TSF editor Paul Dennis joined the Shakespeare Ugly Stik Boat Tour for a Mersey mission.
I still get excited before every fishing trip, but the night before joining the Shakespeare Ugly Stik Boat Tour I really did have trouble sleeping. It was a combination of excitement, meeting old mates and navigating the dreaded M6 that did it!
Many years ago I headed up to Liverpool from the Midlands on a regular basis, and the M6 was always a nightmare. With a 9.15am SHARP sailing time I couldn’t afford to be stuck in traffic, so I was on the road well before 5am. The motorway was busy but manageable, and I arrived at Liverpool Marina very early – about two hours early to be precise but, no matter, I was there in good time. It gave me time to give some thought to ‘the Tour’.
For those of you not familiar with it, the concept is for Shakespeare to visit as many of its sponsored boats around the country as possible, and, using the same rods, catch as many species as possible on a wide range of techniques, to prove the versatility of the Ugly Stik GX2s.
This session was intended to target cod and thornback rays in the River Mersey, and it promised to be very interesting. Our skipper for the day was Anthony Parry and we would be fishing aboard his boat Jensen. Anthony’s son, Simon, skippers their other boat, Suveran, and both vessels would be working the river on the day, along with Kev McKie’s Brigand and Gary Flint’s Discovery – all with full parties of keen anglers. We were due to set off at 9.15am and, thanks to traffic delaying the others, it was a close call to exit the locks, but we made it – just!
Our party was made up of James Robbins and Dave McCartney from Pure Fishing, plus Mike Thrussell and his son Mike junior, ‘The Beast from Bolton’ ace cameraman Ian ‘Chappie’ Chapman and myself. I’ve known Mike senior for years, but this was the first time that I’d had the pleasure of fishing with him. Mike is genuinely one of angling’s good guys, his one shortcoming being a rabid enthusiasm for ‘The Owls’ – Sheffield Wednesday FC – which goes to show that genius has its flaws.
The beauty of fishing the Mersey is that fishing time can really be maximised as it’s a very short steam from the marina to the favoured marks. You do have to be quick tackling up on the wayout, though! We would be fishing at anchor in water of 30 to 50 feet deep, and with the Mersey tide being a bit on the fierce side, grip leads were needed. I tackled up with a simple running-leger Pennel rig on a good-length flowing trace. It was a bit too simple as things turned out, but more of that later. Obviously I used one of the Ugly Stik GX2 rods, which were kindly provided – a 12lb/20lb-class version, with my 40lb-braid-loaded Abu Ambassadeur 7500i CS Elite reel. I baited up with a generous lug-and-squid cocktail, turfed the lot out and waited. The boat was a hive of activity, with Chappie videoing proceedings, rigs being discussed and pored over, and Chappie doing a bit more video work. We had plenty of room to work with, which meant that his job was a lot easier. James and Dave were on one side of the boat, Mike and myself on the other with Mike junior on the stern. It kept tangles to a minimum, too. Dave was first into a fish, landing a plump codling, and James soon followed suit. In fact, that turned into the pattern for the day, as their side of the boat outfished the rest with ease. To be honest, both myself and Mike were struggling a bit, and after going several fish behind I decided on a tackle adjustment. I shortened the length of my trace to something approaching those used by James and Dave, and followed Mike’s lead by doing a bit of crafty ‘uptiding’. This was a real versatility test for the GX2. It isn’t long enough to be a classic uptiding rod, but it does have enough length to let you flick the lead uptide and away far enough to make it a viable method. Well, it did the trick for me and I picked up a couple of cod plus some whiting and dogs. It was nice, steady fishing, but a bit too steady for Anthony who fancied a move about 300 to 400 yards upfrom where we were anchored. With thepromise of more chance of rays it was a move that we were all delighted to make. Once at anchor and fishing again, it wasn’t long before Mike lifted into a good fish. We were expecting a decent thornie, but what surfaced from the murky Mersey depths was a strap conger – not what we were expecting but a welcome visitor. This was the cue for a bit more filming, with Mike talking about the variety of species inhabiting the Mersey. Mike is a real species hunter, and has a formidable list of fish to his name. By chance I’d been chatting to an angler earlier in the day while waiting for the rest of our party to arrive, and he had told me of a very unusual capture – a pogge – a species that Mike has yet to tick off his list.
As promised by Anthony, some thornbacks began to show. Again it was James and in particular Dave who were doing the damage, Dave excelling with a 9lb fish. I decided to see if I could be a bit more selective and target the rays, and instead of baiting with squid and lug I loaded both hooks with squid strips.I fancied that it might be more whiting resistant than adding lug to the recipe, and this proved the case as the telltale staccato rattles ceased. Eventually I saw the rod tip give a couple of good knocks before the lead dislodged and the line fell slack. I picked up the rod and wound into what felt like a solid snag, except that there was a bit of movement on the rod. I wondered if the lead had fouled on something and decided to really bend into it in an attempt to bend out the wires, but then the snag began to move.In the tide the fish gave a very good account of itself, trying to get back to the bottom with short but powerful runs. I was sure it was a decent thornback and was keen to see how big it was – not easy as visibility is poor here due to a wealth of suspended sediment. The nearer the fish got to the surface, the harder it fought, but at last I got it into range and it was expertly netted by Dave. Anthony hooked it onto the scales and it registered a creditable 10lb 1oz before being photographed and released. I’d hooked the fish as the sun was going down, and it wasn’t long before we were fishing in darkness. Due to the coloured water, the Mersey fishes well during the daylight hours, but, as with any venue, the dark brings fish onto the feed.
The tide had turned, was running at pace and the clock was ticking. I decided to see if any bigger fish were about and baited with a whole squid. To be honest I wasn’t really expecting a bite on such a big bait, and was surprised when I had a heavy pull-over and a big drop-back. I wound down into what was obviously a decent ray, and in the heavy tide it was like flying a kite in a hurricane. I can only imagine what playing a big blonde ray in a hard tide rip is like!
After a lot of hard work I managed to aquaplane the ray across the surface to the boat – but I had a problem. I’d rigged up without putting a bead above my zip-slide lead link, and what turned out to be a sliver of weed had jammed my leader knot into the link, fixing the lead about 12 feet above the hook, preventing me getting any of the leader on the reel and the fish within netting range. Just slipping a bead on above the slider would have stopped that – doh!
Matters weren’t helped by Dave landing a decent cod during my battle with the ray, and while he was being photographed from every angle with his catch I’d got an angry thornie on the surface in a full tide and no one coming to net it. James came to the rescue, and I had to retreat up the boat to allow him to grab the leader and hustle the ray into the net, but no sooner was the ray in the net than it was washed out again by the tide, with the hook shearing off on the net rim on the way. James was gutted, but these things happen. It looked a good fish, at least as big as the 10-
pounder, but looks can be deceptive. A brace of doubles would have been nice though! I decided to tackle down, as time was running out, and took the opportunity to reflect on the main purpose of the day – testing out the GX2
Well, I have to say that it impressed the hell out of me. I’ve got a couple of Abu Suverans, a 12lb and a 20lb, and they’re absolutely lovely rods to fish with, but, honestly, if I didn’t have those I’d be more than happy to fish with Ugly Stik GX2s. Interestingly, some of the GX2s are the same length through different line classes, rather than going shorter for every step up in weight class. I’ve often wondered if that shortening wasn’t due to using the same blank but just taking a few inches off the tip to beef the rod up. It’s a shocking thought but you can’t aim that at the GX2. The ‘sliding’ rod class of 12lb/20lb or 20lb/30lb isn’t a badge-of-convenience anything-will-do rating. It’s a true reflection of what the rod is capable of. I cast my mind back to overloading my 12lb Suveran with 1lb of lead on one trip. The 12lb/20lb GX2 would have coped with that, and been just as enjoyable to play fish on.
The bottom line?
I reckon the GX2 is one of the best seven-days-aweek boat rods out there. It’s built to last and be relatively maintenance free. The guides are hard metal, meaning that you can use braid without them quickly becoming grooved, and there are no fragile liners to pop out or crack. The reel seat is positive and the handle is comfortable, but it’s when you play fish that you really appreciate these rods. You get the fun without the frolics, because when you really wind them up you’re bang in control. The rod that I used retails at £49.99 which is a bargain given the performance level