By Ed Killer
FORT PIERCE — The visit to one’s town by extreme angler and television host Jeremy Wade can be cause for alarm.
It means monsters lurk in the inviting waters nearby.
In April and June of last year, Wade and the film crew from Animal Planet network’s hit series “River Monsters” visited the Treasure Coast to fish for, well, monsters in area rivers.
The host of the highest-rated show in the network’s history did not leave empty-handed. He captured footage of several unique fishing encounters that serve as the launching point for the popular show’s fourth season debuting 9 p.m. April 1.
Wade interacts with several area locals to examine the threat of a backyard Jaws poised to strike at any time. Treasure Coast residents are fully aware of that danger, too. Just last week, Jensen Beach businessman Frank Wacha Jr., 61, was bitten by a bull shark while surfing at Jensen Public Beach.
The special series debut features a two-hour episode titled “American Killers.” Its inspiration, Wade said, was generated by the show’s immense U.S. audience and the steady stream of stories sent in by viewers. The opener features the dramatic edge-of-one’s-seat storytelling style that has made Wade a household name.
“Targeting a bull shark while fishing from shore was intense,” said Wade, 51, who opens season four fishing the Indian River Lagoon in Fort Pierce. “When fishing from a boat, one often uses the boat to help wear the fish out. But when fishing from shore like we did, you’re battling a fish as big as you or bigger, and it’s trying to pull you in while you’re trying to pull it out.”
Wade fished at night with Port St. Lucie resident Mike Palmer, 50, a local angler who has spent 37 years fishing for sharks from Treasure Coast beaches. He has caught and released hammerheads as long as pickup trucks, tiger sharks as big as tigers and bull sharks as big as bulls.
Fishing with Wade was a thrill, Palmer said.
“It was the highlight of my fishing career,” he said. “Wade is humble, extremely intelligent and he cares about the fish.”
Palmer said Wade needed just one take to discuss the features of a recent catch before releasing the fish immediately.
Palmer and Wade fished from Harbour Pointe Park in Fort Pierce. Palmer said the city of Fort Pierce and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission were both helpful in the shooting of the episode.
To catch the bull shark and Goliath grouper that can be seen during the episode, Palmer said they used bonitos and sting rays for bait. He spooled up 300-pound test monofilament line and picked up bait from Marty Romstadt at Finest Kind Bait and Tackle in Stuart. Wade employed 14/0 conventional reels on specially-designed stand-up Star Rods. The terminal tackle included No. 15 and No. 19 wire twisted onto 16/0 Owner hooks.
Viewers will recognize a fair dose of Fort Pierce’s waterfront including the weekend flotilla of sunbathers and boaters reveling along the beach at Fort Pierce Inlet State Park.
Wade’s shark was caught inshore of where swimmers can be seen.
“I was a bit disappointed I didn’t catch a bigger bull shark there,” he admitted, “but I missed a couple of good fish.”
The episode includes a visit with Vero Beach fishery scientist Grant Gilmore to discuss the presence of bull sharks in the Indian River Lagoon. When he catches a tarpon while shark fishing, Wade is aboard Fort Pierce City Marina charter boat Last Mango with Capt. Tris Colket, but the show does not feature the name of Colket or his vessel. Later, during a segment that shows Wade fishing for alligator gar in the Lower Trinity River in eastern Texas, he flashes back to a visit with Mike Kirkhart of New Wave Taxidermy in Stuart. During Wade’s June visit, he heard Kirkhart was finishing the replica mount and skin mount of the 327-pound Mississippi-caught alligator gar.
“American Killers” also features the morbid tale of a 100-pound-plus corpse-consuming blue catfish in the Lake of the Ozarks in Missouri and a “noodling” adventure in Oklahoma.
The series will run Sunday nights at its usual time slot of 10 p.m. through April and May and will chronicle fact-seeking missions about Mongolian Marauders, Australian Assassins, and Zambian Executioners. The finale will be a trip to the mysterious Essequibo River in Guyana in South America.
Wade said shooting the fourth season offered adventures that truly tested his travel wherewithal.
“The strangest adventure was one to unravel boggled accounts in a river in Botswana in Africa of a pack-hunting toothy fish perhaps similar to piranhas,” he said. “While there I visited a witch doctor.”
Wade said what began as a singular project about the goonch catfish in India a decade ago has turned into somewhat of an odyssey. He said there are no clear plans yet for a fifth season of “River Monsters.”
“At the end of each season, I always think we’re at the end, but what seems to happen is the more we look, the more we find,” he said.
Wade still seems incredulous about”River Monsters” popularity.
“What always amazes me is the number of children who are watching the show,” he said. “The stories always have an element that is similar to a fairy tale. There seems to be some sort of ugly creature and what we do is go out and confront it. During the process of trying to understand and explain its behavior, we’re able to dispel some of the fear associated with it.”
Wade has galloped around the globe and gone rod to fin against mysterious bottom-dwelling leviathans that engulf, sting, bite, chomp, crush, swallow, shock, maim and sometimes kill.
Dark-tanned, white-haired, tall and thin, Wade could have been the personification of the rugged Race Bannon from the 1960s cartoon series, Jonny Quest. While making a career for himself in the exotic outdoors, the former biologist and teacher has been able to shed light on one of the most troubling environmental issues facing humans: the plight of the planet’s great freshwater river systems.
“Not every river or body of freshwater has a 7-foot-long monster living in its depths waiting to attack,” he said. “Actually, most of the world’s rivers are in a sad state. The fish and wildlife that depend on the rivers are suffering from the effects of development, pollution, overfishing and more.
“The good news is that for most rivers there is a more clear-cut jurisdiction over its ownership or who manages it,” he said. “That gives it a better chance for it to be cleaned up and protected properly, and there are success stories of that happening all over the world.”
RIVER MONSTERS “AMERICAN KILLERS”
Debuts: 9 p.m. April 1
Channel: Animal Planet
Length: Two hours
Hosted by: Jeremy Wade, extreme angler
Treasure Coast connections: Catches include bull shark, tarpon and Goliath grouper in Indian River Lagoon near Fort Pierce with angler Mike Palmer, of Port St. Lucie, aboard Last Mango charters of Fort Pierce, with Capt. Tris Colket (who is not identified in the show); interviews with Vero Beach fishery scientist Grant Gilmore and New Wave Taxidermy and Fish Artistry’s Mike Kirkhart of Stuart.
The skinny: Animal Planet’s top-rated show returns with a special edition dedicated to killer fish lurking in U.S. waters. “American Killers” opens with Wade’s experiences while visiting the Treasure Coast last summer and features three more stories of his adventures in Texas, Missouri and Oklahoma.
Spoiler alert: For the first time in his life, Wade targets flathead catfish without a rod and reel, instead “noodling” under rocks where he catches them by hand.