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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Fisherman's obsession helps him find 'River Monsters'

By Luaine Lee
McClatchy-Tribune News Service

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Jeremy Wade, star of Animal Planet's "River Monsters," poses with a Goliath tigerfish from deep in the Congo basin.

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PASADENA, Calif. Jeremy Wade is full of fish stories, only he's not exaggerating when he describes his latest catch.

Wade is a big-game angler constantly in search of freshwater monsters that make sharks seem as docile as dolphins.

The host of Animal Planet's "River Monsters," Wade plies his skill with heavy fishing equipment and a passion, he admits, that borders on obsession.

"You start off interested in variety, and then it's always about bigger fish, bigger fish, and I became fairly obsessive I think in my late teens and early 20s," he says in the lounge of a hotel here.

The British-born Wade began fishing for carp. "There was a lot of mystique surrounding them. They were supposed to be hard to catch. But while this was happening, fishing was becoming much more popular generally and because it was a small country generally and more people interested, it became less of an escape."

He stopped fishing for a time. "Then I just by chance came across an article about somebody who went to India fishing for a fish called a mahseer. And a couple years after that, I found myself in India with not much money in my pocket and not much of an idea of what I was going to do."

What he was going to do was stalk that mahseer like it was Moby Dick. He wrote some articles about that battle, which led to working as a part-time journalist and a copywriter. A zoology graduate, he also taught biology for a while. For 15 years he would trek to some exotic location, try to snag some scaly Sasquatch for three months and return to his erratic day jobs.

"It took me six years going to the Amazon, three months at a time, to actually track down the arapaima," he says. "That's commonly said to be the biggest fresh-water fish in the world. Nobody knows for sure, but a lot of people think so."

Wade, 54, always fishes in fresh water. "There's less mystery in the sea than there is in fresh water," he says. "If you look at television there's lots of documentaries on whales, on coral reefs, the deep oceanic trenches. There's loads of stuff. But as soon as you look for anything about fresh water, the information is very sketchy.

"I think it's for a very simple reason. Sea water is clear, and you can put the camera in sea water and you can see stuff, whereas freshwater is often zero visibility. ... So I think from my point of view my position is that fishing is one area of life where you've still got real, where you can't just go to a textbook or the Internet or whatever. You just have to go and find out for yourself."

He finds out for himself by grappling with the 6-foot arapaima, the goonch in India or the Goliath tigerfish.

"It lives in the central part of the Congo basin, which is a very difficult place to get to," Wade says. "It's a difficult place to survive, and on top of that, to have some kind of energy surplus to go fishing. It's a very difficult fish to catch. It's 4 1/4- to 5-foot, about 100 pounds, not as big as the arapaima. It is, for all intents and purposes, a giant piranha. It's a relative of the piranha, and it's got the same dentition, where you've got the triangular teeth, but the whole animal is scaled up. People get very excited about piranhas, but this is HUGE," he says.

"The first time I went to the Congo was in '85, and I finally caught one in 1991. The arapaima in the Amazon, that was also six years. I went back every year for about three months, and it was six years before I caught one. So it's an obsession beyond normal levels."

The unmarried Wade has entertained other species in his travels. He caught malaria in the Congo.

"It developed to a stage where I couldn't even see properly. Some of the local people thought I wasn't going to make it. I had a blood test at a riverside health post who said it's not malaria. But it got worse and worse and was periodic. I ended up actually taking medication I had with me all the time but didn't want to take the strong medication if that wasn't it. And it cleared it up."

He's survived other threats. "One place in South America during dry season, living on floating houses on a narrow stagnant bit of water, ... everyone's doing their washing and you name it, it goes into the water. You're also drinking it untreated. I was convinced I must've had something from that, but I got tested when I came back and nothing at all. I guess I've developed a strong constitution."