Hunt for monsters

WILD TREAT

Hunt for monsters

DAREDEVIL Jeremy Wade with a goonch.

Going by his warm, intelligent eyes and weather beaten face, he could easily be mistaken for a mild mannered biology teacher. And you wouldn’t be wrong then either. Jeremy Wade did start as a secondary school biology teacher in Kent, England. Now, of course, he is better known as an extreme angler (ranked number 1 by Angling News) and has made his life’s passion into a career as he goes globe-trotting across India, Germany, Australia, Brazil and the United States in his search for monster-sized fish. In River Monsters on Animal Planet, Jeremy comes face-to-face with not just biology but also fear, as he tries to understand these mysterious predators with a taste for human flesh, often putting his life on the line.

What gives his work an interesting twist is that he tracks deadly creatures shrouded in mystery and tries to figure out whether these freshwater monsters are figments of overactive imagination and local folklore, or there is some truth to their man-eating habits. So, how does it feel to switch from simple bio teacher to fishing detective hunting out carnivorous fish? “Earlier, it was just about teaching the subject to the younger generation, but now, I’m able to apply this knowledge in my real life water adventures,” he says.

Jeremy would like us to know that nearly half of the world’s fish species live in just 0.01 per cent of the world’s water resources — lakes and rivers. Yet, most people do not know much about creatures  in fresh water than they do about oceans. Because some rivers are very hard to get to — and/or too murky to see into, using normal means — many of their inhabitants are rarely or never seen in conventional natural history programmes.

When Jeremy goes to catch a river monster, he starts by examining myths and fishermen’s tales, subjecting them to scientific scrutiny to separate fact from fiction. Then he homes in on his targets using a fishing line. The results are some fish of staggering dimensions and appearance, including some spectacular TV ‘firsts’.

Just the other day, we saw him on the raging Congo River in Africa, going after the Goliath Tiger fish, which is a relative of the Amazon piranha, but grows to 50 kilos or more and has teeth which are an inch long. “One of these things can bite a big piece out of you if you get too close,” he says, “and people who live on the Congo River say that people have even died as a result of being bitten by one of these animals.”  That particular fish took him 25 years to catch. He first went to Congo in 1985 but couldn’t catch anything. In 1991, he managed to catch a medium-sized one. When he went back, all he caught was malaria. Finally, he did manage to catch a goliath tiger, considered worldwide to be the hardest fish to catch. “They are hard to locate, they are hard to deceive, and then you have to be very careful how you handle them,” he says.

It can’t be easy to go to an unknown country, get into a massive torrential river and start fishing for giant fish with dangerous reputations. Jeremy agrees there is a big degree of risk involved. Not only has he braved the angry Congo in a wooden canoe, he has also been arrested for spying, escaped drowning and survived a plane crash. “We don’t take risks without thinking. We try and avoid things happening, but it’s all about preparation and timing. I think the important thing for me is to always talk to the local people and sometimes, in some places, it’s perfectly safe to get into the water. Secondly, I’m very much driven by curiosity. So, if I hear a story about something, I really want to get to the bottom of that legend to find out what the truth is and see the animal that is responsible.”

Since he travels with a film crew, insurance and risk assessment are necessary. The team knows what it is getting into is potentially dangerous. “But again, it’s all about preparation. I have a crew with me who is very well prepared. We trained in dealing with trauma and injury and we have a satellite phone with us in case we’re in a remote area,” he explains.

Jeremy has gone in search of fascinating creatures such as piranha, alligator gar, wels catfish, bullshark, candiru and arapaima — all shrouded in mystery. However, it seems to have begun with mahseer. He recounts his mahseer fishing expedition on the Cauvery River in Karnataka in 1986, where he camped beside the river and spent a couple of months there. “That was one of the things that really sort of propelled me to go on and try and find similar experiences elsewhere,” he says.

He has fished in north India as well. Jeremy finds the mountain rivers in the Himalayas amazing. Very often it’s not just the fish, it’s the whole experience, he feels. “I find the mountains in north India just a very dramatic place to be.”

‘River Monsters’ airs every Wednesday at 9 pm on Animal Planet

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