Monday, April 02, 2012

Jeremy Wade of River Monsters Tackles Giant Fish in Florida and Proves Noodles Aren't Just Ramen

Jeremy Wade visits a taxidermy shop in Stuart to confirm the existence of large gar. Reminds me of Quint's famous line in JAWS: "Taxidermy man gonna have a heart attack."

Season 4 of River Monsters kicked off last night after a live fan chat, so I finally get to share my thoughts on the episode, which is of particular interest to us here at Sex and the Beach, since the first segment of American Killers takes place in Florida.


It's no surprise Jeremy Wade alighted here last year in search of potentially dangerous fish. The state is a peninsula surrounded by the Atlantic, the gulf of Mexico and influenced by one of world's most formidable underwater currents, the Gulf Stream. Floridians live on giant porous rock with a flowing subterranean aquifer.

As a Floridian, I would have enjoyed seeing Jeremy Wade explore deeper into the backcountry, where freshwater runs from spring-fed sources. But some of those areas are still relatively untouched by human habitation, so the danger to humans is minimal. It's the tidal rivers that are of concern and sometimes man-made urban canals, though I have yet to hear of anyone crazy enough to swim in one -- they're ominously murky and home to alligators, probably a few dead bodies and submerged trash, too.


In the Season 4 opener, Jeremy Wade explores sections of the Indian River Lagoon system, 156 miles of tidal estuarine environment stretching from Ponce de Leon inlet just south of New Smyrna Beach to Jupiter Inlet just south of Stuart. Many spots in this area of Florida remain relatively uncrowded and free from coastal urban congestion -- compared to the waterfront concrete jungles of Miami, anyway -- but it's by no means remote from human habitation. Communities along the Indian River are a laid-back haven for water babies who love fishing, swimming and water sports.

(It's also beautiful drive, by the way, especially if you wander up or down A1A from Hutchinson Island to Sebastian Inlet.)

Earlier today, I spoke over the phone with Mark Perry, executive director of Florida Oceanographic Society in Stuart, about the waterway. "It's a mix of freshwater and saltwater," said Perry. "Five tidal inlets through barrier islands make up the system, plus freshwater rivers and creeks that run off into the lagoon. Sometimes we get freshwater discharge from Lake Okeechobee, but that doesn't last long as the tide flows in."

To paint a mental picture, this isn't a freshwater "landlocked" river. It's a body of water in between the peninsula and barrier islands, a common geographical feature on most of Florida's east coast. I'm not quite sure what makes a river a proper river in this case, instead of a bay. Biscayne Bay isn't considered a river, but it's the same thing -- a body of water in between the mainland and the barrier islands. (The Matanzas in St. Augustine is another example of a beautiful tidal river that runs parallel to the mainland.)

Natural history aside, the cultural background of the Indian River is also quite interesting.

This river was originally named Ais after the Indian tribe that lived there in pre-colonial times. In the heyday of the Spanish Main, treasure-laden galleons, led astray from the Gulf Stream by fierce storms, wrecked on the coast just outside the barrier islands. Marauding pirates would lie in ambush or attack the encampments of shipwreck survivors.

It's in this region of Florida, known as the Treasure Coast, so naturally and historically rich, where Jeremy Wade catches a giant 350 pound Goliath grouper as well as a 6-foot juvenile bull shark.

(He also loses a tarpon and mentions that some folks have been killed by the jumping predators, which I have never thought twice about when tarpon fishing. For great tarpon jumping action, by the way, head to Robbie's Marina in the Florida Keys to hand feed the king of the backcountry.)

In the episode, Jeremy Wade interviews a shark victim from one of the local beaches. She makes a great point -- be aware if you swim in the early morning or early evening, when predatory fish are feeding. And yes, if you see bait fish jumping, that's probably because something bigger is chasing them. Anglers are used to seeing these fish behaviors off the surface of water.


jeremy wade goliath grouper river monsters season 4 animal planet
But forget the sharks. The grouper had me scratching my head. Goliath groupers -- a prohibited species at the time of publication -- spawn offshore and usually congregate around reef structures. Juveniles grow up in brackish mangrove estuaries. What was a monster doing off a beach near Fort Pierce inlet?

Mark Perry confirmed that they do sometimes dwell inshore. "Goliath groupers are definitely in the area around docks and near inlets."

So anglers, take note and prepare your heavy tackle. A 350 pound Goliath grouper like that caught off a beach by Fort Piece was definitely impressive, even if it wasn't in a deep inland river.


jeremy wade noodlingLater on in the show, Jeremy Wade fishes for alligator gar in Texas and giant catfish in Missouri. But I'm going to fast forward to noodling in Oklahoma, which I think was the best segment, as it reveals Jeremy Wade in a state of trepidation about this fishing technique.

A quick look around the internet tells me it's an "ancient fishing practice" though it would only be truly ancient if natives living on the continent were doing it long before the pilgrims landed on Plymouth.

But speaking of rebellious Christians, there's something oddly religious about the practice of noodling -- dunking your body underwater, sticking your hand down a dark hole only to have a territorial fish that's protecting its nest clamp down on your hand, with your fellow anglers spotting you just in case the fish sucks you down. It seems like a baptismal ritual, a "come to Jesus" moment.

At one point, Jeremy Wade describes it "as a stupid thing to do," and surely, it is dangerous, but if it really is a truly American fishing practice -- even dating back to native cultures -- then it should be respected as yet one of the thousands of ways folks harvest fish out of any body of water, in a non-invasive, ecologically friendly way. It's really almost like hand-to-hand combat, with the fisherman at a great disadvantage.

(By the way, the catfish in this episode, which Jeremy Wade catches for a competition with his noodling guides, are released and not killed for consumption. This is a good thing, considering the fish are spawning. I just wonder if the parents make it back to their nests.)

Noodling is clearly a strong midwestern fishing tradition. In the episode, Jeremy Wade remarks that this kind of fishing is "mad" but does prove America is the land of the brave.

Good grief, I don't have a brave bone in my body, if that's the case. I think I'll stick to rod and reel. The only noodling I want to be involved with requires broth and vegetables!

River Monsters will continue to air in the coming weeks on Sundays at 10 PM.

All photo credits: Animal Planet

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