Hester Lacey casts off her prejudices and finds there's more to fishing than sitting slumped under an umbrella

One can quite see why fisher-persons are notoriously prone to exaggerating their sporting feats. For, although fish are not the brightest creatures on the planet, they are jolly hard to catch.

Not that I would ever exaggerate. However, I'm proud to say that I caught an absolutely monstrous trout when I went to learn to fish at the Arundell Arms in Devon. The other trout probably knew him as Moby Dick. A couple of others (well, a whole lakeful, let's be honest) did get away. But Moby was delicious grilled with lemon.

I would like to be able to say that I wrestled this beast into submission completely unaided. But I needed a hefty dose of beginner's luck and the tireless tuition of Roy Buckingham, who showed me which end of the rod was which.

Roy is a former Welsh Open Fly Casting Champion, and he reckons he has taught around 16,000 people to fish since he joined the Arundell Arms in 1969.

Fishing is not simply a question of tying on your fly, chucking it into the water and hoping for the best. It is far more to do with outwitting the trout. So before Mr Lacey and I were let loose on the Arundell Arms's private three-acre trout lair, Tinhay Lake, we were given a brisk lecture on fishy habits. There is a lot to learn.

To stand any chance of catching a fish, you need to fool it into thinking that your carefully disguised hook is the genuine article. It needs to hit the water just as though it were a plump, juicy damselfly larva. I had thought that fake flies were a random bundle of feathers. How wrong I was. They are constructed to exactly mimic the trout's natural food.

Fly-tying is a whole further story in itself, but we did learn how to knot them correctly to the leader (the transparent nylon thread at the tip of the line which the fish aren't supposed to be able to see). As someone who has had no truck with knots since I was a Brownie, I was amazed to master the half-blood and three-turn water knots without too much ado.

The really exciting bit, however, is getting out into the fresh air and learning the rudiments of casting. When Roy flicks his rod over the water, the line pays out with silky smoothness and drops straight without the slightest splash.

I made some interesting cat's-cradles, and used some regrettable language. Roy had his work cut out. At least I kept him on his toes by making lots of different mistakes. "You're going too far forward. Now you're going too far back. Now your rod isn't high enough when you flick it. Now you're turning your wrist ..."

To prove his points, our efforts were captured on video: I was indeed too far forward/back, turning my wrist, etc. So when I finally managed an acceptable cast, I nearly fell in with surprise and delight, and over-excitement meant that my next half-dozen attempts were rubbish.

Even if all does not go perfectly all the time, there is something about fishing that is wonderfully soothing. This must in part be down to the loveliness of the setting. The kestrel that rears a family every year in the cliffs around Tinhay Lake swooped in as we practised, and the moorhens squabbled under the bushes.

The river "beats" are even more fascinating. The Arundell Arms has 20 miles of its own water on the River Tamar and five of its tributaries. There are pools and fast shallows, home not only to trout and salmon but also to otters and kingfishers.

As a novice, I suspect there is plenty of satisfaction in fishing, even if you never catch a thing. But feeling the sudden pull of a rainbow trout on the lake made me shriek with glee. Happily, Roy was there to guide me through landing him, as left to my own devices I'd probably have dropped the rod in the lake.

Fly fishing is far more energetic than I had imagined. You can forget about idling under an umbrella and reading a book. You're on your feet for hours and somehow you find that you need around three times your usual calorific intake.

The food, however, is one of the many pleasures of staying at the Arundell Arms. It is extraordinarily good, immaculately presented and locally sourced; the butcher, cheese supplier and fishmonger are all proudly name-checked in the front of the menu. A hearty egg-and-bacon or smoked haddock breakfast, followed by a fillet steak toasted sandwich for lunch, with a feast of Devon beef or Cornish red mullet and chocolate tart after sundown, made most adequate fishing fuel.

Although the restaurant is elegantly appointed, the general atmosphere here is cosy and laid-back. Whether or not you wish to fish, the big sofas and log fires in the lounge, the friendly staff and the gentle hubbub of the bar are irresistible. And dogs are welcome too. Muttley, the elderly Lacey hound, roister-doistered energetically with Roy's black retriever Ben, and slipped into the lake several times.

Ben is a fit young blade in the prime of his life and Muttley came home exhausted. We, on the other hand, were utterly relaxed. There was also the bonus of Moby Dick for supper. He wasn't actually that huge, I confess. It's possible to catch trout weighing up to eight or nine pounds on Tinhay Lake. Moby was a respectable enough two-pounder. Oh, all right, one-and-a-half pounder.

Sadly, we couldn't bring back Mr Lacey's catch, which was genuinely enormous. With great aplomb and consummate skill, he managed to hook several unsuspecting trees.

The Arundell Arms, Lifton, Devon PL16 0AA, 01566 784666, www.arundell arms.com. A four-day beginners' river/lake trout fly fishing course costs £365 for adults, £225 for under-17s; a weekend course costs £195/£130. Beginners', intermediate and advanced courses run on various dates from April to September. Phone for a brochure or more details and hotel tariff.