In the first two seasons of Animal Planet’s River Monsters, host Jeremy Wade has taken viewers around the world as he looks to discover the truth behind some of fishing’s tallest tales. Before Season 3 premiers on April 10, the former biology teacher and avid angler took some time to talk to Outside about using himself as human bait, the one that got away, and the best tasting fish he’s ever eaten. (Click here to listen to a podcast of the interview)
OUTSIDE: For those who might not be familiar with the show, where did the idea come from, and how did you take it from idea to reality?
WADE: I made a series set in India that was more of a conventional fishing show. The fish were very uncooperative, so we were casting around for other bits of local color. We heard local stories of something pulling people into the water. They called it the Kali man-eater. We did a bit of a feature on this, and if formed part of that series. A few years later, a friend of mine who’s a wildlife filmmaker saw my DVDs of that series. He said, I think there’s sort of a natural history detective story here. You still get to put a line in the water, but that’s not the focus of the program. It’s more about setting up a mystery, a fisherman’s tale, which most people tend to discount.
So you’ve heard plenty of tall tales. What stands out in your mind as the tallest tale you’ve ever heard?
Possibly even the very first one we looked into, the goonch catfish in India. They said people had been pulled into the river. It’s a very tumultuous, powerful river. You look at that river and think, If somebody falls in, they’re going to drown. Maybe that’s all it is. But all the stories came from pools where the water was relative calm, and the people were in shallow water. From the biological point of view, you can only have a really big animal if there’s a lot of food for it. You have this Hindu custom where when somebody dies, they’re cremated and put into the water. We heard from people there that this is the food source. Although they cremate the body, it’s not fully cremated before it goes into the water. So all the pieces did add up. I did catch a fish that was a 161 pounds, six-foot long, which certainly would be capable of grabbing somebody’s leg and pulling them under.
Some of the titles from Season 2 had some interesting names: Death Ray, Congo Killer, Alaskan Horror, Demon Fish. Season 3: Are we going to see anything else really scary?
One thing that is sometimes said [about the show] is that the titles are a bit sensational. I have two things to say about this. Generally speaking, each episode will start with a fisherman’s tale, and they are sort of sensational by their nature. Because it’s television, we dramatize it, and these stories generally are very dramatic. Then we try to find out what the truth is behind it. I think it’s true to say that everybody has a fascination with predators. It’s something that’s hardwired into us. We are descended from people who paid attention to dangerous things in the environment. People who didn’t pay attention to dangerous things in the environment didn’t get to survive and to breed. But I’ve got the titles, if you'd like to hear them: Flesh Ripper, Mutilator, Japanese Horrors, Chainsaw Predator, Electric Executioner, Wolf Fish, and Silent Assassin.
What’s the most frightening moment you’ve experienced filming the show?
Sometimes it’s to do with the imagination, even when nothing actually happens. One of the episodes in Season 3, we went to New Zealand and were looking there for freshwater eels. In one of Captain Cook’s journals he said that he was told by one of Maoris that there are these 8-foot-long creatures, they’re as thick as a man’s body, and they’re said to devour people. To test this particular theory, I turned myself into human bait. I smeared myself in fish guts and jumped in the river. From being completely clear water, in a matter of minutes there were about 30 eels all around me. Individually they weren’t huge—up to four or five feet long—but I did a sort of quick calculation and reckoned that in terms of biomass there’s probably about twice my body mass around me, all getting very interested, all getting very hungry, starting to nip—much more biomass than a shoal of piranhas coming in. It sort of got to the point where I thought, Yes, I think I’ve proved that point; it’s time to get out of the water.
What’s the best tasting fish you’ve ever eaten?
Without a doubt a fish in the Amazon called tambaqui—if you know where to go. The places tend to be closely guarded secrets. They’re fruit eaters, so the tend to congregate by certain trees. They gorge themselves of fruits and seeds and nuts, so they have this very rich, high-protein organic diet. For half the year they just pile on the weight and fat. If you grill them slowly over an open fire, they just sort of sizzle away in their own fat.
Season 3 of River Monsters premiers Wednesday, April 10, at 10 p.m. on Animal Planet.