Wading in at the deep end

Nobody ever said flyfishing was easy, but Steve Connor cast caution to the wind and took his teenage daughter on a crash course in Devon
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"IMAGINE I'm in the middle of a large clock," says Roy Buckingham, one-time Welsh Open Flyfishing Champion and professional instructor. "This is six o'clock right here," he says, pointing directly down to his very sensible shoes. "That's 12 o'clock right there," as he swivels his arm 180 degrees to the sky above his stout deerstalker. Nine o'clock is straight ahead, and three clock right behind you. This is the only clock you need to watch during a weekend in Devon spent learning to flyfish.

The artistry of Roy Buckingham's flyfishing technique can be matched only by his appaling bad jokes, which he is keen to tell at any momentary lapse in his students' concentration. His imaginary clock, however, is no joke. When he accelerates his rod steadily to the 11.30 position, the flick from his straight forearm that lifts the fly out of the water is barely perceptible. His rod continues in textbook fashion to 12.30, and lingers for a crucial couple of seconds to allow his line to snake away behind him. Once the gentle tug of the backward-flying nylon is felt, Roy flicks forward to shoot the fly over the water - where it lands as nature intended, splashless, with the help of a judicious lowering of his rod to 10 o'clock. So easy, or so you think.

Flyfishing is far from simple, but the Arundell Arms in Lifton, Devon, where Roy is one of the instructors, has an established reputation as one of the best places in Britain to learn the secrets of the sport. Fishing is all about deception, fooling the cold-blooded intellect of the fish to make it rise to the bait. Flyfishing takes the art of deception a stage further. A good flyfisher creates an irresistible aura about the fly, making it dance and weave on the water like a six-legged Salome. It's not something most people can do without some sort of initial help and advice.

A weekend course for beginners was never going to be long enough, but what was amazing was just how much you could pick up from the experts at the Arundell, a 300-year-old coaching inn on the old A30 to Cornwall, now almost deserted thanks to a ringroad that runs around the back of the village. The owner, Anne Voss-Bark, is herself a flyfisher of some repute and keenly extols the benefits of the sport to other women.

About a quarter of the people who come to learn flyfishing at the Arundell Arms are women. There were four on our weekend course, including my 14- year-old daughter Marsha, who kindly acted as guinea pig to see how a girl might react to what many people think is a laddish activity. If her enthusiasm is anything to go by, flyfishing is set to lose its male domination - hardly surprising, since those who do best at it put lightness of touch ahead of brute force.

Roy, a man who would probably not lay claim to being a bastion of feminist thinking, admitted to me sotto voce that women really do make better flyfishers. "Men want to catch a fish, whereas women want to get it right," he said wistfully.

Getting the technique right is everything. David Pilkington, the other instructor and "gillie" at the Arundell Arms, says the earlier a beginner starts to pick up bad habits, the more difficult it is to get rid of them later on. When handling a rod and line for the first time, most people put too much effort into casting. The skill is to lift and place the fly with ease, without getting tangled or tired. If the rules of the clock are learnt from the very first moments, the gentle, flowing movement of playing the fly can be a relaxing antidote to the stress and tension of life.

Anne Voss-Bark gives the first lesson of the weekend, on safety and rivercraft. Wading up to your thighs in a fast-flowing stream while flicking a wet line back and forth does have its dangers, and casting near overhead powerlines or when there is lightning around could be fatal. Anne also tells her beginners - no more than a dozen for each weekend course - about the life cycles of the fish and the type of trout streams that exist in Britain in general, and Devon in particular.

Salmon do not normally feed when running upstream to spawn, and nobody really knows why they take the fly. "Perhaps it's because they are naturally aggressive and snap at anything," says Anne. "We just don't know." This is why salmon fishing is less predictable than fishing for trout, which do feed voraciously when the weather and the river conditions are good. Salmon fishing has that extra dimension - inexplicable luck.

Later that morning we all went out to a picturesque lake, an old limestone quarry owned by the Arundell Arms, to practise casting without flies, which tend to get stuck in things when you're totally inexperienced. A good cast is one where all the energy in the line gets dissipated just before it lands on the water. This means it comes to rest gently, with all parts of the line landing on the water at the same time as the fly. Roy Buckingham vouches for how hard it is. "I've taught 15,000 people to fish," he says, "and only one was a born natural."

After lunch we were shown videos of members of the group casting, just in case anyone was under the illusion they were doing it right. David Pilkington then gave a lesson in how to tie fishing knots, like the half- blood knot for tying on the fly and the three-turn water knot for joining two lengths of nylon line together. Later that afternoon we were back on the lake with real flies, and with a real chance of catching a fish, possibly a 9lb brown trout. By dusk we were still there, and still hopeful - though some were feeling the effects of bad technique with the onset of stiff shoulders and tired arms. The 9lb-ers were safe.

The next day began with a lesson by Anne on entomology, particularly the life cycle of the flies we were hopelessly trying to imitate the day before. One of the joys of flyfishing for the first time is learning about the almost Merlin-like mythology that is centred on the antics and appearance of the fly. For every stage in the life cycle of the fly, from underwater nymph and immature dun fly to fully-mature spinner with translucent wings, there is a more or less con- vincing artificial lookalike.

What curious names they have, from the dog nobbler, coachman and grey duster to the March brown, sherry spinner and exotic-sounding gold-ribbed hare's ear. Anne assured us that, though there is great mystique surrounding flies, the only really good rule is to try and match the size of the fly to the size of insect you see on the surface of the stream.

Later that morning was spent on one of the "spates", rivers that run off the high granite moorland above the Arundell Arms - rising and falling considerably, depending on rainfall, flooding one moment and becoming a mere dribble the next. The hotel owns the fishing rights to 20 miles of riverbank, on the beautiful Tamar and its tributaries, so there is ample opportunity to explore the lush countryside as you fish. If there is one overriding memory of that short weekend introduction to flyfishing, it is the sound of a babbling brook and the swish of the rod, combined with the perfume of bluebells and wild garlic wafting down the riverbank.

As if this wasn't perfect enough, the Arundell Arms has one of the best menus in the West Country - a great compensation for budding flyfishers who return empty-handed.

! The Arundell Arms, Lifton, Devon (01566 784666). The beginners' weekend costs pounds 130 (pounds 90 children under 17), including all tackle. Single room, breakfast and dinner pounds 71.50 per night.