Caught by the River

Fishing Lines: Yates the master picks up his pen and enjoys a sea change

19th August 2008

by Keith Elliot, from The Independent, Sunday 17th August

Everyone assumes you’re bound to haul out shoals of giant fish if you so much as rub up against a famous angler. Isn’t true. I once fished all day with Chris Yates, a former carp record-holder and the doyen of angling writers. We didn’t catch even a newt.

The scene: a very private lake where Chris was convinced a mighty carp lurked. The fish, he believed, would weigh 70lb, perhaps more. Mentally, I’d already written the epic tale of how I had netted his second record-breaker (I’d also sketched out a subplot where he netted the monster for me).

But it didn’t happen. We saw some bubbles that could have been King Carp. Then again, they could have been marsh gas.

It didn’t matter. Yates is fine company. We chatted about the state of the world (desperate), the lake (delightful) and Chris’s prospects (gloomy). Sometimes we just sat quietly. Fishing should do that – give you lots of thinking time. He worked on his uncompleted book ‘The Night’ (15 years, and the sun was still fast asleep). He wrote in longhand, with a fountain pen and Quink royal blue. Quaint, but exactly right for the moment.

He’s still using that fountain pen, still writing in longhand. ‘The Night’ is still unfinished, the world outlook still desperate and the lake still hasn’t given up its supercarp. But Yates’s own prospects have taken several turns for the better.

He’s signed a three-book deal with a major publisher that has enabled him to pay off the mortgage on his tiny Wiltshire cottage. The first work, ‘How to Fish’ (though it was really about Why) won acclaim even from book reviewers who wouldn’t know a dace from a plaice. One tiny Devon bookshop alone sold more than 200 copies.

His second, ‘Out of the Blue’, comes out in a few weeks and seems likely to attract similar praise if my quick read captures it right. But his books, more Tom Robbins than Harold, aren’t for passing an hour on the beach. You can picture him chewing that pen, chasing the right phrase, the perfect word. Like driving through stunning countryside, his books force you to slow down and appreciate the scenery.

Most people still see him as a shambling, lovable but slightly odd character who wears tweed and resists stoutly the soulless blandishments of modern tackle, a perception heightened by ‘A Passion for Angling’. This television series, created by ace wildlife film-maker Hugh Miles (‘Kingdom of the Ice Bear’,’Life on Earth’) made fishing mainstream entertainment and Yates a minor celebrity.

He lived up to his part for a while, but admits that he has moved on. Nowhere is this more apparent than in ‘Out of the Blue’, which is about the magic of fishing in the sea. Yates? Sea fishing? Actually, his childhood holidays were always taken at the seaside, and the book enabled him to recapture those times from 50 years ago.

It was going to be a journey from source to sea, but wave magic forced a rethink. He’s not selling his cane rods or forsaking his swampy ponds yet, but who knows, especially as he has still to find a topic for the last part of his trilogy?