For most people, fishing is a peaceful way to relax. Jeremy Wade – host of Animal Planet's River Monsters – is not most people. The British biologist and extreme angler has spent more than 25 years chasing down the rarest and most fearsome freshwater creatures – from man-sized killer catfish to bloodthirsty piranha that could tear a human apart.
First debuting in 2009, 'River Monsters' quickly became Animal Planet's best-performing series ever, thanks in no small part to Wade's intrepid, freewheeling hosting style. MJ caught up with the Bear Grylls of freshwater to talk about how to conquer fear, fish that "bite off the dangly bits of male swimmers," and what to expect from Season 2.
You've spent most of your life studying and pursuing rare and often dangerous underwater creatures in rivers all over the world. What is it about freshwater environments and the fish that inhabit them that captivates you?
Unlike the sea, you often can't see into lakes and rivers. It really is another world down there, where predators locate prey by smell, vibration and detecting electrical micro-currents. Because of this, you often can't find pictures of many of these creatures, and until now you wouldn't have seen them on TV. The only way to see them is to cast a line into the water. It's like being a cryptozoologist, but you actually get to see the creatures you're investigating.
On River Monsters, you've come face-to-face with some pretty ferocious creatures. What goes through your mind when you're handling such aggressive species? Have you ever felt that your life was truly at risk?
I have feared for my life on fishing trips – I was once in a plane crash in the Amazon, for example, and I've been trapped in a sinking boat – but not when actually handling fish, although I have been injured by fish. Catching these fish is by its nature a hands-on experience, and great care has to be taken when unhooking a large bullshark for instance. In such a situation there is a degree of fear, but fear has a useful function: it concentrates the mind. And the appropriate reaction is to work to understand the thing that is causing the fear whether it's a large fish or anything else. This way both parties are more likely to survive the encounter unscathed.
Of all the legendary fish you've encountered, including the "Amazon Nessie" and Giant Devil Catfish, which was the most fascinating or satisfying to come upon?
The "Amazon Nessie" turned out to be a malformed pink river dolphin, so not a fish, although quite fish-like in appearance. The most fascinating and satisfying encounter so far was the goliath tigerfish of the Congo. I first caught one in 1991, and then again while filming the second season of River Monsters in 2009. Its appearance is quite unbelievable, like a giant piranha, with inch-long interlocking teeth. They are said to bite off the dangly bits of male swimmers and they will even take lumps out of crocodiles. A few more people have heard about it now than 20 years ago, and many anglers list it as their number one desired species, but its home remains a no-go area to most outsiders.
Are there any species that have thus far eluded you? What are you hoping to go in search of next?
Twenty-five years ago my two main target species were goliath tigerfish and arapaima from the Amazon. Each took me six years to track down and catch, over the course of three expeditions to the Congo and six to the Amazon. The number of large freshwater species is limited, and I don't think there are challenges of a similar magnitude today. However, I would like to revisit some of the species I have caught – including the alligator gar and Amazonian piraiba catfish – and catch the bigger ones that I know are there. Also I've heard a lot of stories now about monster-sized catfish in US waters, scaring divers out of the water and the like, and it would be interesting to get to the bottom of these. In the meantime, I'm busy filming River Monsters Season 3.
What can fans of the show expect from Season 2?
In some ways it's even stronger than Season 1, in term of outsized and outlandish fish. This season, we've caught nine over 100lb – seven over 150lb, and four well beyond that. But it's not all about size. I investigate super-aggressive snakehead fish in South East Asia and Florida. We go to Africa's Rift Valley in search of Nile perch, visit the Congo after goliath tigerfish, hunt giant stingrays in Thailand, track down record-size bullsharks in a South African river, and uncover the identity of Alaska's 'Lake Iliamna Monster' – North America's very own 'Nessie'.
Last year, River Monsters quickly became Animal Planet's best-performing series ever. Were you surprised at all by the overwhelming response to the first season?
I expected it to get some interest from people other than anglers, but not to the extent that it did. But thinking about it now, a lot of it makes sense. Each programme is essentially a detective story, which holds the attention because we want to see the shady culprit apprehended. And invariably they don't want to come quietly.