Surprise find in Miami airport lake for ‘River Monsters’ host

Jeremy Wade, host of Animal Planet’s ‘River Monsters,’ releases a peacock bass in a canal near Miami International Airport.
Jeremy Wade, host of Animal Planet’s ‘River Monsters,’ releases a peacock bass in a canal near Miami International Airport. Miami Herald Staff

With season seven of Animal Planet’s popular series River Monsters set to debut Sunday, host Jeremy Wade took a busman’s holiday in Miami a week ago — and made an unexpected discovery.

Wade — a biologist, angler and outdoors journalist — wasn’t on a hunt for new monsters to catch and release; he intended to spend the day sight-fishing for bedding peacock bass in the network of freshwater lakes and canals adjacent to Miami International Airport. So what happened next was surprising.

Guided by Drew Gregg of Davie, Wade and a companion succeeded in their peacock quest, catching and releasing seven of the colorful transplanted Amazonians to about 2 pounds using artificial lures. But they were startled by what else they found among the peacocks: another invader from the Amazon — a two-foot aruana swimming freely near the surface of a residential canal. The fish had a long, ribbon-like body and relatively large scales. Unlike the peacocks, which were intentionally stocked in the local canal system by fisheries biologists in the 1980s, this exotic clearly didn’t belong.

Wade identified the aruana right away, having previously caught and released the species in Brazil.

“The biggest one I’ve caught was 8 or 9 pounds, about three feet long,” Wade said. “If you are fishing for them, they can be shy or they can be really bold at times.”

Once, Wade said, he was casting along a river bank and his lure got caught in an overhanging tree branch.

“You just shake it and they’ll jump up out of the water to get it,” he said.

But this aruana was on the shy side, swimming away from Gregg’s boat. The guide said he was confident it would remain in the general area because he had seen it there the week before his trip with Wade. Wade’s companion reported the sighting by email to Kelly Gestring, a non-native fisheries biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Afterward, Wade shook his head, incredulous.

“The fact that you’ve got fish native to the Amazon and catch them right here by Miami Airport…” he said, trailing off.

South Florida fish, such as Goliath groupers and invasive snakeheads, have starred in previous River Monsters episodes, but none is scheduled to appear this season.

Wade was asked whether finding new monsters to wrangle is getting tougher since the show’s debut in 2009.

“We were quite surprised we found enough for season seven,” he said. “When the going gets tough, it forces you to think creatively. It’s not always the very big fish that make an interesting program. We’ve revisited some species. It has to be something we can realistically catch in a 2 1/2-week shoot.”

This season, look for an investigation into a Cambodian puffer fish notorious for chomping on the private parts of fishermen gathering their nets; for Wade’s in-water encounter with feeding salmon sharks in Alaska; and a search for a mysterious 20-foot serpent reputed to attack people in Canada, among others.

“In this season, where there’s visibility, I get in the water a bit more,” Wade said.

Despite its ominous-sounding title, River Monsters is really about overcoming fears of the wild and, ultimately, conservation.

“The fish we deal with are really dangerous in certain situations,” Wade said. “The reality is about somebody being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The ill-informed way to deal with it is to try to kill it. If you know what these creatures are, where they are, you’re not going to put yourself in danger. For most predators, it’s about defending the nest, poor visibility or mistaken identity. Fish don’t have hands; to investigate, they open their mouth, and sometimes it’s someone’s foot. But at the end of the program, the fish always goes back.”