit somewhere else. Don’t like the rules? Don’t go. It’s not as if you don’t know what to expect.
If, for example, you go to a football match or a West End show, you pay over the odds for refreshments. No-one forces you and, unless you’re completely green, you know what the deal is before you go. Essentially you fully consent to being ripped off.
In defence of the fishery owners, they do have to set their rules to cater for the biggest idiots. Ninety-nine per cent of anglers who come through the doors might be circumspect and discerning, but the remaining one per cent will routinely abuse any fragment of leniency. That is a statement of fact, not opinion.
Look at it like this. Fish love pellets not just for the nutritional value they provide but also for the one thing that can do them the most harm if eaten in excess - oil.
They’re no different to humans in this respect. Fish and chips taste great, but it’s not a good idea to eat them three times a day for a week. It’s the same with pellets. Moderation - and control - is the key.
The question is, then, why is it that only certain fisheries insist on anglers using their own pellets? If they are so dangerous to the fish and the water quality, why aren’t they restricted everywhere?
John Raison, the man at the helm of the hugely popular Gold Valley Lakes in Hampshire, is one who upheld - then discarded - the policy. He is in no doubt why some choose to have it in place.
“The sole reason that venues insist anglers use their own fishery pellets is to make money, because all the pellets from reputable companies sold in tackle shops are perfectly safe to use at any fishery,” he said last year when announcing his change of heart.
It’s only an opinion but, coming from a man in a position of experience, it’s a fairly damning one.
So, are fishery pellets, as John suggests, really one of angling’s biggest cons, or are they completely justified in the name of fish welfare? Like I said earlier, the answer’s far from obvious.
Owners clearly have the right to make a call about their own venue. Equally, they have the right to protect their stock against threat, however real that might be. What most anglers find galling, however, is the sanctimonious pretence. Yes, we know some pellets can cause both direct and indirect problems and for that reason we will tolerate the rules. But there is a far simpler explanation too - it’s a great way of securing extra revenue.
If that’s something you don’t find palatable, you still retain the ultimate power of choice. Just visit somewhere else.