A goal is a dream with a deadline, wrote Napoleon Hill in his classic book, ‘Laws of Success’. The young Stuart Conroy probably never studied the philosophies of goal setting at junior school in Warrington.
He didn't really need to. By then, he'd decided his ambition was to represent his country at senior level in competitive match angling. Setting that goal was the easy bit. What it has made of him to achieve it shone through when I caught up with him recently.
In the beginning
Stuart's mum was a single parent. Brother Steve, (pictured) 14 years Stuart's senior was his angling mentor in those formative years. Their sister Denise is no mean angler too. Like so many lifelong anglers, Stuart learnt to master his fishing skills on his local canal, the Bridgewater. With Steve's encouragement, Stuart would line up in every junior match he could get to on his bike, or failing that, Shank's pony. With cash at a premium, bait would be bread punch and home bred gozzers or sour bran specials. Stuart is convinced these home-bred maggots would give canal anglers an edge to this day. Steve eventually forbade Stuart from competing at junior level at 14; for he was now good enough to compete against the men. The ever generous Steve even agreed to pay Stuart's pools so he could compete in the men's section.
He fished his first junior national for Warrington aged 14 in an era when Leicester, led by Roy Jeffery and ably assisted by John Essex were the dominant team. Roy spotted Stuart's talent for he made his debut in the inaugural event in Belgium in 1985 in a side that included Ian Fozzie Moulton. Stuart finished tenth individually. Four years later, England stormed to junior world championship glory on the River Inny in Ireland with Stuart picking up an individual bronze medal.
The experience of the world junior championships in Belgium where the team had been outclassed by continental knowledge of bloodworm & joker fishing inspired Stuart to get to work on improving his skills. After initially representing Warrington AA and then Lymm AC Stuart joined the Highfield Angling Supplies team lead by future England coach Mark Addy and international Vinnie Smith.
They were one of the great team of that era, competing successfully with the likes of Essex County, Barnsley, Dorking, Starlets, Mohmar and Shakespeare to name but some top teams of that era. Famous victories include the 1994 Division One National on the Cam & Ouse in 1994 with 810 points plus the Drennan Super-league final.
Anglers Mail Matchman of the Year
Steve Conroy ended Dave Vincent's three year winning streak in this competition back in the 1997/98 season. Two seasons later Stuart followed in Steve's footsteps, clinching the title with 52 points, ahead of Damian Bracken on 50 and Mark Pollard on 45. Stu, who also won the Kamasan British Open in 1998, was four points adrift going into that last weekend. Amazingly, he bagged six points that weekend, scoring at Cudmore on the Saturday and on the Trent and Mersey Canal on the Sunday to overtake Damien who had topped the leader-board for the previous five months. The Conroy's are the only pair of brothers to have won this event.
Mr Clegg's on the phone
The England manager from 1985 to 2000 was Dick Clegg MBE. The all-important call that Stu had dreamed of as a boy finally came in 1998 with his selection for the England team in the Home internationals held at Holme Pierrepoint. Dancing with joy, the first person who heard the news was Stuart's Mum. Having watched the team triumph in the 1994 world event organised by David Kent on home soil, he was now ‘fishing alongside his heroes'. Two section wins on his debut was mission accomplished. In 1999, Stuart was selected for the European championships held on Lough Mucknow. The team finished in eighth spot.
They made up for that the following year with a victory on home soil on the Trent at Nottingham. Steve collected the first of three European team gold medals with three silver medals and a bronze for good measure in his nine European championship appearances (2000 to 2008).
An inSeine world championship debut
Tommy Pickering and Kim Milsom made their final England appearances in 2000. Sean Ashby and Stuart were brought into the squad by the new management team of Mark Addy and Mark Downes for the 2001 event. The match took place in the centre of Paris. In practice, the team worked out a chopped worm method to snare the occasional bonus eel. The is a brilliant account of the match in Steve Gardener's book ‘A life in Match Fishing.
Stuart drew E section on day one landing just five bleak and a solitary roach for tenth in the section. On day two, perched high above the water with correct bait presentation nigh on impossible, he put all his northern canal fishing experience to work, landing exactly 50 bleak for 1kg 40 grams and that all important section win. England had triumphed on French soil and a team gold medal was in the bag.
World championship record
The following year Stuart book the bronze medal on the River Mondego in Portugal. It was the closest he came to individual glory in his 12 year world championship career. Stuart ended up winning five team gold medals and one silver before retiring from international duty:
Advice to young anglers. Think species!
Stuart’s angling ability has enabled him to travel worldwide representing his country. The fact that he has done it while carrying on his day job in a profession unrelated to fishing is an awesome achievement. He had some profound advice of offer about how best catching the fish species. There’s precious little difference targeting bream in Bucharest or Bolton and roach feed in the same way in Rome or Rochdale, although the weather might be nicer in Rochdale.
His advice to any up and coming angler is to focus on fishing for species and not concern yourself with the nuances of an individual venue. Although he didn’t say it directly, Stuart gave me the impression he has most admiration for anglers who compete widely on a variety of venues, commercials, canals and rivers rather than sticking to their one local commercial stillwater.
Characters in fishing
I spared Stu the unenviable task of choosing his all-time best five England internationals. I think he would genuinely find it an impossible task. Without hesitation, Stuart named Harry Billing as the angler he would choose to catch a fish to save his life. After a little though he named Kieran Rich as arguably the best angler yet to pull on an England shirt. It’s clear Stuart loves the social side of competitive angling, the banter, the character’s involved, the occasional pint of beer. We ended our all too brief conversation with Stuart listing (in no particular order) his most memorable angling characters as Ivan Marks, Frank Barlow, Bobby Smithers and Peter Plant (Snr).
Stu qualified as an angling coach a mentoring the England ladies team in the late 1990s. Stu is just the sort of role model coach the Trust would love to attract into our Let’s Fish coaching team to help make sure England will still be bringing home the gold medals in 30 or 40 years’ time.
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