Fishing lines: 'You've got to be kidding!' said the trout

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The Independent Online

In the 2003 National Stupid Ideas Championships, I'm very hopeful that dressing up as a Victorian angling toff on a steamingly hot day will at least get me into the quarter-finals. Smart move, huh? But there was a logic behind it: I was entering into the spirit of the Salmon and Trout Association's centenary.

The highlight of the jollities came on Wednesday, when a bunch of us boarded a steam train from London to Winchester. The idea was to recreate the classic journeys that famous anglers such as George Edward Mackenzie Skues and Frederic Halford made to fish legendary Hampshire rivers such as the Test and Itchen.

People were asked to dress appropriately, even if it meant strange glances from commuters. It was hot enough, dressed as I was - for those old steam trains offered no air conditioning. But it was even worse on the riverbank. A cravat, dashing suit and straw boater may have been just the thing to get my picture snapped with the Mayor of Winchester, but they weren't quite the right garb for catching trout.

Ah yes, the fishing. Given a choice between shopping, going on a conducted tour of Winchester's sights or fishing on legendary waters that my daughter's children might get a rod on (if I put their names on a list now), you can guess which I chose.

I was allocated the Abbotts Barton beat of the river Itchen. They say the water here is clear as gin and twice as expensive. If you were lucky enough to become a member, you would pay £675 annually to fish it one day a week. By Itchen standards, that's cheap; though since membership is merely a concept rather than reality, it doesn't matter anyway.

For anoraks, Abbotts Barton is where in 1888, Skues formulated his first thoughts about trout feeding on nymphs. I even sat on the stone seat that was placed on the river where the great man's ashes were scattered when he died in 1949. All right,curb your excitement...

The fishing was useless. My fault entirely. The trout here are about as easy to catch as Saddam Hussein. They can spot an interloper at 100 yards, especially one disguised in a white wing-collar shirt and straw boater. You have to stalk them, pretending to be a blade of grass, because what makes this sort of fishing so frustrating is that you can see every fish, and they can see you. I could almost hear them saying: "You've got to be kidding!"

So I gave up, and admired the scenery with club chairman Roy Darlington, who took over the fishery in 1973. He told me the water's history, identified all the marsh plants I didn't know (most of them) and even pointed out the exact spot where Skues had his idea.

It seemed an idyllic life. But the past two years have been a nightmare for Darlington, watching 30 years' work wasted, because of... well, I'll tell you the whole sorry story next week.

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