What lies beneath

In blood-sport country, Penny McDonald casts a line into the calm waters of the River Lyd.

It's called a Greenwell's Glory, a tiny creation of gold tufty threads resembling an insect with a hook underneath. For several hours, my attention is focused on landing this speck on a patch of water about five metres away in the hope of catching a wild brown trout. The world has shrunk to this green tunnel of overhanging trees above a river in Devon.

The trick in casting from this light, whippy rod is to keep it low to avoid snagging in the trees overhead and to aim for the far bank, in a flick of the wrist.

My fishing instructor, Tim Smith, has driven us to this "beat", or stretch of river, on the River Lyd, a "spate" or rain-fed stream flowing from the uplands of Dartmoor. We put on thigh-high waders, climb down a ladder fixed to the bank and step into its shallows.

Speaking softly, Smith demonstrates the techniques of fly-fishing. Rods prepped and flies fixed, he starts casting. "You have to come with a relaxed attitude," he says, and immediately catches a trout. He gently unhooks the fly from the trout's mouth and returns it.

He sometimes talks to the fish, he says, and seems to sense where they are. Perhaps he sees them underwater. "Fish can sense people,'' he says, almost whispering. ''They have good eyesight and are very sensitive to noise. You've got to keep the noise down."

The river gurgles and flows around our feet. There are patches of river where you can sense trout might lurk and bubbles surface from time to time. On the opposite side of the river, deeper water churns around sunken tree roots. I cast on.

"Women generally catch more fish than men," Smith says reassuringly. "They are more patient. Some people say it's pheromones. I say it's because they concentrate. They are calm and they listen more."

At that moment, my line tugs and I reel in. I've caught a baby Atlantic salmon, a one-year-old "parr", on my Greenwell's Glory. It's so small it's almost translucent and it goes straight back in the water to grow up, head for the ocean and return to spawn.

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There is fishing, and then there's fishing. I'd spent summers angling off an uncle's boat with a container of maggots and, more recently, I've put prawns on a hook and pulled flathead out of the estuaries of NSW. Fly-fishing has always seemed a mysterious, higher level of fishing.

Now, at this ''fly-fishing taster'', I have the chance to spend an afternoon learning the basics of casting without the embarrassment of an audience. I learn it is, indeed, a more serious kind of fishing, requiring specific skills. And I quickly learn it's addictive.

The instruction is run by the Arundell Arms, an old West Country coaching inn that has become England's best-known fishing pub. Its fly-fishing school celebrated its 75th anniversary this year. Ted Hughes, the Yorkshire-born poet, learned the techniques of fly-fishing here (after Sylvia Plath's death) and became part of the furniture. It's now common for three generations of the same family to book sessions - grandfathers, fathers and sons - as well as wives and girlfriends.

Smith, a strapping, ruddy-faced farmer's son, is one of two "ghillies", or instructors, on staff. After I check into the inn, he takes me off to the tackle room to kit up with a canvas waistcoat, pockets stuffed with small boxes of things we'll need on the river, waders, a rod and a set of flies.

The Arundell Arms has 32 kilometres of private river fishing for trout and salmon on the River Tamar and its tributaries, including the Tamar, Wolf, Thrushel, Ottery and Carey. It also has a lake stocked with fish. The inn is close to the river and to Lifton Park, once the Arundell family estate. While once guests went to the ''beat'' by pony and trap, we drive the short distance by car.

We spend three hours on the river, moving downstream several times. Smith points out a tiny wren. He stoops to pick wild garlic from the riverbank; he sometimes gathers it for the Arundell's chef and we will be eating some later.

I feel more tugs on the line. I switch to a Black and Silver fly and this lures a perfect brown trout. It's another youngster, though, and I return it to the river. But I'm hooked.

I wonder if poachers are ever tempted to help themselves in the Arundell's waters. Smith laughs. "They used to come down to the river, shine a torch, find a salmon and stab it with a pitchfork," he says.

He won't eat salmon. "It's not sustainable," he says, though wistfully adds: "I hope to be able to eat it again some day." Night fishing is his "idea of heaven - just to come down with a flask of coffee and sit for hours''. Stressed city executives sometimes stay out all night by themselves, apparently.

As dusk falls, we head back to the inn. My room is spacious and tastefully furnished with old prints of exotica and oriental wallpaper and matching bedhead, curtains and pelmet. Earlier, I had found a five-day weather forecast, a lunch menu and a form for a fishing licence on the bed. The view at the back is of cottages and distant farmland.

In reception, there's a giant trout named Horace, stuffed and mounted in a glass display case and labelled "caught by Commander Clutton, 24th July 1942, River Lyd, 3lbs 4ozs". Antique rods are mounted on the walls of the lounge near stuffed fox heads and an otter, baring its teeth. There are cases of reels and boxes of fishing flies. Photos of jubilant guests holding fish aloft are pinned to a noticeboard and there's a sepia photo of a pre-war gamekeeper and a map of the ''beats''.

An old black Labrador pads around on the flagstone floor welcoming guests. A party arrives with spaniels in tow. I wish I'd brought my dog.

The tackle room in the garden is an odd circular shape. It used to be a cockpit, where locals would gamble on the prowess of their fighting roosters. Though cockfighting has long been banned, this part of west Devon - on the fringe of Dartmoor, with its history of escaped convicts, treacherous bogs and bloodthirsty hounds - is still a place where blood sports thrive. While spring and summer are the peak seasons for trout and salmon fishing, shooting parties and their dogs arrive in autumn and winter. Range Rovers in the village display stickers such as ''Keep Shooting!''

The roads are so narrow and the game birds so plentiful you can practically bag a pheasant just driving into the village. And the peaty landscape of green and granite is perfect for horse riding.

The owner/manager of Arundell Arms, Anne Voss-Bark, bought the inn in 1961 with her first husband, Gerald Fox-Edwards, and has turned it into one of the country's leading fishing and hunting bases. Their son, Adam, a former Tornado fighter pilot and RAF flying instructor, and his wife, Tina, run the inn, and their teenage sons help during school holidays. Anne, in her 80s, is still involved. Her book, West Country Fly Fishing, a collection of essays, is considered a classic.

The inn's elegant dining room is packed when I arrive after a fireside drink in the bar. The head chef, Steven Pidgeon, one of 80 ''master chefs of Great Britain'', serves an amuse-bouche of essence of wild garlic jelly on a silver spoon - a taste of fine things to come - and I order Cornish pollock, a type of cod, on a bed of wilted spinach.

Pidgeon sources all his produce from local suppliers. And, yes, if you wish, you can eat what you've caught.

Penny McDonald travelled courtesy of VisitBritain.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Take the Exeter train from London Paddington. The Arundell Arms will arrange a taxi from the station to the hotel. Alternatively, it's a 3½-hour drive from London via the M4, M5, then the A30 from Exeter. The Arundell Arms is at Lifton, which is near the Devon-Cornwall border.

Staying there

The Arundell Arms has double rooms from £175 ($303) with breakfast. There are two-night packages with breakfast and dinner from £130 a night (single); £240 (standard double).

See www.arundellarms.co.uk.

Fishing and hunting

The Arundell caters for experienced anglers and novices. From April to September it runs a range of fly-fishing courses including taster days, casting workshops, tying flies and night-fishing trips for sea trout.

Riding with the local hunt and hounds can be arranged from mid-November to April. There's a riding school at St Leonards Equitation Centre and you can trek on Dartmoor from Cholwell Stables near Tavistock. The shooting season for game birds starts in autumn.

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