Fishing lines: Great hotel: where's the catch?

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Salmon fishing these days generally requires a stout rod and even stouter heart. The typical salmon rod is 15-16ft long (they make them up to 20ft) to enable you to sling a heavy line into a wide, fast river. If by chance you hook a salmon, you need something hefty to deal on reasonably equal terms with a fish that can swim up a 30ft waterfall.

On the other hand, the likelihood of tempting a salmon these days, unless you go to Iceland, Canada or Russia, is on a par with getting six numbers in the National Lottery. They are now so scarce on most English rivers that, if you do manage to catch one before July, it has to be returned to preserve stocks. You almost feel guilty about fishing for them.

Almost, but not quite. Though the first salmon on Cornwall's River Tamar is rarely caught before the second week of May, I spent my birthday dangling a fly for a silver visitor. Well, I didn't catch one. Didn't even see one. The stretch I was fishing was way upstream, and a fish pass on one of the downstream Tamar beats showed that only one fish had come through. That's what you call fishing in hope.

I also had the wrong tackle. The only stretch of the Tamar I had seen before was under the road bridge where the A38 links Devon and Cornwall. It must be a mile wide there (as it would be, being an estuary, if I'd thought about it a bit more).

But on the water I was fishing, the Tamar is scarcely a river; more a stream. With my mighty 16ft rod and No 10 line, I could actually flick a fly underarm to the far bank. It wasn't exactly the spot to practise my Spey casting.

Still, let's be grateful for small mercies. This was the best birthday present I've had since the cased perch I bought for myself 15 years ago. And it was a proper surprise. Out of the blue, my wife, Riva, told me that we were booked in for a long weekend at the Arundell Arms, in Lifton, Devon.

This was something pretty special. As well as extremely good food (five-course gourmet dinners every evening), there is a wealth of fishing for brown trout, grayling, maybe an early sea trout, and the dream of a salmon. There is even a disused quarry that the hotel has stocked with brown and rainbow trout, where even duffers will catch something. This is where the hotel runs its instruction courses, so you can always go there if you've been skunked on the rivers.

The hotel is run by Anne Voss-Bark, whom I've known for two decades. Her husband, Conrad, was angling correspondent of The Times and wrote several books, including a history of fly fishing. Old rods, reels, flies and books decorate walls and shelves, a small piece of heaven for the editor of an antique-tackle magazine.

The communication skills company I run was formerly owned by Philip Marsh, Conrad's best friend. But for some odd reason, I had never actually stayed at their hotel. It was time to put things right (and try and catch a few fish too).