River Monsters

We, here at OutdoorLife.com, were lucky enough to meet with Jeremy Wade of Animal Planet's River Monsters. TUNE IN: The series premieres Sunday, April 25 at 10 PM (ET/PT)! Where did you first learn to fish in England?
I suppose I was 7 or 8 years old. I lived in a small village in England with a river running through the middle. I think every parent who had a little boy gave him a fishing rod at some point as a way of getting rid of him, without him getting into too much trouble. My first attempts at fishing were spectacularly unsuccessful. I remember I had one totally inappropriate rod--it was bought from a shop. It was two pieces of steel, I think, and with my first cast, the top half just flew off into the river. I came down to the river the next day with a snorkel and some fins to try to retrieve it, and failed. I never caught any fish. I did see it as a very pointless activity--sort of getting very cold and not getting any reward for it. But luckily one of my friends at school who was about the same age had a grandfather who was a bit of a fly angler, so this friend of mine knew a little bit about fishing. I can't remember why, but he started to teach me the rudiments and lent me some stuff that actually worked. So I started off by catching gudgeon, roach, perch--you know, English river fish. The river, called the Stour, was very rural, in Suffolk. I think I've got something in common with a lot of anglers--it's a winding river, and you're always looking to find a new spot around the next bend. I think I'm still in that process. In my early teens, I made that transition from seeing fishing as a very random thing to being something where you can actually select larger fish--it's not just a matter of luck. The term in the U.K. at that time was "specimen hunting," a specimen being a good sort of fish. So I started fishing for chub and pike, both of which you have here. I actually caught a pike that was about 15 pounds. Then I got into carp fishing. I know that you've got carp here and they're almost regarded as a nuisance fish that people shoot with bows and arrows, but at that time--we're talking about 30-odd years ago--it was seen as a very hard fish to catch. They weren't very widespread. You'd hook them and they'd get broken up. I was the youngest member of an organization called the British Carp study group when I was 16 years old. But carp fishing underwent this transformation from being a very rarefied thing, where you could go along to a lake and have the place to yourself, to becoming very popular in the next few years. It actually got to the point where you could no longer escape from the rest of the world when you went fishing. The world was there on the lakes and the riverbanks with you. So I started fishing for catfish. At that time, there were a few waters in the U.K. that had European catfish in them. Then I moved to the north of England, where there weren't any catfish waters. I had given up fishing, and then happened to come across a magazine with an article about someone fishing for a Mahseer in India. That sort of planted an idea in my head. A couple years after that, I found myself in India. The traveling side of things was very much trial-and-error, but as well as catching some diseases, I did catch some fish. So over the years, every other year, I would spent three months going somewhere. Again, some spectacular failures--two or three months during which I didn't catch a single fish. But, yes, a long slow process it took to bring me here. All photos courtesy of Animal Planet.
When did you realize you could turn this passion into a career for yourself?
I've been writing, I suppose now, for 28 years, but in the early days it was just occasional articles and very occasional checks coming through the post. That lead me into other kinds of writing. I started off writing about my fishing trips, but I ended up writing general articles and working as an advertising copywriter for a while. So the writing has been gradual over the years. Then what happened was, in 1993, I started going to the Amazon. What surprised me was the fact that there's a lot of commercial fishing in the Amazon. I was after a fished called the Arapaima, which was reputed to be the world's largest freshwater fish. Prior to that, I'd made three trips to the Congo after a fish called the Goliath Tiger Fish, which actually features in our season 2 coming up. That arguably remains the freshwater Holy Grail. There are a lot of people who want to catch it. Even just getting to the Congo is so difficult. But because I'd caught the Goliath Tiger Fish, I thought Arapaima should be fairly straightforward. I'll go there--that'll make a good story. It ended up taking me six years to catch an Arapaima, going back every year. When I eventually caught it, I managed to get a good photograph of it, which was seen by a TV producer in London. He managed to sell it and get a series commissioned by Discovery Europe. That was in 2002, so I've been doing television for the last few years. I did another series in India in 2005, and then with Icon from 2008.
Most people escape by fishing, your job IS fishing. What else do you do to unwind?
At the moment, not a lot else at all. In a lot of people's perception, I have a very exciting life, but somebody who doesn't have time to do anything but their work is somewhat dull. When I get the opportunity, I just like to sit and stare at the ceiling, but I don't get a lot of time to do that at the moment. I'm also trying to write a book, so any bit of spare time, in theory, I should be scribbling something. It is a bit all work and no play, at the moment. But having said that, it's the most fantastic thing to do. Obviously the shoots are quite intense--the whole crew with you, lots of equipment. So the time scale has to be fairly compressed. Because they are about a lot more than fishing, there's a lot else that has to be filmed. As an angler, it can be a bit frustrating. For one show, we only really need one fish that is big enough. And then we've got all of the interviews with people and the other things we've got to do. With a lot of other fishing shows, you get one fish, then you get one that's a little bit bigger. I've worked with some very good directors, but they always pull me away from the water after we've got the fish that we need. There's so many other elements. I also used to work as a biology teacher. What is very gratifying is working in science and biology with the stories and the whole sort of investigation that each episode entails, tending to start with a fisherman's tale. As fishermen know, we don't enjoy a very good reputation among the public, generally exaggerating and making things up. It's the same the world over. You talk to fishermen and they tell you things and you walk away from them thinking, "That's very unlikely. Very fishy." The theme of the series is that a lot of these stories do have a grain of truth. In a way, there are two reasons for that. Freshwater, which is my area of expertise, is a much more unknown realm than the sea because the water is not so clear. In the sea, you can drop in a camera and see everything that's there. You've got all of these wonderful programs on whales and reefs, but the stuff that lives in freshwater hasn't really been seen on television. So you're revealing to people animals that look like extinct monsters, but some of them are actually swimming in a river near you. Also, the other sort of biological principal. You do get the occasional freak giants because the fish's body is supported by water. If there's enough food, they can just keep growing. With land animals, that doesn't happen. There's a sound biological reason why you can occasionally get a giant fish. So what we tend to do is we listen to these fishermen's stories and then we investigate what could be behind them. Very often we turn up something where the truth is every bit as mind-blowing as the story that started it all off.
What's your all-time favorite catch?
It's a very hard call, but I think probably the Goliath Tiger Fish, because it is just an unbelievable beast. Most people know about piranhas, which only grow to maybe 8 inches at the most. Normally, they are a lot smaller than that. This is an animal that is basically a giant piranha, and they probably grow in excess of maybe 100 pounds. There was one, when we were filming, that had teeth that were an inch long. That's roughly the size of the teeth of a 1,000-pound Great White Shark. This is something that lives in a river. You think that something like that, people would know about. But people have no idea that this thing exists, largely because the part of the world where it lives is very inaccessible. Outsiders just don't go there. Not those in their right mind, anyway. A lot of people that live there haven't even seen one. It's something that is very much a part of their folklore. There's this fierce animal in the river that will bite people in half or bits out of them. But no one has seen it up close. Most of the time, you wouldn't want to. So even the people there feel like it's not a real animal, more of a spirit. It is really the epitome of what fishing is, it's having contact with another world.
What's your favorite lure / tackle / equipment?
I tend to fish with ridiculously heavy gear, which is getting scaled up all the time. I used to think 40-pound line was heavy for freshwater. Then I found myself using 80-90 pounds, and now, for the Stingray, I was using 130-pound nylon? Occasionally I'll use 200-pound braid. A lot of it is sort of like marine big-game gear, but what I actually enjoy, which I occasionally get to use, is a single-handed bait-casting rod with a little multiplier reel and little lures. For one of our programs for season 2, we were in Alaska and I was fishing for pike with this gear. That's very nice, because a lot of the fishing I do tends to be very physical. Normally the weak link is going to be part of your equipment, but when you scale it up far enough, the weak link is you. Certainly, I enjoy that it becomes a bit of a brutal fight in that situation, but as an antidote, there's a little bit of subtlety with the single-handed rod.
Is there anywhere you haven't been that you'd like to go?
That's a bit of a tough question to answer, because we are working on a few things. There's obviously a limited number of fish we can make this program about. The sad fact is that a lot of the rivers of the world are in a sorry state. In a way, the program is the exception rather than the rule. But there are still a few that we've sort of got penciled in. So I can say yes to that one, but without going into too much detail. I think from the angling point of view, you probably know what it's like. Even if you've caught a particular fish or been to a particular place, you still feel the story isn't quite over. I've spent a lot of time in the Amazon. I've been going there for more than 15 years and I would still like to go back and catch a bigger Arapaima. I'm not sure about the Congo--it's the sort of a place that you like to remember in retrospective. Not a lot of fun while you're there. But the fishing is incredible. You don't get as immersed in it with the camera crew as you do alone. in Texas, with the alligator gar, I fished a few days and caught a couple of nice fish, just sort of whetting my appetite. I need to go back and make the film and catch another one of those.
How does Asia / South American fishing compare to here?
I think what's interesting is that the general principals are actually the same. It's about reading the water. It's about talking to people there. Not just fishermen, but other people as well. They might be able to tell you something. And then, you've got your armory of basic techniques, but what's interesting about it is that you sort of start from scratch and you try things out. Some things work and some things don't. You gradually perfect it. You can apply that approach to fishing in the U.K. or fishing here. It encourages quite an experimental approach. Even people who fish here who do have that experimental approach are the ones who are more successful. Instead of sticking to an established technique, you need to step back every so often and actually really try and think like a fish and picture where it would be. Try new things even if they seem a little strange. Even if they don't work, you've learned something. That's very important.
How do you get the younger generation involved in fishing?
One thing that is really gratifying is that I get quite a bit of e-mails and a lot of those are from children or parents. It does seem to be the kind of show that all of the family will watch together. I've had some people contact me who used to fish themselves that now have children and have gone back to fishing and brought their children with them. Not just boys, but girls. It does seem to have gotten a lot of children interested. Which I think is particularly interesting, with all of the distractions of computers and everything else that they can do. The fishing is so smuggled into the program: "Here's a story about something that is under the water. It might be attacking people. We better find out what it is! Let me get my fishing rod." But I think that children love monsters, dinosaurs, scary stories, and again it's that thing about another hidden world. But, it's a world that they can actually go to at their local river or lake. It's a world that they can have contact with. A world where they can encounter mystery and make discoveries. They're not sort of thinking about it in those terms, but I think that that's the kind of thing that's going on.
Other than the Goliath Tiger, what other species has the most memorable experience involved?
The one that's the freshest in my mind at the moment. I just came back from South Africa, where we were fishing for Bull Sharks up a river. That turned out to be a very exciting story. Not just in terms of the size of the fish, but also the whole story of why those fish were in the river. The human story as well, and how the they were reacting to that. Part of that story was that I thought I'd already experienced a pretty long fight with a fish in freshwater, which was with the Stingray in Thailand for two hours. One of these Bull Sharks exceeded that considerably. You're left not only with the mental memory, but also a physical memory. The next day you're just hobbling about like an old man. That's the freshest memory.
Have you ever been injured while filming or out on your adventures?
Quite a catalog of things. When I was filming the Stingray, because that is very physical, I actually ruptured my bicep. I think it was a bit of weakness there anyway. You have two tendons at the top of your biceps--one of those just ripped out. That's basically a permanent situation. There's a bit of a hole there on top of my arm. That was one. Before filming the series that I did in the Amazon, we were actually doing some aerial filming from a light aircraft when our plane crashed into the forest. What was amazing about that is that everybody just walked away without a scratch. So that was no injury there, but it could have very easily had another ending. Diseases? I've caught malaria in the Congo, which got very bad. It got to the point where my vision was actually starting to go. Everything was just sort of in a whiteout. I was waiting for a truck, lying on a mud floor in a hut, and people were just stepping over me and casually remarking to each other that "he might die." It's been a lot of things over the years.
Are there any snacks / beverages you like to take out on the boat with you?
In my old days, as a carp angler, I used to munch the bait that I had made just to check that it actually tasted good for the fish. People used to make all of these very complex concoctions with all sorts of flavorings and very sort of nutritious bait. I knew it was all good stuff. I tend to not do that these days, due to all the dead fish I use as bait. I'm out in the sun a lot, so I do drink a lot of water. On my own trips, I tend to just drink straight out of the river. Often it's water that people are living alongside. They're washing their clothes, gutting their fish, using it as a toilet, and amazingly I think that I've got a very strong constitution. Over the years, I've built up a good immune system. I've come back after that kind of trip and gone to my doctor and said, "Look, I must have all kinds of intestinal parasites." He'd check me out and I'd be totally clean. The secret might be that one thing I sometimes do is just eat cloves of garlic. Just munch a few cloves of garlic. Obviously that doesn't matter too much, as I'm a long way from polite society. But in terms of if you do that on an empty stomach, you can feel it really working it's way down. It's meant to be good for clearing our intestinal parasites. I tend not to do that on shoots.
Biography
Jeremy Wade is a writer and television host with a special interest in rivers and freshwater fish, and has been travelling (mostly solo) to the world's remote rivers for more than 25 years. He has a degree in zoology from Bristol University and a postgrad teaching certificate in biological sciences from the University of Kent, and has worked as a secondary school biology teacher. He grew up in south-east England, on the banks of the Suffolk Stour, where his fascination with the underwater world began - and the desire to always see "what's around the next bend." His first overseas trip was to the mountain rivers of India in 1982, and since then he has increasingly spent his time tracking down large and little-known fish in rivers around the world - particularly in the Congo and Amazon rainforests. "I don't see myself as a particularly expert angler," he says. "But what I am able to do is get into the kinds of places where outsiders don't normally go, with enough energy left to put a line in the water. Teaming up with local fishermen is vital to success, and what's great about this approach is that you get to see beneath the surface of diverse human cultures too." In between catching fish (or, on some journeys, not catching fish), he has also caught malaria, been detained as a suspected spy, narrowly escaped drowning, been threatened at gunpoint, and survived a plane crash. In 1992, he co-wrote (with Paul Boote) Somewhere Down the Crazy River - a book that is considered to be one of the classics of angling literature. He has also written on travel and natural history for publications including The Times, Guardian, Sunday Telegraph, The Field and BBC Wildlife Magazine. During his career he has achieved a number of notable "firsts." These include filming a large mystery creature in an Amazon lake (dubbed "the Amazon Nessie" by BBC Wildlife Magazine), and getting the first underwater footage (with cameraman Rick Rosenthal) of the "giant devil catfish" in India. His first television series, JUNGLE HOOKS, filmed in 2002 for Discovery Europe, was one of the most-watched shows on multichannel television when it was released, and has since been seen by audiences around the world. RIVER MONSTERS, his most recent series, has achieved the highest audience figures in the history of Animal Planet. When not camped beside a remote river, Jeremy lives in Somerset, England, in the countryside near Bath.