JEREMY WADE: Interview, April 2011
Animal Planet Communications intern and NYU student Carl Baker sat down with biologist and extreme angler Jeremy Wade while he was in New York promoting the third season of RIVER MONSTERS. The unlikely star, while exhausted from dozens of interviews and book signings, mustered the energy and grace to take some time with our intrepid lad, who was thrilled to have some face-time with his fellow angler.
Welcome to New York, Jeremy. I guess you could say The Big Apple is a hostile environment, but certainly nowhere near the areas you consistently place yourself in during your travels. Do you actually find solace in the environments you travel to?
Yes, very much so. I think it's something that is often overlooked — that fishing is not just about the fish; it's an experience. And even a day without catching a fish is a day well spent. Although, I think if you're fishing and you're well prepared, you always have a sense that something could happen at any moment, so the time doesn't drag. Fishing makes you be still in the landscape. You just sit there and you merge with the landscape. You see things and experience things in a different way than you would otherwise. As a way of clearing the head and getting away from it all, it's very good.
New York City was just recently up in arms about the loose Egyptian cobra from the Bronx Zoo. Is that a snake that you've encountered at all -- say, perhaps, in the area of the Nile?
To be honest, I don't see a lot of snakes. Snakes are normally very secretive. If you haven't traveled anywhere, you imagine you are just going to be tripping over snakes the whole time, but you just don't. Snakes tend to know when you're coming and get out of the way, or they're so well camouflaged you don't even see them. I see very few snakes -- very few. But it's something I'm tuned in to. I have seen some snakes -- I've seen quite big anacondas. In some ways, I'd like to see more snakes, as long as it's at a safe distance.
You were in Japan filming an episode for the new season. How devastating do you think the tsunami was to the freshwater creatures you caught there and to their environment?
The main place that we looked was actually up in the mountains, so I'm not sure that it would have had any impact on the main area we filmed. But I think more generally what the tsunami did — a lot of seawater came on land — could have been fairly devastating to any fish that were in those rivers. You don't hear a lot about freshwater fish there, but they do indeed have freshwater fish species. The seawater being dumped on top of them would probably kill a lot freshwater fish. But the creatures where we were, I think, would probably be alright.
In this new season, you branch out from catching just fish. What kind of new challenges did this present to you? Was it outside your realm of experience?
It was a bit. Although, I suppose I'd say that people know by now that RIVER MONSTERS is not really a fishing show. It's more about underwater mystery stories. Until now, the creatures [on the show] have typically been a type of fish. But there are a lot of other creatures that live under the water which are quite fish-like. What we were after in Japan turned out to be an amphibian, but a very fish-like amphibian. I don't believe they even need to come to the surface for air — I believe they can breathe through their skin. But yes, actually going in and catching the Japanese salamander — there was an ethical issue there. The Japanese salamander is endangered. It's a bit of a complicated picture because you've also got Chinese salamanders that have been introduced in Japan, so you've got hybrids. We had to handle it fairly carefully. I felt it wasn't appropriate to fish for a salamander, so I went in and grabbed it. It didn't look too pleased about being grabbed, but it was handled in a way that didn't injure it, and it was returned to the river unharmed.
What major changes do you think the world needs to make to protect the great monsters you've caught?
I believe it begins with an awareness of their existence. And I think it's true to say that before RIVER MONSTERS started, a lot of people had no idea that these things even existed. You have to know that the monsters exist before you care about them. And what that should do is lead people to care about the environment the creatures thrive in. The presence of these so-called monsters are indicators of the health of the river. And you could take the analogy a bit further and say that the rivers are like the planet's bloodstream, and what you do when you go fishing is you're taking a sample. And, actually, if you find large apex predators, that's the sign of a healthy environment.
Your success comes clearly in part because of your ability to get into the mind of the fish you're seeking. How did you learn to do this, particularly when you're dealing with a fish that is seldom seen or understood?
Fish have very small brains (*laughs*). Again, I suppose it's about imagining yourself under the water. Fish see the world very differently from us. We're very much dominated by vision, and vision does play a part underwater. But in rivers where visibility is not good, fish rely on vibration, smell and maybe even electrical currents. So it makes you think in a different way. The fascinating thing about rivers is that the water is moving — and it's not moving in a straightforward way. It's not as if it's all moving downstream at the same pace. You get back currents and all sorts of motions going. And that's what fish are doing mostly. To them, it's about feeling secure, but also about finding food. So if you were a fish, where would you be? That's always the first question. It's a lot of looking at the water and trying to imagine what it's like below. Before you get to the fish, you're imagining what the water itself is doing.
How do you work on fishing as a skill? Do you train? Weightlift?
I mean, it can be physically demanding. With some fishing, you're constantly casting and retrieving in a very energetic way — you've got to be quite fit for that. But no, I don't train much specifically. I do keep myself fit — I tend to use stairs instead of elevators. I don't lift weights but I do a bit of yoga, running, and occasionally, a bit of aikido. Some fishing is quite physically demanding. If you've got a heavy fish — something like a stingray or a shark — it's not so much about letting that fish run around and tire itself out. You really are just trying to drag it in on heavy gear, so that's pretty physical. Often, it's the actual fishing itself that keeps me in shape. Also, the environments are quite punishing — just living in a tropical environment keeps you fit. You're sweating a lot, you're having to carry bags around. I suppose sometimes accurate casting is a thing, particularly with lure fishing, but again, I tend to do that on the job rather than practice in between fishing trips.
You broke a tendon in your bicep while battling a giant river ray. That alone really gives credence to your title of extreme angler and must have been excruciating. Has that injury affected you?
Funny enough, I've been having trouble for some months with that. So basically, the tendon was wearing through. I didn't know it at the time, but it was just wearing through. And interestingly, when it finally goes, the sign that the tendon is gone is that the pain stops. You no longer have a tendon, therefore you no longer have pain — you just have a hole in your arm where the muscle has sort of disappeared from where it was.
So you literally have a sort of gap in your arm?
Yes, I've got a bit of a hollow gap in my right arm where the top of that muscle used to be.
Has it affected the strength in your arm?
I did read that it can reduce your strength between 30% and 50%, but when I went to see a specialist, he said it's more around 5% to 7%. I'd rather have that 5% to 7%, but it's not the end of the world.
Do you have any other fishing related scars? Have you received any painful bites or stings?
When we were filming the Argentina episode, I was stabbed by the pectoral spine of a catfish, and that was extremely painful. It was actually quite a small catfish. Very often, with a big fish, you're paying attention, but with a small fish, you aren't as much necessarily — particularly if you're filming. I think the director was just asking me to hold it up. The fish kicked and I didn't want it to drop on the deck of the boat, so I held on to its tail and let go with the other hand and it basically just swung its body into my hand. Its spine didn't go in very far, but it was very, very painful. I still have a mark.
You write in your book that you have OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder). Do you find that this more often helps or hinders your pursuits?
I would quite honestly prefer not to have that. It's largely gone away now. But it's true to say there is an obsessive side to my nature. And when I've got the time and I'm prepared — I do pay very, very precise attention to the state of my gear. The sharpness of the hook — all that kind of stuff. That is all very important. A lot of people lose fish because they don't pay attention to important details. I not only do that, but I also think very much about what I'm going to do for larger fish. I think "what happens if they swim in this direction? What happens if they swim in that direction?" Mentally, I've got everything covered. A lot of fishing is about confidence. If you're totally confident in your equipment, you're going to be that much more effective. If you've got any doubt about any of it, then, immediately, you're starting to just go through the motions rather than focusing on the catch.
People sometimes say: That's why they call it 'fishing' and not 'catching.' How do you deal with unsuccessful days on a hunt?
I think the answer is that you should learn something from every day. And I think a lot of fishing to me is about experimentation. You get some people who don't try things because they say "oh, I knew that wasn't going to work." I think that if something might sound a bit outlandish, you should try it. If it doesn't work, you've learned something. There have been some quite dramatic examples. In carp fishing — particularly in Europe — there is a technique called the hair rig where your bait isn't even on the hook; it's actually attached by a very thin line. There's a whole logic behind this, but a lot of people would have looked at that twenty years ago and said "that's a waste of time, that's never going to work." Absolutely devastating technique. The people who first invented that were just cleaning up. They were catching fish while others were failing. And that was just all born out of inventiveness, out of "let's just give this a try."
Is there a hunt that you'd never want to repeat?
That's hard to say. I used to think that about the Congo. I made a couple of trips to the Congo and caught nothing, and you come back and you think "I never want to do that again." But the fact that I didn't catch anything meant unfinished business; I've got to go back. And again, although I didn't catch anything, I learned something. I'm now one step closer to what I wanted. So, yes, the Congo; part of me didn't want to go back but part of me knew that I had to go back and get the goliath tigerfish.
You nearly lost your life in a plane crash in Brazil. Did any sort of epiphanies come from this? Or did it only confirm that you were living the way you wanted to?
That's a very interesting one, actually, because it makes you very much appreciate being alive after something like that. It is sort of a life-changing experience. But then, it's surprising how easily you can slip back into your default, take-everything-for-granted lifestyle. It didn't particularly make me question what I was doing; I just saw it as one of those things.
In your book, you seem to reveal that you have a passion for taking the non-traditional route, or avoiding the beaten path. What fuels you? What drives you to seek the unknown?
It's just normal curiosity, which everybody has. But I've been able to organize my life in such a way to give myself time to go and look at stuff. But nobody gave me a job to go and do this at first. For twenty-odd years, I was funding my own travels. I was making time by doing a bit of freelance writing and also by taking all sorts of miscellaneous jobs. I managed to get myself three months of each year to go off somewhere new.