Interview with James Davis of Nice Fish! (UK importers of Major Craft, Sunline, Seaspin etc.)

When I put that interview up the other day with Richard Cake (check here), the traffic on my blog spiked, and this of course leads me to believe that a bunch of you are interested in reading this sort of stuff - views from within the fishing industry if you like, and of course it’s of big interest to me as well. I have never actually met James Davis from Nice Fish!, but over the last few years we have spoken and emailed plenty, and especially about their Major Craft rods that they import into the UK and then distribute around various tackle shops in the UK and Ireland. Read my lure rod reviews and you will have gathered that I have a growing obsession with Major Craft rods (here), and whilst there are more and more good lure rods becoming available to us these days, I am not personally aware of such a varied and outstanding value for money range of lure rods than Major Craft. I take my hat off to the few people/businesses in the UK who deal with the importation of specialist lure fishing gear, and I hope to be able to secure interviews with more of them. A big thanks to James for answering my questions. You can contact Nice Fish! on info@nice-fish.com or 01983 869191.

This is not James from Nice Fish!, rather it's a Major Craft rod being fished with

This is not James from Nice Fish!, rather it's a Major Craft rod being fished with

James, I blame you entirely for igniting my obsession with Major Craft bass fishing rods - how on earth did you come to be the UK importer for this hugely impressive rod brand? Give us some background please.

I used to be the UK & Ireland agent for Plus Fishing, an Italian based company owned by a couple of Japanese guys. I knew it wasn’t going to last forever because the margins were tiny and the RRP’s were way too high for our market . So, along with a family member we started Nice Fish! in the background and set about pinpointing key Japanese brands who not only produced products which perfectly suited UK & Irish angler's requirements, but were genuinely affordable for them too. We specifically targeted Major Craft because of a particular chap (actually I don't even think he knows this) who’s knowledge, both of fishing and Japanese brands, we admired greatly. Anyway, some 5+ years ago this chap, Vidar Thomassen, was always talking up Major Craft in a big way on various fishing forums for both their extensive salt/fresh water ranges and value for money. So I emailed Major Craft and I emailed them again and then emailed them so more. No reply. I even called them once but my Japanese isn’t what it used to be and the guy on the other end thought I was some sort of mentalist. So I finally gave up and started talking with other brands. Then luckily Major Craft employed an English speaker who saw all of our emails and got in contact. Probably to advise me to get help! But thankfully he did because we have an excellent relationship with Major Craft and together have helped build the it into one of the biggest known and respected lure rod brands in the UK and now Ireland too.

Give us a bit of insight into working with a Japanese fishing tackle company. What are the language issues like for starters?

You know what, we are so lucky the English language is truly universal. I often think our contacts at Sunline & Major Craft speak much betterer English than wot me and my bizness partner Adam do, innit. Seriously though, other than getting hold of stock before their Japanese wholesalers snaffle it all up and getting hold of samples ahead of the new product launch, it’s all good indeed. One thing's for sure, after dealing with many, many British companies over the years, dealing with Japanese companies is an absolute dream. They reply immediately, get the goods shipped when they say they will and are incredibly nice to deal with.

How do you find the UK fishing tackle business being increasingly open (or not?) with regards to buying and selling the more specialist and expensive items like bass lure rods?

On the whole it is much, much better than when I first started in the trade over 5 years ago. Apart from a handful of shops, the lure sections available, especially in saltwater focussed shops, was rather pitiful. “Where’s your lure section mate?” I would ask and the owner, careful not to move off his stool, would point me in the direction of some small dark corner near the back. Upon arrival at the unloved dingy corner I would be greeted by a plugging horror show. If you were lucky there would be a couple of Thundersticks, the odd Crystal Minnow kicking about, a Chug Bug and a gaggle of softies in old margarine tubs looking so sad you wanted to put them out of their misery. As for the lure rods? Jesus, that was an even sadder looking bunch. Unfortunately, for many anglers in the UK & Ireland this is still the case in many shops. You see, a lot of retailers aren’t proactive when it comes to the lure fishing scene. They see lure fishing as less than a minority sport and don’t realise just how many of us there are now, nor how many are switching from other disciplines to fish mostly with lures. This means not only are they losing lots of business but anglers aren’t being given the choice they badly want. To get up and running lure fishing wise can cost peanuts, it’s the ideal way to introduce kids to fishing too… And various fishing organizations wonder why so many juniors aren’t taking up fishing like they used to.  

I happen to think that Major Craft lure rods are among the best value for money lure rods I have ever come across - have you seen a shift in general attitude from UK anglers towards a lure rod no longer being just some bit of spinning rod add on, or have we got a long way to go towards accepting that proper tools cost proper money?

Yes, for sure, regarding the attitude change. And to be fair most of that shift in attitude has been driven by the anglers themselves, not the tackle companies. On the whole, most UK/Irish anglers are clued up and know exactly what they want. Social media and the internet has given us all access to loads of new tackle brands and new methods of catching fish. And of course anglers over here want access to those methods and products.

My first “lure” rod was a carp rod. An 11ft, heavy as hell stick with hardly any feel, a 5000 sized Shimano reel loaded with cheap 12lb mono teamed up with a bubble float and a Delta eel. Great fun for the first hour or so until your arm started aching. It’s only when you use a “proper” lure rod that you see and feel real differences. They launch lures miles, you can cast these babies all day long, the “feel” both on top and below the surface is amazing and playing fish is just brilliant. If you’re using a quality 4 or 8 strand braid, even better. You don’t even have to spend a fortune, that’s the great thing nowadays. You can get a decent lure rod for £50-60 quid. However, it’s when you start spending in that £150 - £400 category that you really start to see major differences in blanks, fittings, feel, castability and so on. Ask yourself this Henry, what lure rod were you using 5 or so years ago? Would you go back to it now? Exactly.

The more I learn about Major Craft lure rods, the more it amazes me how they aren’t for sale all over the UK and Ireland - how do you as a business go about trying to get your gear into key fishing tackle shops?

Hard working, likeable sales agents who know their stuff. And trust me they are sooooo hard to find. So if you know any please ask them to get in touch!

You also have to bear in mind that there are only a small amount of key lure fishing tackle shops in the UK & Ireland. If you want to buy some carp, coarse, match etc tackle then you’re spoilt for choice. But with lure fishing it isn’t yet like it is in Japan, the States, France, Italy, Germany etc etc. Luckily however, we already work closely with most of the better UK & Irish lure focussed shops.

We did a couple of shows in the beginning and they were OK, but at that time lure fishing was seen as a very minor part of fishing by the retailers. They seemed to be more than happy with just stocking the same old gear every other shop was. I’ve never understood that. Thankfully there are a handful of pro active, forward thinking shop owners now who have seen lure fishing over take many other disciplines within their shop and decided to grow that side of their business.

Luckily for us we have two of Japan’s best lure brands. No other brand in Japan, where lure fishing is huge, sell more lure rods than Major Craft. And no other line brand offers more quality and choice than Sunline when it comes to top notch braids, fluoros and mono’s etc. So, word gets about once an angler has either used one of our products or been recommended one on a forum for example and they go into their local tackle shop which in turn leads them to contacting us.

It also helps to supply samples to guys like you who have no vested interest in the products to review and hopefully blog about it, even if it’s not favourable. That’s the chance you take. Another guy we also like to ask to try our gear is Mark Padfield. For those who know Mark, you’ll know that if he doesn’t like something he’ll be only too happy to tell everyone about it. Product wise, this helps to sort the wheat from the chaff. What’s the point in importing a product on a load of forced hype? Sure, you’ll sell a few units at the beginning but lure anglers aren’t idiots. They will very quickly work out if a rod, line, lure, reel etc isn’t suited to our type of fishing.

I know it can’t be easy for you guys who import Japanese fishing tackle when you read some of the online conspiracy theory stuff that almost refuses to believe that legitimately imported items are going to usually cost that bit more than what they would on their domestic market. Can you give us an idea as to the costs involved with pricing an imported item to sell into the UK market? Either direct costs per item or as a percentage of the overall price of a rod etc.

Ha! Yes. Some of the stuff and half truths I’ve read over the years online are quite funny. It used to bother me because I knew for a fact some of it was far from accurate but now I just let them get on with it. We’re very open about this. If you want a Major Craft rod it will probably be cheaper to import it directly. You can’t waggle it beforehand mind or attach your reel to it to feel the balance like you can in a UK/Irish tackle shop, you’ll have to wait quite a while longer for it to arrive (hopefully it won’t be held up in customs) rather than a next same/next day service and good luck if it’s damaged in transit or if the tip snaps on the first few casts. Have you ever contacted one of the Japanese/European online retailers to buy a tip replacement? Don’t bother, you’re wasting your time.

We have our International Wholesale Price List (the discount from Japanese RRP isn’t anywhere near as big as some like to think), then depending on the size of the order we pay around £7 per rod for shipping. Then there’s the 3.8% Import Duty for sporting items, good old 20% VAT Import Tax (remember when the rise from 17.5% to 20% was only temporary? 4 years later…) and then our margin (for anyone who has worked in wholesale you’ll know about low margins/high turnovers), the retailer's margin and finally another dollop of VAT for good measure. Cheers yer Majesty.

I totally get some guy sitting at his computer, seeing the Japanese RRP, loading up Xe.com, converting JPY to Sterling and then thinking, hold on, why does it cost X amount over here? Really I do. But when you see our discounts, how much it costs to get it here, taxes and margins that need to be made just to ensure a shop stays open/staff are paid then you’d think again.

How do you work as an importer and distributor - do you hold stock of rods, or do you secure pre-orders and then import the items like that? With how you work now, do you see things changing as the lure market potentially keeps growing here in the UK?

In the beginning it was almost a back to back ordering system as we had no concrete idea on what would sell and what wouldn’t. It was very difficult as Major Craft have a 100 rod minimum order quantity and they really didn’t get our market. They couldn’t understand why lure fishing, especially saltwater, had such a miniscule market share. Nowadays we place our own stocking order and then visit retailers to see their requirements. We try very hard to ensure all the best sold models are in stock all year round. Easier said than done. But as of writing this we have exactly 126 Turel, Crostage, Skyroad, X-Ride and Truzers in stock. Nothing compared to the big boys but we’re happy where we are and very happy with the retailers we work with. We’re eagerly awaiting the next container of rods to arrive in Japan so we can get our hands on the new Major Craft N-One bass and LRF rods.

I am guessing that as a distributor of fishing rods you must get a percentage of returns due to breakages? We all know that no rod has ever broken because of angler error (!!), but how do you deal with this? Are we as anglers being somewhat unrealistic with what we expect our lure fishing rods to deal with?

Yes we do get the odd return but thankfully the numbers are very, very low. The vast majority we receive back are broken tips due to the angler slamming a car door or boot on to the rod or dropping it when rock hopping etc. Accidents are going to happen, that’s life. This is why we sell all replacement tips to retailers at our cost. We don’t make a penny.

Generally speaking if a lure rod is faulty or has been damaged in transit it will snap within the first dozen or so casts. If your rod snaps 3 months after you bought it and you’ve already had a few sessions with it and landed fish then the angler has done something for this to happen.

I don’t think it’s a case of anglers being unrealistic, Henry, I think it’s more of a case of understanding. Modern day lure rods, especially Japanese lure rods, are fantastic. They really are. The lightness, feel, castability and how they perform when landing a fish can’t be beaten in my opinion. But when it comes down to it they are just very thin tubes of carbon, especially the tip sections. They’re not almost indestructible like some of the much heavier, cumbersome rods we used to use a few years back. If a Japanese rod is rated 7-28g then 28g is the absolute max you should be casting. And even then it should be with a gentle casting action, not a full on power cast where it looks like you’re trying to put your back out. You’re asking for trouble, I’m afraid. The rating is a guide not a guarantee. In fact, you shouldn’t really ever need to give a Japanese lure rod the full beans time and time again, even with a strong onshore wind. It’s more about timing in my opinion. A golf swing could be a decent analogy. For those who have played sometimes you hit a ball and it doesn’t even feel like you’ve given it any welly, it just felt smooth like you weren’t putting any effort in. You look up and the ball is going a country mile and dead straight too. After trying to figure out how the f**k you did it you realise that it simply came down to timing. You hit the sweet spot. Your timing was spot on. Then you ask yourself what the hell am I doing playing this old farts game anyway?  

You must have had it, Henry? You get a new rod, a quick waggle and it feels OK so off you go fishing. First dozen casts and yuck, this thing feels horrible. Then after playing about with various casting styles and plugs, figuring out the best drop length from tip to lure and then all of a sudden, shazaam! That last cast felt wicked. Then you proceed to cast it just like that again 10 more times. It feels delicious. You’ve found the sweet spot of that particular rod and now you want to run away with it and start a small family.

So after all that waffling what am I saying? In my opinion, if a rod is rated to 18, 30 or 42g and you are using an 18, 30 or 42g maximum weighted lure then you really need to be extra cautious when casting. It’s just to be on the safe side.

When you go fishing for bass with lure gear yourself, what’s your favourite Major Craft rod to fish with and why?

Truzer. What can I say? I’m a raging tart. It’s just everything about it. It’s soooooo light yet feels so strong with plenty of power if needed but at the same time you can feel every headshake or knock due to the tip. It’s just a brilliant rod. I love it. All of which is strange as I probably use my Skyroad 9ft more than anything else. That’s probably because I’ve been in some escapades with it and it hasn’t let me down. It’s weird how you become attached to certain bits of tackle.

What are your three favourite bass fishing lures?

You can’t ask me that! It’s impossible to answer! Three, just three?! Are you some sort of sadist? OK, OK… Hmmm if I was left stranded along some British or Irish coast left to fend for myself to catch fish in order to eat… I’d plump for the Zenith Z-Claw as it’s such a versatile lure and I love surface fishing the most. A weedless softie (probably a Senko type worm or Black Minnow paddletail) and the new Seaspin Buginu 115D which I’m loving at the moment. It reminds me very much of the Megabass Zonk but with a proper bib.

Money no object, what’s your dream fishing destination and what would you fish for?

Jesus, Henry. What are you trying to do to me here? It would have to be some sort of arm breaking top water action somewhere. Where the sun was hot, the beer was cold, the food was amazing and the girls were pretty. Let's say Belize from the shore and Panama from a boat. I’m no different from the next guy. I’d go anywhere to target GT’s, Tarpon and especially Tuna. That doesn’t even touch on some of the FW action I’d love to try in places like Latin America, Egypt and Canada.

Last but not least, dealing with foreign companies as you do, do you ever get the impression that as a growing market we are being taken more seriously here in the UK?

Hmmm maybe a little bit, but not much. Having said that and thinking back to what I wrote earlier about where the market was a short time ago, then yes, maybe we finally are. But not nearly enough. If anything, the growth we’ve experienced is mainly down to the anglers pushing it themselves. We don’t even have a dedicated yearly lure fishing show like they do in Nantes for instance… There’s a business idea there if anyone wants the stress of organising one...