What has been your favorite location to go angling?
My most memorable location was the Congo, but getting to the river was a draining experience, leaving me almost no energy to fish. This is why very few other outsiders have fished there. Because of zero infrastructure, there is hardly any commercial fishing (unlike, say, the Amazon) so it's one of the few river systems in the world with healthy fish stocks.
What do you find most exciting about searching for river monsters?
Although lakes and rivers comprise less than 1% of the Earth's water, we probably know less about what lives in fresh water than in oceans. This is because some rivers are very hard to reach and can be too murky and/or hostile to see anything using a conventional filmmaking approach. River Monsters is breaking new ground: freshwater is probably the last frontier of wildlife filmmaking. Even big-budget film expeditions to rainforests and mountains regularly miss the spectacular underwater inhabitants. Often the only way to discover the findings is to throw in a line; it becomes a genuine sampling tool. So even in the 21st century, there are genuine mysteries to be solved and discoveries to be made in rivers and ultimately shown to the outside world.
Have you had any close calls or bad injuries?
I have had close calls on land (had a machete accident, hacked thumb to the bone, then had to perform surgery with super glue); in water (narrowly escaped from a sinking boat in the Amazon); and in the air (survived a plane crash in the Amazon and escaped uninjured). I've also caught malaria in the Congo, where the locals thought I might die; was rammed in the chest by a 6-foot arapaima in the Amazon; had a gun pulled on me in Amazon interior; and also was detained and interrogated as a suspected spy while fishing at the Mekong River in 1984.
What developed your interest in angling and biology?
The village where I grew up had a river running through it (the Suffolk Stour). Most boys were given fishing rods as a parental attempt to keep them out of trouble, but few actually caught any fish. At first, I considered it a pointless activity, but then a school friend taught me how to catch fish (his grandfather was a fly fisherman). From then on, there was no stopping me; it was a passport to another world. I always wanted to see what was around the next bend.
What other activities do you enjoy besides fishing?
When I get a chance, I love to go scuba diving (mostly cold, low-visibility water around the U.K. coast) and more recently free diving. I used to ride motorbikes, but there is too much traffic now to be any fun. I also enjoy some rock climbing when the weather allows.
Do you have any fear with any particular type of fish?
Fear is about self-preservation, but uninformed fear is a handicap. With many fish (and other animals), if you understand their behavior you can make the fear proportional to the real level of danger. Many times this will turn down the fear level, but sometimes you should turn up the dial, such as with the notorious toothpick candiru of the Amazon, more so now after filming River Monsters! I have fears of Amazon stingrays; there are some places where they live where I wouldn't paddle for any amount of money. And I fear the goliath tigerfish, the horror of the Congo -- a man-sized piranha — as well as bull sharks in freshwater. Arapaima won't eat or bite you but could still kill you. And big catfish, instead of you pulling them in, it could be the other way around with potentially fatal consequences.
Do you actually cook and eat seafood?
In most rivers nowadays, fish are thin on the ground and should be returned after capture. However, in less threatened rivers, I have eaten many freshwater species. When hungry, I have been known to reduce a piranha to a skeleton in mere seconds. But it is very bony and not very tasty, making it a better soup, which is said by locals to be an aphrodisiac. The best fish by far anywhere is fresh-caught tambaqui (Amazon nut eater), slowly grilled over embers, sizzling in its own fat. Because I've been spoiled, I'm not so keen on bought fish that has been frozen or kept on ice, because it has an inferior taste.
Can you share any interesting cultural differences in fishing around the world?
Rather than differences, what I have found is that fishing is a universal language. In the developed world, fishing is a minority interest with little relevance to most people's lives. However, in regions like the Amazon interior and the Congo, everybody fishes, and people's lives revolve around the river. I have discovered, quite by accident, that in such places I am able to see below the surface of human life in a way not possible for a non-fishing traveler. This is through being a participant in everyday life rather than a mere observer. Also, my ability to contribute to the common pot and not be a drain on scant resources means that I am tolerated for much longer than I would be otherwise, when staying with people who literally live hand to mouth. My curiosity about local fishing methods is usually matched by curiosity about mine, with both sides learning something.
Do have a particular emotional connection with fish or fishing?
Isaak Walton called fishing the contemplative man's recreation. While much of my fishing is very physical and far from relaxing, it does also fulfill an emotional need. It's about being still in the landscape, outside time. While logic has its place in planning, fishing is mainly a non-verbal, right-brained activity — hence the difficulty in verbalizing for the camera what is happening inside one's head. Fishing is also normally solitary for me, so having spectators can be quite intimate. The emotional connection with fish is perhaps akin to a boxer's respect for his/her opponent. Fish can be much more intelligent than is generally supposed and can have distinct personalities (species and individuals). Fish can also be quite awe-inspiring in their appearance, power and other abilities.
Any thoughts on competitive fishing?
Most anglers fiercely declare themselves to be more uncompetitive than anyone else. They/we say it's just between us and the fish. But this isn't true; we always see our results in comparison with those of others.
As for overtly competitive fishing, I don't know much about competitive fishing in the U.S. But generally, competitions create a level playing field; everyone is fishing the same water at the same time rather than some having privileged access, more time, etc. In the U.K., the top-match anglers are without a doubt very good anglers, whereas someone who catches a big fish or two might just be lucky or just someone who fishes a lot. I entered a small match once and came in second place. Some of my fish were so small they escaped through the holes in my keep net. But it doesn't really attract me. My expertise is in getting to places that most outsiders can't, with just the gear that I can carry myself and still having enough energy left to fish and gather local intelligence. It's a very small niche with hardly any competitors.
The other type of competition is for records. All tackle records are useful as they give a good indication of maximum size for a species, but line-class records, in my opinion, are not good for fish welfare. They can encourage fishing with tackle that is far too light with the result that fish either break off trailing a length of line or become so exhausted that they die, maybe from a heart attack or falling prey to a predator when released. Up to a certain point, catching fish on light tackle does require a degree of skill, but certain line-class records for certain species should be null.