In conversation with Chris Yates
Chris Yates, England’s most revered and esoteric angler, chats to Kevin Parr about carp, silver tourists and rocket powered boats.
Photographer, author, editor of Waterlog magazine, but foremost a fisherman, Chris Yates has been described in angling circles as a “legend in his own lunchtime”, not least after the capture of a British record carp some twenty years ago, but his enigmatic and private nature has confused many, who label him eccentric and mildly unapproachable.
This latter attribute perhaps affirmed by his initial response to my request for an interview.
“Are you interested?” I said.
“Not really,” he replied, “I’m not interested in anything that resembles work.”
Fortunately, an Idler interview is far from real work and I soon secured an invitation to his cottage in south Wiltshire, with the promise of a pub lunch, afternoon tea and a damn good chinwag.
And so here I am, sitting on a sofa in the most glorious of clutters that is the study of Chris Yates. By one wall a wood burner, which is lit and toiling, on another a huge bookcase that represents five decades of collated paraphernalia, Chris’ desk and chair on the next wall, and finally my sofa. In between the structure is an organised mess of journals, nets and at least a dozen fishing rods – all hand-made split cane, and all probably decades old.
Chris is a single parent of four, and in the next room are two of his children, both sick and off school, but both seemingly content with my presence. Due to this unforeseen bout of illness the pub-lunch could be out of the equation, but Chris is a tea freak, and the second cup is on its way.
CHRIS YATES: And I forgot to strain this one.
KEVIN PARR: Is that mine?
YATES: Yes, but there’s proper tea-leaves in there, you can see them – of course, I remembered to strain mine…
PARR: As you would.
YATES: You can have some fruitcake – it is your cake.
PARR: No, it’s your cake.
YATES: Well it’s my cake now, but it was yours… I’ll cut a couple more slices…
PARR: If you insist.
YATES: …and you should add that we were going to go to the pub, but as this is now “children’s hospital”, we can’t go and leave the patients. Besides I’m actually quite glad we’re not going to the pub…
PARR: It’s definitely off the agenda?
YATES: I think for the minute it is, well an hour – it’s half past one already and, besides, this is a much nicer atmosphere, here in my study. If we were in the pub there’d be clanking about and thinking about what to eat and all that is too much… trouble. (Laughs) It’s never too much trouble deciding what to drink, though, but when you want to have a quiet chat, it could be a bit distracting with all these people coming in from the fields and the woods saying: “Hello Chris, ya seen any big fish recently?!” (Pause)… No I haven’t. No, I haven’t seen a big fish for over a year. Fishing-wise, it’s been a very bad season.
PARR: Yes, likewise.
YATES: Very few carp in the summer – but I did catch my best salmon.
PARR: (Excited) Did you? Where was that?
YATES: It was on the river Tana, in Finnmark, the most northern salmon river in Europe, which flows into the Arctic Ocean… and that was in August. I was in a boat, a little narrow wooden boat.
YATES: It’s probably the best Atlantic salmon fishing in the world, on the river Tana, it’s simply unbelievable. The river flows through Finnmark – that’s Lapland, but they don’t like being called Laps – they’re “Samis”, and I discovered this after a few black eyes. Using the wrong words out there is just bad news.
Anyway, I was willing to put up with the fact that it was meant to be the best salmon and trout fishing in the world. I thought, yes, I can put up with that if I can get to the grayling. Because I’m not a great fan of salmon and trout.
YATES: They are pushy sort of fish, always jumping about and being far too flashy and showy.
PARR: Definitely – and they’re a bit thick as well.
YATES: Incredibly thick – because they’re like a cruise missile, with the same amount of intelligence, in that they just keep going, no matter what you throw at them, they keep going. Whereas the carp, the carp is the grandmaster of chess. And a barbel… a barbel is a little strange, but they are mysterious in a way that salmon are not, they don’t seem to have too much intelligence but they move in a different way.
PARR: Absolutely, there is more art in catching a barbel than a salmon.
YATES: Indeed, but back to the summer in the far north, I was going for the grayling – that’s what I really wanted, but there were so many salmon in the river I couldn’t get through them to catch the bloody grayling. Every time I cast out I caught one of these stupid salmon – although I did manage a twenty-one pounder.
PARR: So has no one tapped into this gold mine, and exploited the tourism?
YATES: I think a lot of people have known about it but they keep quiet. Germans, and quite a few Swedes were over there, and erm, Americans. But it’s got to be the most productive salmon fishing in the world now, in fact the world record was caught there – eighty pounds – which is a bloody big salmon.
PARR: That’s the size of your desk!
YATES: Yes. (Laughs) It’s a big silver tourist, but they just don’t appeal, not really, they don’t do anything for me.
YATES: And they are just tourists, you know, they come up river, look around, and go back off to sea again. Some of them don’t make it on the way back, though. They get bored and just roll up and die – just like real tourists. (Laughs) They’ve got to be on the move all the time – they can’t sit still.
PARR: And they’re not even supposed to feed
YATES: That’s it, to catch them you just provoke them – that’s all you do.
PARR: But I’m sure they would get a little hungry going up river – in contemplation of what they are about to do, (copulate)
YATES: No, it’s just a conditioned reflex. They see a little thing like a fish flash by and they just snap at it. Maybe like a well fed person going for a little piece of pudding.
PARR: Or a second piece of fruitcake.
YATES: Or maybe even a third piece of fruitcake.
And so yet more fruitcake is consumed.
YATES: (Through a mouthful) But, as we were saying, apart from the salmon fishing and trout fishing in places other than England, it’s been a very poor season. And yet I haven’t really minded. I think, perhaps, I’m going through one of those crises that people go through, every now and then, where suddenly fishing has become slightly less important, because there are all sorts of other things going on.
It’s like you’ve reached a fork in the stream, and you think it looks good one way, but it doesn’t look at all fishy. And yet I might find something a bit unusual, where it’s shadowy and murky, and that’s where I’ve gone – I’ve gone up this little side-stream, which is a backwater in life, and I don’t know where it’s going to lead but I like it, and it’s completely unknown to me, where I am at the moment.
I think it’s the first time in my life where I haven’t actually been fishing regularly for over a year – I haven’t been out that often, and yet I’ve been discovering a lot of new things. It’s as if I’ve discovered – blimey, I can do other things in life, other than fish! (Laughs) It’s exciting.
So, I think that’s what’s happened to me – it could be a mid-life crisis, I’m not sure, though I’ve always been rather dubious of the term. I think it’s just a bloody excuse for someone who’s got bored of one thing and think they are too old to take on something new – I don’t think you’re ever too old to start something new.
YATES: I got a phone call earlier from a friend of mine, who writes. He’s one of my contributors. He writes about fishing all over the world – mostly in British Columbia, steelhead fishing. He’s actually a very good carp fisherman. He’s caught some big English carp, and he’s probably one of the best fly fishermen I’ve ever seen.
But anyway, he’s not writing for me in this country any more, he met a sculptress when he was in America last year, and she completely bowled him over. And he’s now living with her, and the exciting part of the story – the interesting part of the story, why I say it’s never too late, is that she is probably 34 or 35 and he is 69 – and he said to me, “It has affected my fishing a little bit, but I’ll let it ride for six or seven months and I’ll be back with a rod again.” But right now he’s got other things on his mind, so it’s never too late. (Laughs) And he’s like a little kid – an adolescent – to talk to, there’s nothing like a young woman to make a fool of an old man, but then that’s not entirely true – there’s nothing like a fish to make a fool of any man. But I suppose a woman is the perfect example of how to make a fool of someone.
PARR: But if he is behaving like a kid, then it’s not necessarily a bad thing. I think that it is something mistakenly perceived by certain individuals who themselves are in a rut for so many years, that they forget what’s important. They become zombiefied – get up every day, go to work, come home, dinner at the table, watch a bit of television, go to bed – over and over again. Then Saturday morning, wash the car – Sunday, mow the grass.
YATES: (Interrupts loudly) Saturday afternoon, listen to the football commentary…
PARR: Yes, of course.
YATES: …there are some things that even a really boring person can do to liven up their Saturday.
PARR: And Wednesday nights as well.
(Tonight is the Premiership clash between Southampton and Middlesbrough – live on Radio Solent)
YATES: Oh, and Wednesday nights… Occasionally. But only when Southampton are playing well.
PARR: I’ve got to admit I’m optimistic.
YATES: I think it could be a good evening. I’m going to put some champagne on ice – or at least I would do if I had any champagne.
PARR: You could have a Glenmorange, perhaps…
YATES: Oh yes, a Glenmorange would do. I’ll pour two glasses, but we won’t be drinking them until the end of the match – you might have to stay until 10 o’clock, what with injury time.(Laughs)
It is interesting, though, getting back to this idea of the way people age. I don’t think people do age, actually – I think people perceive that they are ageing, and they imagine that they are ageing, and you’ve only got to see a fisherman – sorry a fisherperson…
PARR: That’s a bit non-PC… (Laughs)
YATES: Sorry, you’ve only got to be an angler
to realise that there is no age involved.
There’s experience, certainly, but age simply doesn’t matter.
Take my old mate Bernard Venables, who did in fact die in the end – which was a big surprise, we all thought he was going to be a hundred – he was still keen on the idea of going fishing on his ninety-fourth birthday, just as he had been on every birthday that I can remember. In fact, we celebrated his ninetieth birthday with a pike fishing trip to the Dorset Stour, and he caught a double figure pike. And he was using a multiplier reel, you know, and casting all bloody day – but he got one, and it wasn’t a great day for fishing, it was a bit cold and he did get a bit cold towards the end, but he was determined that he would get one. And that was his ninetieth birthday. I think that’s a good example to anyone.
YATES: And he was like a kid. We came back here, and, actually, he was sitting there that day more or less. (Smiles) I, realising he is referring to me, am extremely humbled – Bernard Venables, to the uninitiated, is a godfather of angling – though I don’t think I look ninety. He was sitting where you are sitting – and we were talking about it just like two kids who come rushing in after a day off school… “Wasn’t it great?… Cor… The way that fish went…” and we lost a couple, and we caught a couple and we were damn cold, “get that stove up – come on I’m gonna freeze to death.” All this and he was bloody ninety.
So I don’t think you do get old, though obviously the joints start to ache a little bit, but you’ve just got to fight that and laugh at that and not care or at least not really care…
YATES: Well obviously you’ve got to care (Laughs). But it happens to kids as well. Like my little daughter who fell out of the tree yesterday, and she’s suffering more than I am at the moment, with aches and pains, and that’s why she’s got the day off school.
PARR: That was a ruse I never tried – to get the day off school.
YATES: What, falling out of a tree?
YATES: I, er, had a special, secret method – a secret recipe for getting off school, which, fortunately, I have revealed to my boys, so that I now know they can never get away with it – and that was the secret of the vomit. And when it was a very serious day – like a French or maths exam, I used to make up some vomit from sandwich spread, all sorts of paste and things like that, lots of tomatoes and diced up carrots – there was always lots of carrots. And I’d mix it up in a bowl, secretly, when no-one was in, and keep it in a jar somewhere – but you’d have to keep it for a few days so it started to get properly rank – fermenting – and then this is the middle of the night- suddenly you go haring across the landing – bang, bang, bang, bang, making lots of noise in the loo and pull the chain and sit there going:(falsetto) “Oh Mummy – I’ve been sick, oh, sorry I’ve made a bit of a mess on the landing carpet” – (pantomime dame) “Oh God, no – oh you poor thing – go back to bed”.
And she’d be scraping it up and scrubbing it down at three in the morning, and I’d have a day off school.
YATES: I only did it three or four times, between the ages of twelve and fifteen, when you hate school more than anything else – it becomes serious then.
PARR: Yes it does.
YATES: So each time I used a different mix, and my mother never twigged, and I got off my French O-level mock, I got off the end of term maths exam, and there was something else – a bully that was waiting for me that day, “I’m gonna get you tomorrow Yates!” – but he never did, he got bored when I didn’t show up.
So the sick saved me, and naturally I went fishing on those days too.
My parents were both teachers, and in the morning I would insist that they went to their respective schools, even though I wasn’t well enough to go to mine. And as soon as they had left the drive I’d be on my bike.
I used to call them “hiding days” – because I would hide from the world, and those days were really important. I think the idea of having a day off, escaping, while everyone else was busy – poor bastards, and there you are with a day off, and you’ve got a fishing rod and a pond and no-one knows you’re there. You have the whole world to yourself; in fact it was as if you owned the world because it was only you there. I know it couldn’t last and the next day you’d be behaving like a sprat with all the other sprats getting washed out with the morning tide and washed back again with the evening tide, but you knew that some days you could behave like a fish other than a sprat and avoid the tide and go out to sea and do something adventurous. Go somewhere else.
At this point Chris was summoned next door to the children’s ward, where the patients required food
and drink. I took advantage of this opportunity and nipped outside for a cigarette and a nose around
The Yates’ residence is certainly idyllic. Set against a steep wooded bank on one side of a valley, that offered views of classic Southern downland, grazed by sheep and quartered regularly by buzzards. The garden itself was kept as a cottage garden should be – low maintenance naturalization. Overgrown, strewn with discarded toys and fashioned wooden weapons (the bow and arrow, I later discovered, was one of Chris’ efforts), with a worryingly unprotected well near the front door, and no apparent boundaries with the countryside.
It was refreshing to see well trodden paths cutting into the trees behind the house, Chris’s children certainly made the most of their spacious habitat, and didn’t need “Tekken 2″ or “Pok?�mon” in order to stretch their own imaginations.
Cigarette finished, I returned to the study to the sound of the kettle boiling yet again…
PARR: During the Seventies, when you spent half of your life fishing at Redmire pool. Did you think to yourself: “My goal is to catch the biggest carp ever”, or did it just happen like that?
YATES: No, No. At that time, the fishing at Redmire, which was probably the best carp fishing in the world was restricted to ten people who were allowed to fish it. It was incredible that I managed to worm my way in. Actually it was a pretty low trick I played to get in, but I won’t tell that story now, I’ll save it for another day.
PARR: A sequel, perhaps?
YATES: But anyway, I was one of ten, and we fished it in rotation. So three anglers would fish it for a week, and you would have to wait for two weeks before you were there again. And then there was the bloke that ran the syndicate, Jack Hilton, who was the tenth man and he could fish whenever he liked – which of course meant, you never saw him. Because he had that absolute freedom, he never went, and because I only had one week in three, I always went. And I would fish from Sunday to Sunday, for seven weeks every summer, until the beginning of November. When the leaves fell, I wasn’t interested – that wasn’t carp fishing for me. So I lived at Redmire for 7 or 8 weeks, every year for seven years.
PARR: And that would be your priority? You wouldn’t let a work deadline encroach your fishing time?
(At the time Chris Yates was a photographer of some note – the majority of his work designing album and book covers)
YATES: (Slightly shocked) No. No. No. I would phone people up, a new client maybe, and they would come around and really love my work, and I would have to say to them – “Before we talk about jobs, there is something you should know – I am a photographer, but before that and above that, I am a fisherman, that comes first.” Some of them would look aghast, and say, “we can’t do business then – we’re wasting one another’s time,” and off they’d go. But the good one’s would say, “That’s great – you can come and tell me some fishing stories between jobs.”
But I’d always say that – first I’m a fisherman – then I’m a photographer.
And then I’d be offered a new job and clients would say, “Look, you’ve got a three week deadline on this.”
And I’d say, “Well I’m off to Redmire tomorrow.”
There was no argument. They would just say, “Will you have time when you come back – to read the novel and do the cover?”
“Yes… there’s bound to be time…”
So, yes, Redmire did become my second home – actually my first home, the one with bricks was my second home. And I think I got to know it better than anyone else, I just loved being there.
PARR: Did you feel less pressure than other people actually to catch fish?
YATES: Definitely. I didn’t need to be fishing; I just needed to be at that place. But other people, who had proper jobs and less time, felt the need to catch fish. They had to make it worth their while, whereas I didn’t care.
And to make it worth their while, they were always talking of the monster fish. I was happy to talk about the monster, but I think I was the only one not really concerned about catching the record, because that was just a dream. And while I was happy for that dream to swim around my head, I wasn’t that keen on making it a reality, because I so enjoyed absorbing myself in the very special atmosphere of Redmire – it was a magical place.
The others, though, were very keen to catch the record and become the new Dick Walker, who had held the record since 1952, so it was odd when I broke the record – smashed it to pieces – because I was the one who perhaps least wanted it. Of course I did want it when it ended up in my net, and I saw it – I was thrilled – it was a huge event in my life, but it didn’t change the way I thought about fishing.
PARR: It was also a fish that caused controversy because the British record fish committee refused to acknowledge it – I was young at the time, though, so I can’t remember why.
YATES: Oh, it was stupid – totally absurd. It was so laughable. The reason it wasn’t accepted was due to confusion some years before over a record roach, that wasn’t a roach – it was a rudd. They are difficult to identify if you don’t know what to look for – if you’re not a fisherman they look just
So they made this rule- rule 4b (Laughs) – and they wouldn’t accept anything that wasn’t absolutely kosher – they decreed that a record had to be witnessed by a committee member.
I had five separate witnesses, photographs – we were all experienced carp fishermen. And finally I said, why should we worry about rule 4b, or was it 3b, about confusion of species. – Is this a gudgeon (laughs)? There was only gudgeon in redmire other than carp, so of course it was a bloody carp, and anyway this was a secret location, we weren’t allowed to take outsiders in – which was great. The world was not allowed to encroach on Redmire, so they couldn’t have come in anyway. Unless, perhaps, they were in a sack, and we smuggled them in. (Laughs)
So I’m sorry but you have to accept it. There it is. There I am with it. Here are my witness statements, to say that I have caught it. Here are the scales, and it weighed 511/2 lbs.
And because the British Record Fish Committee were so bloody-minded, because we hadn’t adhered to their particular rule, they rejected it, and as a result everyone gave up on them. So Dick Walker, the previous record holder, who was incidentally delighted that I had beaten his fish, more so because I had caught it on a split cane rod that he had made in 1952 – particularly poetic. Anyway he created a new record fish collective, that was more representative of the time, and that became the one people took more notice of.
PARR: And now at last the record lists have united.
YATES: Yes, finally. Fifteen years or so later, and at last I got my prize, anything I wanted from a Barbour catalogue. And if it hadn’t been such a good prize I would have thrown it back at them, but I thought bugger it, I may as well get a new coat. (Laughs)
The pub is now definitely out – last orders are long gone, but Chris offers to cook me lunch which he prepares. His speciality, no less. Of course the kettle is soon whistling again, and I have a few minutes to myself in Chris’s study. The bookcase is hard to ignore. There are two main themes in Chris’s library – fishing, obviously, and modern poetry, of which there are countless examples. There are more than just books to investigate, however. A scattering of photographs, all seemingly personal to Chris, various trinkets and scraps of scrawled thought, a pile of fishing reels, some over eighty years old, and a packet of dried beans which form the ammunition for Chris’s blowpipe.
What is clear, however, is that this array of memories and accoutrements is arranged for no one’s benefit other than that of their owner. This is no public museum, but a writer’s workplace and inspiration – not that this writer would object to the occasional snooper.
PARR: So after the leaves fell in autumn – what would you do?
YATES: As a child – when the fishing stopped, we would find other things to do with water. Making boats, building dams, splashing around, but not in the winter. In my teenage years, we used to build rocket boats, through the winter we would be designing them, and then during the closed season, when we went out to spot fish, we would round off the day, by having a little regatta.
PARR: So what were the boats made from?
YATES: Carpet tubes – packed with sodium chlorate & sugar, and we fixed fins to them- so they looked like sharks. Some of them would be doing thirty or forty miles an hour, bouncing along the lake- bom, bom, bom and then BANG!! They would explode, and of course because they were made from carpet tubes, they would always either blow up or burn up, and all our hard work would be gone. We sometimes put passengers in them too, normally freshwater mussels, but once we had a toad as a pilot, and I’m afraid he probably didn’t survive the experience. But we wanted something that would last, something that we could re-use. So we considered developing an electric motor. A friend got hold of an oxyacetylene cylinder, we sawed the end off it, and we decided to test it in my parents’ garden.
So we dug a hole, filled it with sodium chlorate and sugar, and fixed a long fuse, which ran behind a bank in the garden. We surrounded the launch site with bits of old iron-mongery, to absorb any big flash, and there was also a garden roller and a windshield from an old scooter I had. Then we lit the fuse, which made a lovely noise, a soft roar, and flames leapt from it, we were thinking, “this is gonna be good.” But suddenly it stopped, and
I thought, “eh?”. There must have been five pounds of rocket mixture in the cylinder and it
had only been going for a few seconds. What had gone wrong?
Then there was a fizzing sound, like someone struggling with the top of a warm bottle of beer, and all of a sudden the most fantastic explosion, which shook the garden. The garden roller, which must have weighed a few hundred pounds just went high into the air over a laburnum tree and landed on my neighbours lawn with a dirty thud. The windshield simply disappeared, and the top of the cylinder vanished through a red streak into the ionosphere and came down miles away. There were bits of earth and turf coming out of the sky for a long time afterwards, and the bang was so loud it registered 1.8 on the Richter scale at Greenwich.
PARR: (Laughing) Bloody hell!
YATES: And the Home Office came round the next day, and we were in serious, serious trouble. So after that we decided to stop building rocket boats and go back to passive fishing.
PARR: That is a good story.
YATES: And if you don’t believe me, then you can check the police records. I was originally charged with “causing an explosion with intent”, which wasn’t fair, we were being creative, not destructive. But eventually it was lessened to “illegal manufacture of an explosive mixture”, for which I got twenty pounds costs and a two year conditional discharge.
I must add that this was a long time ago, when I was young and irresponsible.
It’s a little late for lunch, having gone three, but I’m not complaining. A bottle of wine is opened and Yates’ speciality fish dish is certainly worth waiting for. An old family recipe, I’m told, that Chris actually invented about a year ago.
We talk on, but a little more personally. Since that first telephone call a friendship has begun to develop, but the topics of conversation have generally revolved around Chris. So I talk about myself a little, and Chris listens, before discussing subjects sensitive to him. That his marriage suffered due to his angling obsession, he is in no doubt, though he remains philosophical. He knew deep down that every time he reached for his rods he was chinking away at his wife’s resolve, and yet he couldn’t not go. Fishing is an affliction, for which there is no cure. If you resist the urge, then you are worse off, for your eyes close to a mirage of bobbing floats and rippled water until you go quite mad. So you just keep going, even if it costs you twenty years’ marriage.
All too soon the afternoon had passed, school and college had finished and there were now four children demanding their father’s attention.
I made for home and listened to the football on my own. Southampton drew, so the Glenmorange remained uncorked, though I understand it saved Chris’ life on the final day of the season. He went fishing with a friend in a wind that blew hard from Siberia, and they were minutes from becoming frozen statues, until Chris remembered that bottle of single malt in his creel.