Chris Yates: the man behind the biggest carp catch in Britain
No little mermaids to be seen here. Meet the 74-year-old photographer and tea enthusiast who, in 1980, landed the heaviest British carp. A true river legend.
Hello Chris! Is it true you’ve been in THE FACE before?
That’s right! I did a photographic illustration for an article called “Zen and the Art of Carp Fishing”. I wish I still had a copy because it’s a full-page picture of a rather beautiful carp.
Is “zen” how fishing feels to you? A meditative act?
It’s definitely my way of communicating with the landscape. There was a village pond near where I grew up, and even as a small boy I knew there was something fascinating about it. Just its presence. One day I saw something rise up and fall back – and that was it. That’s what attracted me to carp fishing. The fact that there were these monsters! I was five or six. It was like discovering a pit of dragons.
Did your relationship with fishing change as you mastered it, or have you always retained a kind of wonder?
It had to have that almost magical appeal. What was very interesting was that the better I got, the more understanding I had about the behaviour of fish and the behaviour of water. Its mood can change, and I became very involved in that. I suppose it was primaeval, the resurfacing of a hunting instinct. But it was more than that, too. It was to do with sensing when would be a good time to move from one part of the lake to another. It was an intuitive thing, a sixth sense, and the more it happened, the more confident I became.
How much gear did you need to use?
In the end, my fishing was simplified to just a rod, a line, a hook and very simple bait – nothing else. I thought if I could rely on that sixth sense, I would be able to outfish anybody. And that was what happened. I caught the biggest fish in England with a line, a hook and two or three grains of sweetcorn!
That day in Herefordshire in 1980: what was it like?
The best thing is, I knew I was going to catch it. I said the day before to the people I was fishing with: “I just know I’m going to break the carp record.” And they just laughed.
How long did it take?
The whole day nothing had happened, but I was still confident. There was a big thunderstorm and I thought: this is exactly what I want, as they’d be driven up by the wind. Eventually the fish came around the side of the willow. I was crouched next to it, and I just cast. It was a fluke. The bait landed perfectly. A carp is a very wise fish. They get to 50, 60 years old and they’re like elephants – they don’t forget. But the bait landed in front of it as it was going up to a feeding area. It went past its nose and it went [makes chomping noise] – he just wrapped it in! It must’ve thought: “Oh, I shouldn’t have done that…”
That was a 51.5 lb carp. How did you land it?
It took three of us. It was a great fish. And then we put it back in the water. It died of old age in the end.
Do you feel a connection to the fish you catch?
Yes, I nearly always apologise to it: “I’m sorry to disrupt your day or your night.” I would feel that it had suffered. Fishing itself can have quite a dramatic context; the fish is obviously very disturbed and thinks its end has come. More recently, that’s disturbed me as much as it did the fish. I don’t fish as much as I used to because of that.
So what do you do now?
I just love to be down there at water level, behind a reed bend or under a willow tree, watching these wonderful creatures. I don’t need that physical connection anymore. I make connections by watching their behaviour and seeing how beautifully they move through the surface.
What is it about bodies of water, and the promise of something beneath them, that attracts people?
Water fascinates because it is mysterious in the way it moves. In the sea, you see it with the tides coming in. Then there are these creatures that live in the water and move with rhythms you can’t miss. If it’s a river, the way the currents are working and the way it changes the texture of the surface, if there’s an obstruction down there, like a fallen tree, it changes the face of the water. You read the water to know what’s going on down below and know when the fish are moving.
And, of course, there can be other things down there…
Well, Loch Ness has become mythical because there are all kinds of stories about it. But it doesn’t have to be Loch Ness. It could be at the village pond! I just knew there was something more than this half-acre of greenish water with a little island in the middle. I knew there was something else about it.
REMEMBER: A BAD DAY FISHING IS BETTER THAN A GOOD DAY AT WORK