Like other fishermen, British biologist Jeremy Wade is all too familiar with the thrill when a fish takes the bait off his fishing line, making the wait and tedium worthwhile. But unlike others who are content to catch perch, trout or other freshwater fish, Wade reels in fish that would probably surface in other people’s nightmares, which he does regularly as host of the Discovery Channel’s extreme fishing program “River Monsters.”
“The most striking experience I had hosting ‘River Monsters’ was catching the goliath tigerfish in Africa’s Congo. I managed to catch the fish after putting up with some of the most challenging, undeveloped terrain imaginable,” recounts the 58-year-old, which occurred in 2010 during the popular show’s second season. “Its huge size, large teeth and metallic scales lend it a futuristic look that affirms my belief that one would never know what their fishing reel will bring in.”
Wade shared his anecdotes on the fish during “River Monsters Live in Asia,” a road trip around the Asia Pacific region that kicked off in Jakarta’s Kota Kasablanka mall last week. Marking the 20th anniversary of Discovery Channel’s presence in the Asia Pacific region, the event is also held before the premiere of “River Monsters’” sixth season this July.
During the session, Wade revealed the season will take place in the Amazon rain forests of Brazil, Colombia and Guyana.
“The Amazon River has over ten thousand times more fish species than the world’s oceans, namely because its water flow is as dense as the Ganges, Mississippi and Nile, as well as other rivers combined. The potential number of species kept me going back there, keeping me from checking out Indonesia’s rivers,” he says. “The structure of ‘River Monsters’ as a show is also another factor. We would check out rivers around the world when we hear about the sighting of a rare fish there. As of yet there are no such reports from Indonesia, but we haven’t ruled out their existence in its rivers entirely.”
“I did catch a giant fish called an arapaima, which could grow more than eight meters long and weigh over 100 kilograms,” he adds. “The fish, which is known to have a bony head and tongue, struck me on the chest.”
This particular experience occurred during “River Monsters’” fourth season in 2012.
“Fortunately it only left me bruised, as it was a relatively small 40 kilogram specimen. The fish is closely related to the arwana that is endemic to Borneo, so I’m certain that Indonesia has more than its fair share of river monsters.”
He explains that the growth of such fish, while relatively rare, is made possible because of a number of factors.
“Giant fishes will thrive in rivers that are relatively pristine and free of pollution. But much of it is due to evolution,” he says. “Lower rates of gravity in the water ensures that fishes will not stop growing, as does the availability of prey in the water. On the other hand, the growth of large land animals like elephants or horses are limited by gravity and their surroundings, as an animal that gets too large cannot move or feed itself.”
While Wade shared his experiences encountering rare and dangerous species, among them giant catfish like the goonch in India or the piraiba in South America, as well as anacondas and red bellied or black piranha, he also shared some tips on how to deal with them.
“The standard reels that I use are big enough to snare about 60 kilograms of fish, but I also have another spool for catches of over 90 kilograms and up. But the line is liable to break if the fish is exceptionally strong or if its stuck in a rock,” he says, while demonstrating the line’s use. “I also use a number of knots in case the line breaks. Aside from the knot, I also use a harness. While this contraption is liable to be pulled by a struggling fish, it still eases my shoulders and back from the strain of pulling them in.”
Wade points out that while curiosity and adventure motivated him in “River Monsters,” he also took pains to ensure his catch’s wellbeing.
“When I handle a fish, I do so with wet hands so that it would retain the slime protecting it, instead of holding it with dry hands, which will cause the slime to come off. I also ensure that I’ll put the fish back in the river instead of dry land,” he says. “I would also be quick in filming the fish. I would hold it long enough for my cameraman to get close-ups of the animal. The shots would be used later on when I described their parts in my on cam, during which I would hold other objects [off camera]. The method generated some controversy for lacking authenticity, but since it’s done for the fishes’ safety, then so be it.”
But most of all, the allure of not knowing what he’ll find in a river’s murky depths drew Wade back, just as it did when he started fishing as a 7-year-old.
If anything, it shows that the call of rivers is as intense as the sea, and just as timeless.
Originally published in The Jakarta Globe on June 1, 2014