The angler, trying not to move around in his boat and disturb the trout which were heading and tailing as far as he could see from Dunlop Bay to the Willows, dropped his cast of Suspender Buzzer and Hopper gently in front of a feeding fish. The Suspender was engulfed, the angler tightened and a couple of pounds of Loch Leven brownie, gleaming silver and spotted with black, exploded from the shallows and headed skywards in an attempt to dislodge the hook. An idyllic scenario? Perhaps, but one that has been played out many times on Scotland's premier trout fishery, though in recent years, the fish on the end of the angler's line could just as easily have been a rainbow. But it's in those early morning sessions that the full magical aura surrounding this enigmatic fishery really gets to the angler, and even a stranger to the loch begins to realise something of the force which pulls anglers back time and time again. It's a combination of several circumstances which provide the hold that the loch has over its many devotees - and I include myself among these, having fished the water on a regular basis for over 20 years. It's taken me to the dizzy heights of success one day only to drag me down to the depths of despair the next. But when it's on form, there's no fishery to compare with it in Scotland - even in Britain !

So what's the attraction about the "big puddle", these 3400 acres of relatively shallow water lying next to the town of Kinross ? Well, its sheer size is part of the formula, since you can drift over so many different areas, each offering their own rewards - Old Manse Bay, the Green Isle, Black Wood, Burleigh Sands, Hole of Inch, the Elbow and my own favourite Point of St Serf's, where both my heaviest brown at 5lb12oz and best rainbow at 7lb10oz were taken in literally a foot of water. The boats are another important cog in the Leven wheel; roomy stable 18 footers, some of which have been on the loch since the turn of the century and whose great tree trunks of oars were once the sole means of propulsion on the loch. Nowadays, these wooden clinker-built dinghies are equipped with reliable outboard motors which means you no longer need forearms like Popeye to go afloat on Leven. The history of the place plays its part too, especially if you're drifting off Loch Leven Castle where Mary Queen of Scots was once imprisoned - plenty of ghosts from the past on this water. But most of all, it's the trout. They're unique - and that goes for the relative newcomers, the rainbows, as well as those famous native brownies on which Leven built its reputation. These brown trout have often been described as more like sea trout in appearance, and with their silver flanks and black spots, that's not a flippant comparison. They run to a high average size, and every year, 3 and 4 pounders are caught with the odd fish topping 5lb. And they fight well in the shallow water. And the rainbows? Well, I always thought Rutland and Grafham 'bows were a bit special until anglers started to take some of the larger overwintered Leven fish which had grown on from 12oz to pound stock fish. You are talking about rainbows in the 6 to 8lb bracket which look more like grilse than anything else - solid streamlined torpedoes of silver with huge rudders and perfect finnage which make you think that you are connected to a runaway express train when you hook them.

So, how do you find these fish? The best way is to go into the old but atmospheric Pier Bar and try to bribe one of the Leven regulars with strong drink. The loch has produced some of Scotland's best anglers; household names like Francie Jarrett, Eric Campbell, David Malcolm, Jock and Craig Cowan, Davie Chalmers, Dave Downie and many more. Failing this, here's some advice you should find useful. The secret of success on Leven is to fish along the banks where the depths change from 6' to around 25'. Whatever the direction of wind, choose a drift which will take the boat along one of these banks. During the day, there's very little surface activity, and either use a fast sinking line, experimenting with variable speeds, or an intermediate fished 3 to 6' below the surface. A variety of patterns can work, from larger lures such as Dave Downie's Humungus through the popular Mini Cat and Mini Viva variants, to the old favourite Leven traditionals, such as Kingfisher Butcher, Dunkeld and Invicta. The best chance of hitting a Leven specimen is to go out in the early morning or evening sessions. That's when your floating line can be essential, along with Suspender Buzzers and dry flies such as the Hopper family or wet patterns like the Yellow Owl. The loch's first double figure rainbow, a magnificent 10lb 3oz, came to a Claret Hopper fished in very shallow water behind Castle Island during a dawn run in 1997. Another piece of advice is that you must make up your mind whether you're heading north or south after leaving the harbour. Generally speaking, I'd go north in the first part of the season, heading up past the Graveyard Bank to the north shore, concentrating on the area from the ledges off the North Queich mouth to the drop-off along the Black Wood. The second half of the year normally finds me around the St Serf's marks in the south - the Point, Dunlop Bay, the Willows, the Narrow Neck, Hole of Inch. But there is no hard and fast rule here. Local knowledge is almost essential for success, and will save you a great deal of sailing time.

Okay, Leven has not been without its problems in recent years. The decision to stock rainbows in the first place - not taken lightly - was to try to boost the sport on this once strictly brown trout water. Then, the algal bloom received adverse publicity, though many other fisheries in the UK suffered similarly but didn't seem to be criticised as heavily. There are also far too many cormorants around for my liking - well, even a single bird is one too many, in my opinion. In fact, the rainbows have been a great success, and scientific studies show that there are still large numbers of brown trout present in the loch. And at least the problems with the algae have led to improved sewage and filtration facilities around the loch, which will go a long way to improving the water quality, though it's going to take time. As for the cormorants, well, they're still around.

There's little doubt that the loch can be a puzzler. 1997 was a superb season - yet 1998 was comparatively poor. 1999 is shaping up very well, with changes in stocking policy paying dividends. But enigma or not, I love the place, and if I had (Heaven forbid) to restrict myself to only one fishery in Scotland, then it would be Loch Leven, my angling Mecca!

Leven facts

There are 48 boats for hire, and charges vary according to session and time of year. For example, a day boat from 10.00 a.m. to 6.00 p.m. costs 30.00. An evening boat in high summer, from 6.30 p.m. to 11.30 p.m., costs 30.00. An early morning boat, weekends only, half an hour before sunrise to 9.00 a,m., costs from 27.00 to 30.00. An afternoon boat, from 2.00 p.m. to 6.00 p.m., costs 17.00. A late season afternoon/evening boat, from 2.00 p.m. to 9.30 p.m., costs 33.00. There are many other combinations. The boat limits for rainbows under 17" are 12 for the early morning, 12 for the day, 6 for the afternoon, 12 for the evening, 12 for afternoon/evening and 18 for day/evening. There is no limit on brown trout, or on rainbows over 17".

Bookings can be made by contacting Loch Leven Fishery, The Pier, Kinross; telephone 01577 863407.

Facilities include spacious car park, bar and toilets, tackle shop and ghillie service.

How to get there

From Edinburgh, cross the Forth Road Bridge and head north on the M90 until you come to Junction 6 for Kinross. You'll actually see the loch on your right before coming to this junction. Turn off into Kinross, bearing right at the mini roundabout and proceeding down the main street. You'll see the signpost for Loch Leven on your left. Proceed carefully down this narrow road until you come to the anglers' car park.