A fisherman's tale
PUBLISHED: 00:19 19 January 2012 | UPDATED: 20:56 20 February 2013
Extreme angler, biologist and writer Jeremy Wade presents the hit TV documentary River Monsters, searching out and catching seldom-seen freshwater fish in faraway places. Is it a glamorous life?
A fishermans tale
Extreme angler, biologist and writer Jeremy Wade presents the hit TV documentary River Monsters, searching out and catching seldom-seen freshwater fish in faraway places. Is it a glamorous life? If you consider swimming with piranhas, surviving plane crashes and malaria, and frequently handling fish with teeth like chainsaw blades to be glamorous, then absolutely
Words by Katie Jarvis
I say, I say, I say! Whats bigger and deadlier than a piranha? Erm, actually, its not a joke. Anyone whos treated themselves to Jeremy Wades latest book River Monsters can see the answer for themselves. For emblazoned on the cover is a photograph of Jeremy holding a 78lb, five-foot long goliath tigerfish, caught in the murky waters of Africas Congo River. And while you might like to imagine its smiling cheerily for the camera, the 32 shark-like teeth its open jaws reveal have been known to give even the odd crocodile palpitations.
So why, Jeremy, why? When most others would be happy to think of this most fearsome of fish safely (ish) ensconced underwater, why would you go and pull it out? Fish with teeth arent so bad. You can see what youre doing when youre handling them, so you can take avoiding action, he points out, reasonably. Its the ones that dont look so dangerous you have to watch like the electric eel. It doesnt have teeth to speak of, and its fairly flabby. But you can be knee-deep in water without even touching it and it can paralyse you (with a shock) so you fall on your face and drown.
Hes shaken fins with many of the worlds least friendly fish. Among those hes reeled in are the arapaima, which can grow to 10 feet and is widely said to be the largest freshwater fish species in the world: it took him six years to catch his first. With vivid red markings, it breathes air and crushes prey with its bony tongue. Then theres the goonch, a huge catfish living in the mountain rivers of India, which is said to feed on human remains from riverside cremations (hence its reputed great size). It has tentacles not only fringing its mouth, but also extending from its fins. Not to mention the alligator gar like a crocodile with fins; the candiru, a ghoulish fish that eats you from the inside; and the wels catfish although it looks like a giant slug, its a potential man-eater.
Actually, Jeremy adds, before I get too carried away, the thing that probably bothers me most is travelling on roads in some of these places. Youll see that all the tyres on your jeep are bald and youll ask, Isnt this dangerous? The fatalistic reply you get will be, Only if its your time to go! Well, if your day-job is based around fishing in remote parts of the world, in a battle of wits against its most toothy underwater creatures, dangers are relative. Indeed, most of the life-threatening experiences Jeremy lists in his book which accompanies his hit TV series - have ] nothing to do with fish. Theres the malaria (caused by the tiniest of disease-carrying insects, of course) that nearly killed him on his second visit to the Congo; theres the jungle plane crash into water that you can see on Youtube; theres the ever-present possibility of a medical emergency hours from the nearest doctor.
In the third series of River Monsters, currently airing on ITV, you can see exactly what Jeremys talking about in full technicolour detail for one such ncident was captured on film. The team were in Suriname, a small sovereign state of South America, back on the river after a storm they thought had passed. Suddenly, I saw a flash and instinctively hit the deck, without realising our sound recordist had been hit by lightning, Jeremy says. He didnt lose consciousness but he practically walked on water he ran across and landed in the boat. There were no burn marks but he did have this strange bare patch on his leg. We had to make an immediate decision about whether or not to evacuate him by plane, which would have taken a couple of hours.
The poor chap survived, albeit with the headache of all headaches. But the team are trained for such emergencies, and they can take advice by satellite phone. They also have to advise the Bristol production company behind River Monsters, Icon Films, about any such incidents. Each time, theyll come back with two questions: Is everyone all right? and Did you film it? Its always in that order, Jeremy grins, but one does follow very quickly after the other!
Were chatting in incongruous surroundings Costa Coffee in Stroud. (Woodruffs, where he briefly worked, was closed.) Incongruous because being able to choose between 10 different types of coffee is in direct contrast to living under tarpaulin and surviving off acrid manioc paste, as hes had to do so often on expeditions. (Though when I ask him if he finds the excesses of the West difficult after his frequent trips to very poor countries, hes pragmatic: You cant pick your parents; you cant pick your home, and this is home.) Its also congruous, because he spent a long time living near Stroud (though currently based near Bath).
In fact, Ive known Jeremy for years; long before fame almost accidentally caught up with him. And I can tell you this: hes the living definition of obliquity. His focus has always been as a biologist and fisherman, tracking down the worlds semi-mythical freshwater fish, proving the truth of fabulous-sounding fishermens stories of metres-long beasts. For much of his life, hes done it in poverty; hes done it in obscurity; hes done it at the expense of what most people would term a normal life family, home and regular pay packet. The fact that television and the watching world have caught up with him is merely a means of financing his trips more securely and of encouraging others better to understand the unlovable creatures he loves.
And that purity of vision shines through even the television screen. The CEO of Discovery in America came up to me a while ago and said, Do you know why people like you? Its because, if you werent doing this on television, youd be doing it anyway, he admits. His obsession which is what he agrees it is has its roots in childhood, growing up by the Suffolk Stour where he would fish, fascinated by the invisible world that lay beneath its ripples. A conventional life seemed to be waiting for him when he embarked on a degree in zoology from Bristol, and went on to become a biology teacher. But rebellion was in the family: rebellion not for its own sake, but in order to follow deep beliefs. His father a wonderful man, whom I was fortunate enough to know was disinherited after abandoning the family farm to become a priest.
Jeremys desire to look beneath the surface of life was more literal. Bored of the predictability of fishing in England, he began to finance (on a thread-bare shoe-string) trips to the worlds lesser-known spots, determined to discover whether there was truth in seeming lyapocryphal tales of monster freshwater fish fresh water because its literally a lot murkier and less explored than the sea. From my point of view, fishing is all about mystery, he says; about making contact with another world.
Many of the fish he tracks down have been accused of terrible crimes: of swallowing people whole; of deliberately attacking and eating them. Its this murder-mystery element that partly accounts for the series massive popularity, he believes. Youve got a crime scene, youve got witnesses, and youve got a suspect who doesnt want to come quietly; but then you have to ask what the motive was. And thats when youll discover it wasnt deliberately going for somebody; it thought the splash was a small fish. Sharks are a case in point. When we were filming in South Africa, we tagged bull sharks and tracked them going within yards of people standing in water up to their waists fly-fishing. Yet the sharks werent interested. They were checking people out and going on their way, which is completely contrary to peoples opinions.
His first real expedition was to the mountain rivers of India in 1982. His early trips failed to elicit many fish but he was the one who got hooked. And thats an important element to bear in mind when watching his programmes. Although he ostensibly took eight days to catch his giant goliath tigerfish for River Monsters, it was actually the end of a 25-year quest.
Whats more, when he landed it, even the local villagers gathered round, fascinated: In moments, a cheerful mob, the chief at their fore, surrounded me. Women held out their babies towards it Despite living cheek by jowl with this leviathan, few Congolese had ever seen one. Though Jeremy normally returns his fish to the river, this one didnt survive the experience and ended up providing a couple of pounds of meat for each family.
His ability to capture these monsters is nothing to do with brute force. Hes patient, careful and sensitive to them, and much of his success lies in his knowledge; he has learned to think like a fish and there are few things he wont do in the process. He was happy to consider swimming across a bullshark-infested river at the request of his director to prove his hypothesis that the multi-toothed fish werent interested in people. (An enterprise only called off at the last minute.) And hes swum in a tank full of piranhas, despite relating stories such as that of a bus crash into the Rio Urubu, east of Manaus, in 1976, where piranhas ate all the occupants. (Though, as he robustly adds for the defence case, the fish probably didnt eat them alive.)
In fact, his biggest fear isnt for himself. Its for the fish. The TV programme gives the somewhat false impression that, anywhere you go, theres going to be seven foot-long fish that will pull you under. Most places, you wont find anything at all. Whereas, if youd been there 50 years ago, you probably would have found all sorts of stuff. The frightening thing is, its happened in such a short period of time. I sometimes think I was born 50 years too late.
So are there still creatures out there? Loch Ness monsters, waiting to be officially recognised. Mysteries that Jeremy Wade wants to solve? There are parts of the world I havent been to but, at the moment, theres no real creature I particularly want to get my hands on.
What I would like to do and this is the angler mentality is always to go back and catch a bigger one. When Id caught the goliath tigerfish, I thought to myself: Ive cracked it! I know how to do this now! The crew had to forcibly hold me back from the water, saying, No, no we dont need another fish!
The fascinating thing for me is this fundamental difference between land animals and water animals; in the water, with your body being weightless, you can just keep on growing if youve got enough food. And if he could see into the mind of one of his fish, is there anything hed like to know? He grins again. Id love to know what they make of being taken out of the water, being treated quite well for just a short time, and then being put back in.
I always imagine them going back to their friends, saying, I was abducted by aliens!
River Monsters is currently airing on ITV, Tuesdays, at 7.30pm (or catch the extended version Wednesdays, 9pm, on ITV4); the accompanying book is published by Orion, price 18.99. For more on Jeremy, log onto www.jeremywade.co.uk