In six seasons of Animal Planet's River Monsters, Jeremy Wade has pulled some of the most menacing-looking creatures on earth from fresh water. One glimpse down the fanged gullet of the six-foot goliath tigerfish is unforgettable. But, he admits, there are only so many bona fide river monsters to go around. (The new season premiere revisits the toothy fish that starred on the show's very first episode in 2009.) According to Wade, this has forced his team to become better storytellers
"The number of large, predatory, charismatic fish out there is limited," he says. "Every year we scratch our heads – is there really another season? It forces us to dig deeper and think a bit more laterally. I think we've come up with some stronger programs than we were getting a couple of years ago."
From the beginning, the show has been a supersized version of the age-old fisherman's tale, played out on camera. "We've always used a story of some sort to lead to the fish," says Wade. "In the early days, we were sort of feeling our way."
Feeling his way in the murky water of some of the world's most remote riverways, that is. Until "River Monsters," Wade says, the conventional wisdom was that you couldn't film a TV show about freshwater fish, due to the muddy water: "If Jacques Cousteau dropped into the Congo, he wouldn't see anything."
Before he had a camera crew, Wade's process of hauling a prized fish out of the water just to have a look often aroused the locals' suspicions. "These are people who fish to feed themselves," he says. "If they see me look at a fish and throw it back in the water, it's obviously a cover for something else." He must be searching for gold, they think; in Thailand, he was once arrested as a suspected spy.
Now, the presence of his crew helps foster collaboration with the indigenous fishermen. "I think people understand the whole business of filming," Wade says. Still, he often must prove himself a worthy fishing companion before he can learn the local secrets. "By their standards, I use a very light line. They tend to fish with lengths of rope. The moment I start to get some sort of success, you can see a lightbulb go on over their heads – 'Ah, this guy sort of knows what he's doing.'"
With its reliable suspense and its exotic travelogue style, "River Monsters" has attracted a devoted audience that spreads well beyond avid fishermen. Kids are some of his biggest fans, Wade says, because "there's almost a fairytale element to some of the stories. These animals are pretty ugly-looking. Nobody would love them, but they're misunderstood. It's our job to understand them."
Season six of River Monsters premieres at 9 p.m. Sunday on Animal Planet.