Jeremy Wade has spent his adult life seeking out some of the most outlandish freshwater predators on the planet, including the Alligator Gar, an air-breathing survivor from the Cretaceous period that has armour plates made from bone and 500 stiletto-sharp teeth lining its crocodilian jaws.
His quest has taken him from the Congo to the Amazon and from Alaska to the Himalaya. His TV series and books are a blend of adventure, natural history, legend and detective work.
Jeremy took time off from his latest adventure in the far east of Russia to swap fishing tales with Peter Moore.
Why do you do it? Is it the fish? Is it the adventure?
It started off being the fish. I used to be a very keen angler in my youth. By my early 20s I was camping out beside English lakes. But I soon began to notice that the water was getting rather crowded. I was having to elbow my way between other people.
Quite by chance, I found some fishing magazines in a jumble sale and on the cover of one was this big golden fish in somewhere that obviously wasn’t England. It was in India. And that planted the seed. So I found myself out in India.
It was the first time I’d really travelled. I didn’t know what I was doing at all. I took a very basic fishing kit, lived on very little money, got very ill – all the usual stuff!
When did you figure out you could make a living from catching big, ugly fish?
That same trip. I came back and managed to write a couple of articles about it. That led to the idea that there’s got to be other fish, other places out there. And maybe I could somehow subsidise trying to catch them.
It’s not always about the fish, is it?
No, not at all. Almost accidentally I became a bit of an anthropologist.
Here in the developed world, fishing is very much a minority activity. But somewhere like the Amazon or the Congo, fishing is central to people’s lives. So by fishing with them, you’re not just passing through, you’re interested in what they are doing, you become a participant in what they do. I found that quite accidentally. I wanted to look below the surface of the water for fish but I ended up getting a privileged look below the surface of human life.
They also share the stories and legends around these fish.
Yeah. Sometimes they can almost be a bit embarrassed about them. But they tell me because I’m a fisherman – ‘Nobody else would believe this but …’
Fishing becomes a common language. If you take time to hang out with people they open up. “By the way, that lake you’re fishing. Something funny happened there a few years ago.” That’s how it works.
Is it difficult to get to some of these fishing spots?
I could probably write a book about just getting to some of them. But the amazing thing is the local fishermen do these adventures, or what we see as adventures, every day. It’s just the journey to work for them. In the Amazon, a bunch of blokes will go off for two weeks into the jungle, hacking their way up creeks and things.
Is it different fishing in the Amazon to, say, the Congo?
Yeah. I was a bit cocky when I first went to the Amazon. I’d been to the Congo and knew how to survive in the rainforest. I went to the Amazon to catch an Arapaima, supposed to be the biggest freshwater fish in the world. I figured I’d get to a river or lake, catch one and come back and write all about it. It took me six years!
Yeah, but an unexpected bonus was that I got side-tracked into other things. There was that weird lake monster thing I photographed. I got into fresh water dolphins. It dawned on me, “There are other stories here.” And I ended up getting very interested in anacondas and legends about giant snakes and things.
Your policy is to release the fish you catch. Has this lead to conflict with local fishermen. I’m guessing they see this massive fish being caught and think, “There’s dinner for the whole village!”
Famously I had an on-screen argument with a local guy about a Goliath Tigerfish. I was lowering it back into the water, doing a piece to camera about what a magnificent beast it was and our local guide said, “What? You’re going to put this back?” The cameraman was just about to tell him to be quiet because we were filming but thought, “Hang on, let’s just let this go.”
Do the locals share their fishing techniques?
What tends to work is a synthesis, a combination of their expertise and mine. Most of the time it’s a predatory fish that I’m after, so I want to fish with lumps of dead fish. And the locals are saying, ‘No, no, no, no! You’ve got to use the heart of an ox. You have to decapitate a chicken and put it on a fire and truss it a certain way.” You have to sort of go through the process and say, “OK, I’ll give that a go.” Then very diplomatically say, “But then I want to try this as well.”
What about their favourite places?
They will tell me about their favourite fishing spots, but they are a bit protective about it, particularly in the Amazon. They’ll have a particular lake where they fish for Arapaima.
When the water recedes after the annual flooding, there is a point, you can’t predict it, when that lake becomes an enclosed body of water. The fish in there are trapped and they go in with their nets or whatever. You can’t go in there messing it up.
I’d say, “Can I go with you and trying fishing with a rod?” and they’d say, “No, that’s going to mess up our fishing.’
This quest for monster fish has led you to exotic places – PNG, the Congo, the Amazon. Is that where all the big fish are?
Not exclusively. The last stronghold of the Alligator Gar is in Texas. A fish that grows to seven foot long, maybe even longer, and it’s within miles of great metropolises.
Why is that?
In the developed world it’s relatively easy to say, “Right, we’ve got to do something.” The Columbia River in America’s Pacific north-west, used to have massive Sturgeon that almost died out. Then they imposed a very, very strict management regime on it and they are now back. Likewise Fraser River in Canada has huge Sturgeon.
There is no doubt that fresh water rivers are very much under threat. But the one piece of good news is that while the seas are an international free-for-all, at least there is usually just one country in charge, or a couple, with rivers.
Is it too late for some places?
In some parts of the developing world the pressure for food is immense – people fish with dynamite, with electricity, even poison. It’s complete carnage.
Are there any untouched areas left where you might stumble across something?
I just finished filming the fourth series and one of the programs was set in the far east of Russia. I think with most of these fish they won’t become extinct, but there will be a very small remnant population. There won’t be many of them and you won’t get those giant freaks that can happen if there is a big population.
You’re out fishing, when do you give up?
When I used to fish on my own, I’d give up when it was time to go home. I’d buy the cheapest three-month ticket I could buy, so I had a return date that I couldn’t change. So I’m in the Amazon and it’s two weeks before my return date and I’d think “It’s about time I started looking for a boat to get out.”
In the TV programmes, as they say, failure is not an option. I’ll keep going until I get something.
Having said that, there are other frustrations fishing for television. You only have to catch one fish. It took me two weeks to catch a Goliath Tigerfish. But once I did I thought, ‘”Right, I’ve cracked this. I know how to catch these things. There’s a bigger one there, I’m going to catch it.” The crew had to drag me saying, “No! No! No! We’ve now got to go and visit the witch doctor, talk to these people, do all the shots of the boats on the water.“ That can be frustrating.
What’s the most dangerous thing about going after these big fish?
It’s normally not the fish. With most fish you can see what you’re dealing with. There’s a big mouth with lots of teeth, so obviously you don’t put your hand near it.
I would say it’s the unexpected things in the environment that represent the most danger. For example, someone was struck by lightening on one of our shoots. We’re on the satellite phone to the office, deciding whether to evacuate him. They asked two questions: ‘Is he alright?” and then “Did you film it?”
The thing that I worry most about is road traffic. Indian mountain roads, for instance. No tread on the tyre, a driver whose belief is that it is karma that will decide his fate, not the state of his vehicle.
You had a serious case of malaria in the Congo. And a plane you were flying in went down in the jungle. Is danger part of the job description?
The great thing about filming for TV or writing about it later is that if a journey is completely incident free then you’re not getting your money’s worth. So when something starts to happen I’m almost two different people. There’s “Poor me! This is terrible! When is it going to stop?” and then there’s the other me thinking this is great stuff. Can I push this a little bit more and see where this is going to go?
In the book there’s a great picture of you fishing, sitting on a rock in the middle of some falls in the Congo. How far are you prepared to push the envelope?
We do some crazy things like filling a swimming pool with piranhas and jumping in. But at the same time we have an insurance company that wants a risk assessment. There is thorough preparation and there are times when we do draw the line.
You’ve become something of an expert on Bull Sharks.
We went fishing for Bull Sharks in South Africa and found out stuff that I don’t think anybody knew before. We put acoustic tags on two sharks and followed them on a hydrophone.
We could see exactly what they were doing. And what they were doing was they were homing in on boats. They’d wait until someone had a fish on the end and then they’d come along and take the fish. Very intelligent. Very efficient and energy-saving.
They would also home in on people standing waist-deep in the water fishing or collecting prawns off the bottom. Ten foot of Bull Shark coming to within a couple of yards and then, “Oh no, that’s not lunch “ and then going off. That’s completely at odds with what is commonly believed. Bull sharks haven’t got very good eyes, and traditionally they’d just take a bite out of something just to see what it is. But they absolutely weren’t doing that here.
Do local people ever worry that you’re disturbing something that is best left alone?
They might be concerned that you’re going to mess up their fishing. Or that you’re going to take their fish. But other than that they tend to have a fatalistic attitude towards these huge creatures. I spoke to a guy who had seen saw his buffalo dragged in by a giant fish. He still went into the water. He figured if it was his time, it was his time.
Do you go travelling for pleasure? Can you go somewhere without getting your fishing rod out?
A few times. I went to Berlin just before the wall came down. And I had a long weekend in Belfast once.
How much gear do you travel with?
I try to travel light but fishing rods are just so unwieldy. When I was travelling on my own I’d have my rods and a rucksack. I’d get everything in the 20 kilos but my clothes were only half a shopping bag full. Next to nothing. I’d be dragging these things onto buses, full of other people, nearly taking their eyes out.
So the rest of the 20 kilos was fishing gear?
I’d pare it down to an absolute minimum, but yeah. A pair of rods and a plastic suitcase with my fishing gear in it – a couple of reels, lead weights, lures, maybe some spare line: you’re very quickly up to you 20 kilos.
I went to an outdoor shop with my briefcase once, trying to find a rucksack it would fit into and leave a bit of space. I spent close to an hour trying them all out. My girlfriend at the time came with me and wandered off bored. One of the assistants came up to her and said, “See that guy there, I think he’s a drug dealer. He’s acting very strangely."
Where would you go if it was just you, your fishing gear and your rucksack?
Crazily, I’m still drawn to the Congo. There’s so much going on there. It’s one of those few places that is the terrestrial equivalent of outer space.
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