A fishing show hosted by a 55-year-old British guy sounds like it should air at 3 a.m. on public access, but with 1.6 million viewers, River Monsters is Animal Planet’s biggest hit. Hooked (get it?) on the show, I traveled to Florida to spend two days fishing with its catch-happy host.
Courtesy of Discovery Channel | Licensed to Alpha Media Group 2012
“The fascination of rivers, to me, is the fact that we don’t know what’s there,” says biologist, extreme angler, and, now, TV star Jeremy Wade as we drift on a glittering stretch of water that goes by the whimsically bucolic name of Canal L-35A. “The sea has nice, clear water. You send a cameraman in, and they can come back with lovely footage. You can’t do that with rivers.”
Jeremy has had more pressing problems with murky water, of course. While hunting for snakeheads in Thailand—the same large, toothy fish we’re hunting today—he nearly found himself on the wrong end of a homemade speargun. “We were supposed to be in a nice, clear lake,” he smiles ruefully. “But we ended up going to a place with bad visibility. I lost contact with the guide. His spear would have gone right through me if he’d released it in my direction.”
Fortunately that specimen was caught without incident, but Jeremy hasn’t always been so lucky: A head butt to the chest from an arapaima several years ago caused him to seriously wonder if his heart had been irreparably damaged. “They’re incredibly powerful,” he says of the seven-foot fish. “They’ll kill each other by head butting. I had very deep bruising. It was still hurting six weeks later. I kept thinking, Bloody hell, this fish has actually shortened my life!”
On another trip, in the Congo, he impaled his finger on a catfish spine. “The pain was so intense. It’s barbed all the way up, so you can’t just pull it out. The Congolese boatman was shouting at me, ‘Let go of the fish, let go of the fish!’ and then he just ripped it out. If he hadn’t, I’d probably still have that fish attached to this day…”
Though we try eight different types of lures, from spinners to jerkbaits to sinking worms, the snakeheads are not biting today, so the next day we head into the swamps to hunt bigger game—specifically, freshwater bull sharks, which have been showing up in the Everglades with surprising regularity in recent years. En route our guide tells us about a client who was hit in the chest by a giant tarpon that leaped out while they were traveling at 40 mph. He subsequently had to have his busted spleen removed. I duck down a little in my seat.
Though we’ve spent hours on a stretch known as Little Shark River, in a spreading slick of chum and fresh-caught lady fish, the sharks have yet to show. I ask if it would help to throw in our packet of Girl Scout cookies. “You know,” deadpans Jeremy, “we might have more luck with actual Girl Scouts.”
Photographed for Maxim by Colby Katz | Licensed to Alpha Media Group 2012
Cookies are a luxury compared with the food he’s been forced to ingest in more remote places. “I ate crocodile in the Congo. It had very crunchy scales. I was served it in the dark and didn’t know what it was, just that it was really not nice. Also in the Congo, they have this stuff called manioc. It’s like an elongated potato, and you have to soak it to get rid of the cyanide it contains. If you don’t soak it enough, you get goiters—it’s awful. Our director thought someone had vomited in our room, but it was just a packet of this stuff. I’ve eaten raw coconut grubs—giant maggots with beetle-like heads—and they definitely tasted better than manioc!”
Having spent more time there than most foreigners, Jeremy has mixed feelings about the Congo. “The process of getting there is so tough—if you’re not careful you’ll have no mental or physical energy left. It’s the best fishing I’ve had, but it’s a very difficult environment. I simultaneously had the feeling that I must go there again and I must never go there again.”
He’s not kidding about the fishing: The Congo is the only place in the world you can catch one of Jeremy’s all-time favorites, the Goliath tiger fish. “It’s a huge piranha! It’s got the same mechanical jaws that can cut a clean lump out of something,” he marvels. “When you think about how fascinated people are with piranhas and great white sharks, it’s surprising how few people know about this fish. If you find an 80-pound Goliath, its teeth are going to be the same size as a 1,000-pound great white’s.”
As a fellow Brit, I find it weird to hear Jeremy talk about all these exotic creatures. When you grow up in a country where the most dangerous thing you’re likely to catch in a lake is gonorrhea, the last thing you expect is to meet someone who’s faced off with piranhas, saltwater crocodiles, and electric eels.
“Electric eels are nasty,” he mutters. “They can produce a shock around 500 volts. It can shock you through the water without even touching you. If you’re paralyzed facedown in the water, you’re going to drown. This is a fish that could kill you in knee-deep water!”
After several more hours and no sharks, we reluctantly call it a day. “I think we’re going to need a smaller boat,” I joke, dejectedly, but Jeremy’s enthusiasm for the beasts he hunts is undented. He’s already thinking of tomorrow’s monsters. “People are fascinated with predators—we’re hardwired to be,” he yells as the boat accelerates out into the more open water of the Midway Keys. “The reason is simple: We’re all descended from people who paid attention to things that were potentially dangerous. The ones who didn’t, didn’t get to leave descendants!”
Season 4 of River Monsters premieres April 1 at 10 p.m. EDT on Animal Planet.