At Her Majesty's displeasure

fishing lines
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The death penalty, I'm told, can still be enacted for high treason or arson in Her Majesty's shipyards. I'm not quite sure what the penalty for poaching in HM fishponds is. Under some charter from 1216, miscreants can probably still be hanged by their scrunions, drawn, quartered and fed to the pond's inhabitants.

This week I had intended to write about how, as a youngster, I had - sorry, how I knew someone who had - fished the Queen's waters at Windsor without the royal stamp of approval, but I have been unable to check on the statute of limitations for such misdeeds. You can fish some royal waters legally. A pounds 30 season ticket from the Crown Estate office in Windsor Great Park will give you access to places such as Virginia Water and the Obelisk Pond. And until recently, it has been possible to angle on the Queen's stretch of the River Dee at Balmoral.

As part of a postal auction run by the Atlantic Salmon Trust, Her Majesty had always donated a week's salmon fishing for two on the Birkhall beat at Ballater. Generally a bid of at least pounds 600 was required but the very idea of being able to fish on a water generally reserved for royal anglers made this the most sought-after lot from the 200-odd in the annual auction.

The auction has been running for 12 years, and last year it raised about pounds 35,000 for the trust's work in preserving the Atlantic salmon. I faithfully send in a bid every year, hoping to splash my way through that exclusive Dee water, and each year I am outbid. But I lived in hope - until this year.

Imagine my surprise when the 1997 catalogue arrived and I discovered that the familiar No1 lot was not the Queen's water, but a week's salmon and trout fishing on the Hon Charles Pearson's stretch of the Dee at Banchory (estimated bid pounds 965). Prime water, it's true, but for a connoisseur of royal fishing, it just isn't the same.

The official story is that Dee salmon runs have declined so much that most owners practise catch and release if they allow salmon fishing at all. In keeping with the conservation spirit, the royal water was withdrawn to preserve stocks.

This struck me as a rather facile explanation. Then the true reason hit me. Under the auction rules, anyone can put in a bid. Anyone. Just imagine the Queen's horror if she discovered that someone called D Spencer had secured that week.

Oh, I know that she didn't think much of fishing when Charles gave her casting lessons. But that wouldn't matter. What better way to annoy an ex- husband than to secure a week on his favourite river - and using his settlement money to do so? You can just imagine the scenario, especially if she dragged along someone like Henry Kissinger or some Argentinian diplomat and encouraged them to dangle a worm. A water like that has very strict rules about fly-fishing only. But how could the bailiff chuck off a woman who almost became Queen?

You can start to see the royal thinking now. But Diana would not be the worst thing that could happen. What if Fergie put in the successful bid? I would dearly love to fish the stretch but I can understand Her Majesty's misgivings. What would happen to the status of salmon angling if just anyone was let loose on such historic fishing?

Details of the postal auction, featuring more than 220 lots ranging from about pounds 30 to pounds 2,000, are available from the Atlantic Salmon Trust at Moulin, Pitlochry, Perthshire PH16 5JQ (Tel: 01796 473439).