Stu Conroy on The Mersey
Pole Fishing joins England legend Stu Conroy for a session on a venue – and peg – that means a lot to one of angling’s genuine nice guys.
When you think of the River Mersey it’s probably not fishing that springs immediately to mind – even if you’re an angler! A famous ferry and the city of Liverpool would probably be conjured up quicker. It’s certainly a famous river, but not one that instantly screams fishing like the Trent, Thames or Avon might do. A massive part of this fact is that the river has taken a very long time to clean up its act. The industrial age hit the Mersey hard and for decades it was simply deemed too polluted to sustain any fish.
That is one reason why we were so keen to meet up with Stu Conroy on the banks of this once maligned river. Today should open everyone’s eyes to a venue that is in fact teeming with life and is actually very fishable. We’re not in Liverpool, however, but 15 or so miles further upstream in Stu’s home town of Warrington.
A healthy river means healthy fish!
How It Started
“I never fished this river until I was 21,” Stu recalls. “Until then almost all my fishing was done on canals and Lymm Dam. No-one gave the Mersey a second glance. Why would you when there’s three feet of stinking brown foam frothing over the weirs?”
So what made this keen match angler finally give the Mersey a go? “It all changed one day when I was walking over Kingsway Bridge and spotted someone fishing a stick float. I had to take a second glance and assumed he had escaped from a local asylum. Out of curiosity I went down to see him, and he swung in a roach! I couldn’t believe it. This was a river where I had never ever seen a fish top. I raced home and got my tackle!
“Sure enough I turned up and caught a roach of my own. My first ever fish from the Mersey. There really were some in there!
“We eventually started to have an occasional match, although the results weren’t exactly brilliant. My brother Steve was second in one big event with a single roach. It was a big match, though, and he won £500 and a pole, which you can probably imagine was a massive prize back then!
“As the years passed it gradually got better. Surprisingly it was all quality fish to begin with and very few tiny fish. There were a lot of 8oz fish and not many smaller ones. You had to work hard for bites but you didn’t need many for a good weight.”
Stu created this spcial peg in memory of his much-loved dog, Jazz
"This peg was made in memory of "JAZZ" Much loved German Shpherd who made his last trip along this river on 28th Feb 2014 "A truly beautiful dog"
On The Rise
Fast-forward to today and this river looks absolutely stunning. There’s a healthy green tinge to the water and richly vegetated banks completely hide the fact that we are a stone’s throw from Warrington town centre. Stop and stare for a few seconds and you’ll also see plenty of signs of fish.
Stu tackled the Mersey with casters on the day (he didn't want to get his maggots wet!) and not many of them!
“Everything’s changed on this river as there are now lots of smaller roach to go at,” Stu explains. “It’s actually still relatively untapped, though. There are specimen fish in here and I know the carp boys regularly target further upstream where the access is a bit more limited. The bream are a big surprise, too. Walk along the riverbank at first light and it’s scary just how many bream you’ll see rolling, but they soon disappear once the sun’s up. They are colossal bream, too. Jeff Bibby once had nine in a match for 37lb. The biggest was 8lb 3oz. Fish of over 9lb have been recorded.
“Warrington AA runs regular matches on here now, but they sensibly rotate the sections so no area gets battered. It’s quite a wide stretch and feeder fishing is really popular for many of the regulars, but the beauty of this river is you can do anything you want. I’ve had days fishing waggler, slider, bolo, pole and whip to great effect.
“Whenever I get a chance in the evenings I’ll occasionally pop down with just a stool and a 4m whip. You’ll start with small roach and by the end you could be catching 1½lb skimmers for fun!”
The roch certainly approved of his bait choice, with fish coming straightaway!
There is one particular swim that Stu has deliberately set up on today. It’s called Jazz’s Peg for a very good reason, as it’s in loving memory of his canine companion, who is sadly no longer with us.
“I have walked these banks countless times with Jazz, watching him chase foxes and terrorise the wildlife,” he recollects with a nostalgic glint in his eye. “In the mornings we’d sit on the bench behind this peg for 15 minutes and just watch the bream putting on a display.
“When I lost Jazz I built this peg in his memory, right in front of the bench we used to sit at. There had always been a peg here but it was set back and not too comfortable to fish. Now it’s probably one of the best looking pegs on the length, built by my own fair hands, plus a little bit of help from my wife. Well, she kindly passed me the tools!
“Each winter Warrington runs a Christmas match, for which the lads at Drennan kindly donate a prize to whoever draws Jazz’s Peg. To be honest at that time of year it might be the only thing going for the peg, as it’s normally up and coloured and absolutely tanking through!” he laughs.
“In summer, however, it’s a lovely place to just sit and enjoy a day’s fishing. It’s nice and quiet, not many walkers, no proper boats and just the occasional rower going up and down to break the tranquillity.”
You can tell that Stu was really looking forward to a day on the river as we watched him carefully trot a pole float down the swim. “You can do anything on this river but I’m keen to see what I can catch by just loose feeding to begin with,” he explains. “I came with a plan of feeding maggots but as it’s raining I’ve chosen casters instead.”
As he swings in another plump roach it looks like feeding and fishing with casters was a great move! “I’ve set just two pole rigs up,” he adds. “One is a 2g Drennan prototype for edging through and the other is a lighter 1g AS6 for fishing on the drop or running at them. I can get away with a size 18 Carbon Match hook to 0.10mm Supplex Fluorocarbon and a No6 elastic today. I should be able to get anything I hook out on this.”
No sooner has Stu said that, than he runs his rig down to the tail end of the swim and instinctively strikes at a dip on the float. Something much bigger than expected is on the end, realises it is hooked, crashes on the surface and powers off!
With Stu hanging on for dear life, several tense minutes pass as he makes absolutely no headway on what is clearly a substantial fish. The clock ticks and with Stu’s pole and elastic at full stretch downstream, the fish finally begins to tire. It then surfaces briefly enough for us to see what it actually is. It’s a huge bream… but it’s not hooked anywhere near the mouth!
This tail-hooked slab is having none of it and is clearly not happy. Everything is holding firmly, however, and another couple of anxious minutes elapse as the fish is finally persuaded closer. Every time it comes within five metres of the bank, however, it shakes its tail and judders agonisingly away. Then, as it tires, it kites into the nearside bank and snags itself solid in overhanging brambles. Disaster!
Nothing budges but the fish is clearly still on as there are plumes of mud being kicked up in the shallow water. With no other option, the cameraman creeps down to the water’s edge, landing net in hand. As he gets nearer, the fish spooks and a huge eruption follows. The fish has gone, shedding the hook on the branches as it goes!
“That would have been a nice fish for the cameras!” Stu admits, but it doesn’t dent his confidence. A couple of adjustments to the rig and he’s straight back into catching mode. He has hopes of another bream and spends time carefully edging through his caster hook bait, but every bite is either a roach, chublet or perch.
Ringing The Changes
Up to now Stu has been feeding around 15 to 20 casters every cast, a metre upstream to ensure they land within the confines of his peg. He now tries upping this amount and even ‘double pouching’ to see if he can lure better fish into the area. What happens instead is the fish begin to rise to intercept the feed. A switch to the 1g float two feet off the bottom in nine feet of water sees a great run of redfins grace the net.
“I wanted to give it some time before trying something else, just in case there were bream still in the area,” he explains. “Now I’m sure they’re no longer about I’m going to experiment and see what some groundbait will do. I’ve mixed up some Sensas Roach plus some soil for extra weight and packed it full of casters, dead maggots and pinkies. I’m also plumbing up a new swim two sections closer in, so I’m now only fishing nine metres out. Let’s see what this does!”
Before throwing in any groundbait, however, Stu spends a couple of minutes carefully plumbing up to ensure the bottom is clean and then runs his rig down with the flow eight or nine times. “I always spend some time running a rig through before committing to feed. This is really important, as I don’t want to ball it in and then find a great big snag in my peg.”
Happy with the swim he stands up and throws in seven cricket balls of feed. “I’ve deliberately spread them out a little as I want to run my float around a metre and a half over this bed of feed. I will also loose feed maggots or casters a little upstream as I’m sure combining the two encourages fish at all levels.
You don't have to fish too far out on a river like this!
“What I ideally want to achieve is a hotspot just downstream, where I can catch the bulk of my fish. It is vital that this is a couple of metres down the peg as I want to be able to lower my pole rig in and ensure it is ‘set’ just before it gets to the baited area. I will rarely ball it in straight in front of me and never upstream, as you must have your rig working properly before it gets to that critical catching zone.”
Seconds after throwing in those seven balls, Stu baits up with a single bronze maggot on his 2g rig set just tripping bottom and carefully lowers it in. When it gets to bang on top of the feed the float instantly dips under. He misses a quick bite but instantly lays the rig back in and is poised for another. This time there is no mistake as the float buries. A crisp strike sees a reassuring amount of elastic flowing from his top kit. A chunky roach is deftly swung in and Stu is well and truly back in business!
“That’s the power of groundbait!” he smiles. For the next hour Stu is in bagging mode, catching a fish on almost every cast. Some are perch and small chublets but the vast majority are roach plus the very occasional hybrid.
In no time he’s amassed a really healthy bag. Heaving his keepnet out of the water, it’s only then that we truly appreciate how effortless the England ace has made it look. There’s a good 20lb of fish in that net!
Plenty of bites, plenty of smiles and a fantastic day on Jazz’s Peg. But a match angler like Stu is never fully satisfied. Anglers of his calibre are always wondering if they could have caught more. “I’ve now got to come back with my flat floats and a big baitdropper. Let’s see if I can’t catch one of those big bream!”
It's hard to imagine that this river was once too polluted to support fish.
Stu not only built Jazz’s Peg, he also very kindly erected this bridge over the feeder stream to help less able anglers access the river. “I’m probably becoming a bit of an old-timer myself, so that bridge is just as important for me!” he laughs.