Monster catches

Jeremy Wade likes to fish for predators, but knows where less adventurous anglers should camp and cast.

Whether it's a kingfisher perched on your rod or a grizzly bear crashing into the adjacent water, an angler's memories are about more than just fish.

In the jungles of South America there's a fish that sends piranhas finning for cover. It's the anjumara - the wolf fish. A diver who pulled his knife on one sustained lacerations and permanent tendon damage to his hand (I saw the scars). Trio Indians say the anjumara will take on hunting dogs, snakes, anything in the water.

Suriname, on the continent's Caribbean edge, was once a Dutch colony but the British were also there, so Surinamese pidgin has more than a smattering of mutant English.

With film crew in tow, I fly to a jungle airstrip 320 kilometres up the Corentyne River, then take to a big dugout canoe. The river twists, splits into multiple channels, tumbles over rocky rapids, reconvenes and then does it all again and again, until you lose all sense of direction and time. But for our boatman, this place is his neighbourhood.

We arrive at a shaded beach on an island and set up camp. On one side of the island is a deep, turbulent eddy. But the fish I am after is not a monster of the deep; it prefers the shallow creeks off the main river. With the rainy season over, these creeks are dry now and the fish concentrate in their entrances. But the water is 60 centimetres above the expected level: we will have to go in.

After manhandling the canoe through the tangles, my guide, Salamoni, gets out and creeps to the entrance of a small stream. Here he ripples the water with his machete while whistling plaintively, like a wounded bird. Just as my attention starts to wander, the water bulges in front of him. He draws his bow immediately but the arrow goes wide.

Back in the boat, I clip a floating lure to the wire leader on my line. Bright red and silver, it is the size of a very large cigar, with a concave scoop in its front end that makes an explosive pop when the line is tugged. Casting is not easy, given all the branches and creepers. But up ahead I see a ripple under a log and my lure lands just beyond it.

Most fish would swim a mile from bait like this. But something opens a hole in the surface and takes it under.

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The next moments are a blur as I heave to keep the line clear of snags while Salamoni propels the boat closer.

Once the fish is in the canoe, I pull my feet back. This fish is a force of nature. With its gap-toothed grimace and ask-questions-later attitude, I can see how it might indeed see off dogs, snakes, even divers. Taking no chances, I put on bite-proof gloves to let it go.

Fishermen are fond of saying that their sport's appeal is as much about the places it takes them as it is about the fish. While this is partly an excuse for not catching anything, it's still true. Being by the water stirs something in us and the variety of waterscapes and underwater life is endless. The more exotic the place, the more exotic the fish, so the theory goes: the man-size arapaima in the Amazon, fearsome goliath tigerfish in the Congo, the supercharged mahseer in India.

But these days, mere remoteness doesn't guarantee healthy fish populations: the monsters of yesteryear have gone from many waters around the world. I've come back "fishless" from two-month trips but I've been compensated by the fact that I've seen places from a different angle. For in many parts of the world, where fishing is central to human survival rather than an eccentric pastime, you can find yourself going beneath the surface of human life in a way that isn't otherwise possible.

Many destinations now have lodges, camps and fishing guides catering for the adventurous angler. Most tour operators will tell you what gear to bring. Often you can use what you would use at home, or just supplement this with some heavier lines and larger hooks. Or gear can be supplied, which eliminates the need to travel with a long, unwieldy rod case. Failing that, simply take some basic fishing gear on the holiday you had already planned.

Jeremy Wade presents River Monsters on Animal Planet from March 6 at 7.30pm. The River Monsters book recounts the author's 25 years of exploration (Swordfish/Orion).

- Telegraph, London

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