The measure of a good fishing hotel is what they don't say to you at the end of the day. If you slosh, empty-handed, into the lobby and one of the staff raises the dread question "Catch anything?" you might as well check out and head for home. You are obviously in the care of amateurs.
It seems like a small point but it is not. One fishes to relax, but one cannot relax if one is constantly forced onto tricky moral ground. In response to such a question, the angler has two choices: face humiliation squarely and admit defeat, or lie. Either way, the question causes trouble.
Such were the thoughts that ran through my head after my first day of fishing in Lifton, England. Though it was almost May, the day had been unsettled. There was sporadic rain, and wind of Shakespearean fury, which made it impossible to throw a decent cast, much less place a fly over a trout. And the day was made all the worse by the mere children who, fishing beside me on the lake shore, somehow managed to haul in a trout or two.
So when I walked, fishless, into the Arundell Arms hotel, I was ready for the withering question, the one I had heard so often from so many well-intentioned people. This time, I had already decided, I would lie. But I never got the chance.
Anne Voss-Bark, the fly-fishing expert who owns the hotel, asked me about the weather.
"Purgatory out there in the wind, wasn't it?" she said, then went on to say how the bad weather had made for lousy fishing last week.
Her barmaid chatted about America and showed me a menu. And the hotel's riverkeeper, or gillie, Roy Buckingham, focused on the future. He advised me on flies for the next day's fishing and offered useful advice on how to present them.
Not a soul had asked the awful question. I went off to bed knowing that I was in the hands of sensitive and competent people.
Like the people who run other "sporting" hotels in Britain, the staff and management of the Arundell Arms depend on a special class of customer: guests who go to the country for a weekend of shooting, hiking, fox hunting or fishing -- the last being the most popular participatory sport in England.
Sporting hotels are a unique British institution, a well-kept secret few Americans know about. There are hundreds of them throughout Britain, most in rural areas. Many are quite small, with facilities for no more than 10 or 15 guests. While some will help you arrange hiking, bird shooting or other outdoor activities, most specialize in fishing.
At the Arundell Arms in the Devon village of Lifton, there's the bonus of Voss-Bark and her husband, Conrad, devoted and knowledgeable anglers themselves.
From Lifton, visitors can stroll or bike along twisting country lanes hemmed in by lush pastureland, or drive a few miles to the moody heaths of Dartmoor, a place of storm-blasted heather and granite outcroppings -- the bleak setting Arthur Conan Doyle chose for "The Hound of the Baskervilles." Or you can cross over the River Tamar to Cornwall -- barely a mile from Lifton, but to many a Cornishman a world apart. (Isolated, from the rest of England by distance and traditions, Cornwall retains the vestiges of a Celtic past. Like Ireland, Cornwall was once a Catholic stronghold, and many of its towns -- St. Just, St. Ives, St. Agnes -- bear the names of the old martyrs. Older Cornish speak their own language, a Celtic tongue. And now a new generation of Cornish, in a burst of Celtic pride, are trying to learn the old language and have it taught in local schools.)
The Tamar, which forms a 30-mile border between Cornwall and Devon, flows gently today, a pastoral stream dividing green hills and meadows. Nothing more fearsome than cows and trout fishermen loll on the banks. But the Tamar ("Big Water" in Celtic) once ran with the blood of Saxon and Celt, who fought for control of the river's fords in the sixth and seventh century. In the 17th century, for the same strategic reasons, Roundheads and Royalists killed each other in battles along the river.
All this history is worth exploring . . . but my business was with salmo fario, the brown trout of England's West Country. I had one week to fish five rivers and Tinhay Lake, an abandoned limestone quarry the hotel stocks with browns and rainbows.
The lake and the sections of these rivers that can be fished -- all of which are on private property -- are either owned or leased by the hotel, which limits access. No more than four anglers can use the three-acre lake at once, and fishermen must sign up for a designated "beat" on the hotel's rivers each day. This means that you have a mile or so of beautiful water all to yourself, with no danger of rounding the bend to find, as so often happens on American streams, that another angler has quite innocently spoiled your fishing by getting there first.
"Ours has been called an elitist system," says Conrad Voss-Bark, "and I suppose it is, but it is the result of our history, which often weighs so heavily on the English." According to Voss-Bark, private fishing in England goes back to the time of William the Conquerer.
When William came in 1066, "he claimed all the rivers and all the forests and all the game within them as royal holdings," Voss-Bark says. "Gradually those holdings were given over to court favorites and lords of the manor, who, in turn, gave over the streams and rivers to private landowners. The vestiges of that system remain today with our private fishing."
It may be elitist, but it makes for great solitude astream. One morning, just as the sun was clearing the hills, I parked my car and crossed a meadow on foot, following a hedgerow down to the River Lyd. Here began the Home Beat, the section of the river closest to the hotel. No other human in sight, just the river stretching before me, and a magpie flapping off across the meadow. I descended the steep bank and waded in, the Lyd running cold and swift, rushing to join the Tamar below Lifton.
I worked upstream for an hour or two, fishing a wet fly in deep pools and across stream, where tall oaks shaded the river. The day was still cool, and few trout were feeding.
By noon the sun was warming the water. The fish started rising, going for the tiny mayflies that hatched, sporadically, from the stream and took to the air.
From my leader -- the thin nylon strand connecting fly to fishing line -- I snipped off the wet fly I had used all morning. The wet fly, which imitates a drowned or emerging insect, may produce fish when there is no apparent surface feeding. But there is no sense in using it when trout start rising, so I tied on a dry fly called the Grey Duster, an English favorite that featured a gray fur body wrapped around the hook near the eye to suggest a fluttering insect wing -- a grizzled hackle.
On my first cast, the Duster bobbed along a swift run where the river flows over cobblestones. The fly disappeared in a splash, and I hooked a wild brown trout. He drilled for the deep water behind a boulder, felt the tug of the leader and ran upstream against the current, making for the oak roots on the far bank. I lifted my graphite fly rod to increase the pressure and quickly brought him to the net. He was beaded with water, which he shook off, glistening, as I lifted him in the sun: His back was a dark greenish-brown, his belly golden, his sides stippled with spots of black and deepest red. Another splash of crimson colored the tiny adipose fin near his tail, a splendid finishing touch that is lacking on the pallid stocked trout you frequently encounter on heavily fished rivers.
I gently removed the hook and released him. He darted under a rock and held there, resting out of the current. He would be fine. If he was very lucky, this half-pound trout might reach a maximum of three pounds in 15 years or so, but the odds were all against him. In addition to human threats, he would face a whole range of natural predators -- among them minks, otters, kingfishers and herons.
By late afternoon, I had covered almost a mile of water and picked up seven wild trout, all of which I returned to the Lyd. At the last pool, formed by jagged slate shelves that dropped in a "V," I let my fly ride on the languid current. Slowly, a form rose like a ghost through the gloomy water -- a trout. He drifted downstream, eyeing my fly as if to check for authenticity, and calmly rose to take it. I tightened the line and landed him in short order.
He was big enough -- 10 inches or so -- but fought weakly for his size, and he lacked the bright coloring of my other fish. He was a stocked trout, one of the many introduced to supplement the native population on the Lyd.
The hotel now stocks three of its five rivers, leaving only two -- the Tamar and the Carey -- for wild trout. Still, with fishing's growing popularity, the six West Country counties are one of the rare places one can go for wild trout in Britain. England's most famous and well-managed streams, the Test and the Itchen, both in Hampshire, are in part populated with stocked fish.
"We've found that many people who come here have caught nothing but stocked trout from reservoirs," says Roy Buckingham. "Their ambition is to come here and catch a genuine, half-pound wild brownie on the dry fly. They go out and catch one and they're thrilled to bits."
People like Buckingham are concerned that, unless stringent no-kill rules are imposed, England will eventually lose its stock of wild trout. To protect the West Country fishing, the Arundell Arms limits the daily take for each angler and encourages its guests to use barbless hooks.
"The trouble in this country," Buckingham says, "is that more and more fisheries are having to stock because they kill too many wild fish. The fish are gone so fast, you have to restock with tame fish. They haven't got a great deal of brain until they've been in the river for several months, and none of them get to stay in the river that long."
Stocked or wild, the West Country trout demand a cautious approach and a certain amount of respect from the visiting angler. Nobody who fishes here will do very well without following the advice of Izaak Walton, who urges anglers to fish quietly.
Back in my room, I thumbed through a pocket version of Walton's classic, "The Compleat Angler," in print for more than three centuries.
"Be patient," Walton advises on one page. "Be quiet," he suggests on another, "and go a-Angling." I wondered how Walton would view the traffic jams and crowded reservoir fishing in his native land today -- probably with the same calm generosity he watched the Roundheads and the Royalists struggle for control of England.
Before I left England, I wanted to see the river again, so I set out on my last day through the quiet streets of Lifton while it was still light. I nodded to an old man painting his fence and watched parishioners answering the bells of their church, where a visiting cleric in a crisp red robe was just emerging from his car. A middle-aged woman blazed by me on her bicycle, heading away from town.
Less than a mile from the village center, I came to the River Thrushel and leaned for a long time on the side of a stone bridge, watching the trout rise, again and again, in a long, slow pool. With each rise, a fish would make concentric rings, which rippled in the dusk, enlarged, and finally subsided at the banks.
The trout established a hypnotic rhythm that had the same calming effect on me as a good day's angling. I lost all sense of time, and had to find my way back to the hotel in the dark. Robert M. Poole, a fly fisherman for 20 years, is a senior editor in the book division of the National Geographic Society.