How to Think Like a Fish

And Other Lessons from a Lifetime in Angling


By Jeremy Wade

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The defining part of this story, I think—the part that made the real difference—is the time I spent looking into the water, letting my mind drift, as I tried to think like a fish…What brings the big fish is an artful blend of drawing on experience and keeping an open, active mind. The secret ingredient is as simple as that.
–from Chapter 6

Jeremy Wade, the star of Animal Planet’s River Monsters, with nearly forty years of angling exploration behind him, shares a meditation on the art of angling—part science, part art, and part elusive something else. Thoughtful and funny, brimming with wisdom and, above all, adventure, How to Think Like a Fish is filled with reflections that anyone who has ever fished will identify with, for ultimately they touch on the fundamental principles that apply to all angling—and to life:
Less time can be more.
Listen to your gut.
Be inventive.
You may only get one opportunity, so make that opportunity count.


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Going Under

There’s something reassuring about low light and weight of water, and this place is one of the safest, deepest holes in the river. Down here, my eyes register the difference between night and day, but not much more. I move by touch, plotting my path on the map of memory. Not just the feel of rocks and sand and mud and weed but also the slip and scrub of the water. Far from being a uniform flow, it moves in different directions and at different speeds. This gives the river a distinct pattern, a grain–complex but logical, invisible but perfectly readable–which subtly encodes the position of the obstacles that shape it. This is why, even when I’m not touching anything solid, I always know where I am.

I nose into the place I was looking for. Close to my left side is a vertical rock wall, rising almost to the surface. If I were to reach out sideways with the tentacle on my upper jaw, I could touch it. Ahead of me is more rock, rising in steep steps, down which the water tumbles. I’m in the angle formed by these two rocks, my belly lightly bumping on the riverbed. Behind me the water shallows somewhat and spreads out into a pool, before funneling into a rock-strewn run. Back there, marking time in the friction-slowed water near the riverbed, and lurking on the edges of the flow, are other hungry fish, which would rather be in the place where I am now, if it were not already occupied.

What’s special about this spot is that anything carried by the current will settle directly in front of me, in the deep residual turbulence of the waterfall, where I can investigate it with minimal effort. And it appears that something is already here. The familiar smellscape is colored by tendrils of something else. I edge to my right and the scent gets stronger. My tentacle finds its source, and easing closer I confirm that it’s a dead fish, its scales reflecting the almost non-existent light. It’s fresh and succulent, but something about it troubles me.

Earlier today I saw one of the large shapes slide across the surface. I heard its high-pitched whine before I saw the silhouette. I’ve seen these before and I know they are dangerous. A couple of times, shortly after one passed, I’ve seen a red-tail fish twisting unnaturally and rising in the water, sending out its chemical alarm. So I back away and leave this meal, which looks too much like a gift. But I stay close enough to deter any competitor from darting in.

When I check on it later, the dead fish is still there. This is reassuring. I move up close and open my mouth, creating just enough suction to lightly pick it up. It moves freely, not appearing to be tethered. I back off a short distance and then drop it, and as I do so it appears to get caught in a tongue of current, fluttering up then obliquely down, before sliding to a rest right at the base of the rock face.

It doesn’t move anymore, and I have the taste of it now, urging me to throw off any remaining caution. I wait and watch, inching closer, then open my mouth fully to suck it right in. As I do so, I double my body to the right, to turn my head downstream.

Sixty feet above, on a slanting rock beside the river, an electronic buzzer sounds and a dim green light shows thick nylon line rolling off an improbably large reel. Hands reach down and pick up the rod, then push the drag lever forward. With the spool now locked, the growing tension in the line starts to transmit in both directions. What happens now could determine how this ends. Not enough of a pause and the strike may not set the hook; too much and the bait may be ejected. So there’s an instant of intense weighing and calculation, before the rod pulls up and back–and is wrenched down in response.

It’s the moment this creature, which until then had existed only in my imagination, becomes real…


Fishing in Mind

One day in 1999 a man pulled a gun on me in Brazil, but the only time I’ve been shot was in England. I was sitting on the ground at the edge of a small pond, legs pulled up in front of me, with my arms wrapped around my knees, when something ripped through the foliage some yards to my right. It took a few moments to work out what it was. The farmer was on the far bank, and he’d taken a shot at a coot in front of me. He couldn’t see me because I was underneath a willow tree, obscured by its trailing branches.

All this had barely registered when a second shot ricocheted off the water, this time just a couple of feet away, having narrowly missed the bird, which was now squawking in alarm. The next shot hit me in the right armpit.

Recalling this now I have trouble believing the reaction of my much younger self. As a teenager I was pretty useless in a number of respects, but there was nothing wrong with my reflexes and I had a well-developed sense of moral outrage. But I just continued to sit there. Having verified that there was no broken skin under my thick camo jacket, I concluded that it was probably just an air rifle–which he didn’t fire again.

At this point everyone who has heard this story assumes I must have been ‘guesting,’ as the quaint euphemism goes. But no–I was there legally, as a paid-up club member. So what was it? Why didn’t I dive for cover and/or start yelling at the farmer?

What I have to remember is how seriously I took my carp fishing. I was in stealth mode, fishing close in, and I didn’t want to add to the disturbance. But, more importantly, I had recently invented ‘twig-hung crust.’ And although it was possible–as happened with the jet engine and nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy–that somebody, somewhere else had come up with the same idea, I didn’t want to draw attention to my field tests.

The challenge with the carp in this pond, which sits on the edge of a Suffolk village, was that they were very wary of floating breadcrust, which back then was everybody’s go-to surface bait. Normally the carp here would ignore it completely, but where the willow branches trailed in the water they would sometimes seem curious. The trouble with a freelined crust, though–a hook on the end of the line with no float, weights or anything else–was that it would always drift out of this zone, whereupon it would receive no more attention. Trying the obvious alternative, a crust anchored in position by a running lead on the bottom, would spook the carp when they bumped into the line.

My wheeze was to position myself to the side of the willow’s trunk and swing an underhand cast straight out, towards a partial gap in the semicircular curtain of branches. In the middle of this gap was a single dangling branch that stopped two feet short of the water, with a horizontal twig projecting. My aim was to cast the bait over this twig, then tease it back into a position where there was no line on the surface to alarm the fish. A belly of slack line between rod tip and twig would allow the bait to move freely if taken.

Now the bait stayed in the zone long enough for any patrolling carp to investigate. My position under the tree also meant less chance of attracting the ducks, which were used to being fed by people and could read any human actions that were bread related. What I hadn’t reckoned with was that some of them could also read the minds of fish. On two occasions a duck spotted my bait at the precise moment when a dark shape was tilting up towards it. After pausing for a couple of heart-pounding seconds, I had to lift the bait then flick it clear of a lunging beak.

But even when there was no competition from these feathered pests, the carp were super cautious. They would leave baits alone for a long time–over two hours sometimes without touching it, just looking occasionally–long enough for a normal crust to become semi-liquid and fall off the hook. Only a tough piece from the base of a carefully chosen loaf, cut not torn to shape, so as not to fissure the leathery skin, was going to stand a chance. Then, when a carp finally did take the bait… it didn’t really take it. It would hold it gently in the extremity of its mouth and start to move off–and then let go. Striking before it let go, I discovered, connected with nothing. Far from bringing quick results, my new technique simply confirmed what everyone said and believed back then: that carp were supernaturally intelligent and mostly uncatchable.

Then one day, a quarter-hour after casting, a carp passed then circled back. In the next five minutes it gently mouthed the bait three times, each time moving it about eighteen inches before letting go. Then, finally, it didn’t let go. I tightened up and was answered by a powerful plunge. After playing it first in the open water beyond the branches, then at close quarters under the umbrella of foliage in front of me, I slipped the net under a twelve-pound mirror carp.

A few days later I got one more, 13lb 10oz, and that was my lot for that water that summer. But back then in the early 1970s, double-figure carp were a big deal, and these fish helped to confirm my transition from carp angler to carp catcher.

Looking back now, I am struck by two things: how much my fishing has changed since then–and how much it is the same. Not the same in the way of the gear I use, or the fish I go after, or the waters I fish–these things could hardly be more different–but the same general approach at the heart of it all. In this story from the dusty recesses of memory, I see a way of fishing that is recognizably a precursor of the way I fish today.

The only thing that’s fundamentally different–something my younger self never expected or dreamed of–is that when I go fishing now, I have an audience. Or, rather, I have two audiences.

One audience is the small group of people on the bank behind me, who will tell you, if you ask them, that fishing is absolutely the dullest spectator sport on the planet, if you have to watch it in unedited real time. They are there because it’s their job. Somehow they’ve got to turn an activity that mostly happens inside the protagonist’s head into compelling visual entertainment. So while I am in a timeless zone of cosmic oneness with nature, which looks identical to being half asleep, they are watching the seconds drag by.

Sometimes, to help pass the time, they engage in hushed conversation. Once, while watching the sun sink below the far bank of the Zambezi, in Mozambique, they spent an hour discussing the relative merits of different condiments in sandwiches. At other times, they ask me questions.

‘Why do you always fish with your finger on the line?’

‘What made you pick this spot?’

‘Why don’t you do what the local fisherman said, and put more baits out?’

‘Are you really serious when you say we should pack everything up, and come back later?’

Sometimes they ask because I appear to be doing something illogical, or because it looks like I’m wasting time. Or it’s just simple curiosity, a desire to understand the arcane process of trying to summon a fish. Once in a while there’s even a question that I should have asked myself, but didn’t. Whatever prompts them, these questions are always challenging. Usually I can give some kind of answer, but sometimes I can’t. Or I start to answer, but the mental trail, after a few promising turns, enters the non-verbal right side of my brain, a place as mysterious as the water in front of me. And I find myself doing a different kind of fishing. I know there’s something there–I can glimpse it–but I can’t grasp it.

The other audience is with me in a strange, disembodied, but equally real way. These are the people who see me on a screen, catching a variety of rare, large, and sometimes very difficult fish, from all manner of ponds, creeks, lakes, rivers, estuaries and sometimes oceans around the world. Many of these people also have questions, but of a different type. They are asking for advice. Often the questions are quite detailed–this species, that location–but they boil down to the same thing:

‘Why do I just get small fish all the time? How do I catch the big ones?’

‘What’s your secret?’

The questions used to arrive by email, and in the early days, before the sheer quantity of messages, of all kinds, forced me to go electronically ex-directory, I would reply to everyone who contacted me. But again I struggled to know what to say, only this time it wasn’t because of the inherent non-verbal nature of what goes on in an angler’s head. The questions made me feel fraudulent.

The truth is, the kind of angling I do is very far from typical. And my knowledge, and practice, of the types of angling that most people do, these days, is pretty sketchy. The last time I did any amount of general coarse angling was in my teens, nearly fifty years ago. I last fished regularly for carp (and English wels catfish) in my twenties. I find this hard to believe myself, but the fork in the road that I took, in March 1982, to travel to far-flung waters after more exotic fish, was an all-or-nothing step. It didn’t leave any surplus time or resources for anything else. So for most kinds of fishing that you care to mention, there are many people out there who would leave me standing. I’m very far from being an all-around expert, and I’m most definitely not a walking encyclopedia. What I do is very niche.

Specifically, until the last decade or so, my thing was making long expeditions, on the cheap and mostly solo, to places where other anglers didn’t go–to catch fish that most people, back then, had never heard of: mahseer in India, goliath tigerfish in the Congo, arapaima in the Amazon. For this kind of fishing, the main achievement was getting back in one piece. Catching fish was a bonus–dependent on avoiding injury, illness and arrest, then having some last dregs of energy left to get a line in the water. Traveling could be painfully slow–sometimes two or three weeks just to get to the water, and the same to get out–and my gear was limited to what I could carry onto a crowded bus, truck or passenger boat. It couldn’t have been further from the roach, chub and pike that started me on this journey.

Then came my pact with the machine that now follows me around, transforming a weightless part of me into a homunculus of dancing pixels. Although my more recent travels are (mostly) less seat-of-the-pants, and shorter in duration–three weeks normally, instead of two to five months–they have continued in a similar vein, having little or no overlap with most people’s experience. And what this seemed to underline, when I started to think about it, was that I was uniquely unqualified to give any kind of fishing advice to anyone.

But then (when answering those emails) I thought about it some more. And although I couldn’t make any specific suggestions about tackle and methods, for fish and places I knew nothing about, I found that I did have some things to say about another level of method. Not details of technique but general principles, which I’ve found to apply to pretty much any fishing situation. But then, again, I ran into problems. For each thing I started to examine, it was like trying to take a lure out of an untidy lure box, where the lure I was holding was hooked onto another one, which was attached to multiple others, which in turn were entangled with everything else around them. Then, as I contemplated this chaotic, spiky mass, I had a flash of insight. It occurred to me that I was looking at some kind of checklist–a mental program that is constantly going on in the background while I fish. But it was going to take more than a hopeful shake to separate the components.

The immediate temptation was to put the lid back on the box, and to keep on doing what I do, without trying to analyze it too much. This can, after all, carry the risk of destroying what you examine. (If you’re ever losing at tennis, compliment your opponent by asking them to explain how they hit their backhand, then watch their technique fall apart.) But part of me was intrigued. Disentangling the process–the essence of how I catch fish, which I instinctively knew was a thing of surprising simplicity–was a challenge on a par with catching any of those fish. And if I succeeded, it would be a belated but fitting response to my many questioners–the shot in the arm, perhaps, that many of them want. As such, it might even result, here and there, for novices and old hands alike, in helping to turn a monster of the imagination into reality.

This book is my attempt to display the contents of the box.


Art Meets Science

When I left school I was all set to go to art college, but it fell through at the last minute. That’s why, a year later, I ended up studying for a zoology degree. This led to a brief career as a science teacher (I got out because my working day ended, on average, at 1.30 a.m.), but I have also, now and then, taught art classes. So I have my feet in what some people regard as two very different camps. But I don’t see it that way at all. Science and art aren’t mutually exclusive. The best science is creative, and great art has a deep logic, speaking a language that resonates with our innermost workings.

There’s another common belief, sometimes manifesting as fear, which holds that analyzing something magical can only demystify it. But again, I don’t agree. You can throw as much science as you like at the question of where we came from, but the mystery of the natural world and the wider universe is limitless.

And so it is with fishing. Fishing is defined by uncertainty. Even today it’s little wonder if some people quietly believe that catching a big fish is a matter of waiting for the planets to come into special alignment. Or suspect, maybe, that the person who charms a monster must have made a pact with the devil. As with the wider universe, however, a scientific approach brings understanding. But we need have no fear that science will demystify it, and take away its soul, because no amount of analysis will ever get to the bottom of it. For this reason I have no worries about trying to get analytical about my fishing. Far from spoiling my time by the water, I believe this can only enrich it.

In fact, the kind of fishing I do has forced me to get analytical. This is because some of the places I go to have never been fished with a rod and line–there’s no tried and trusted method to fall back on. I’ve had to go right back to first principles. To do that, I’ve had to think about what those principles are. And what I have come to understand is this:

Looked at in a certain way, catching a big fish is very simple. All you have to do is put the right bait in the right place at the right time. You could even express this as a formula: B + P + T = F. Of course there are many different possibilities for each of these three elements, and the number of ways you can put these multiple possibilities together is astronomical, but there is something about seeing the problem in these terms that makes it less daunting. When the big, overwhelming thing is broken into smaller elements, the mind can get to work.

But this is only the first part of the process: it only brings us to the moment when the fish takes the bait. The opportunity must now be converted into a result. Doing that successfully also depends on a number of things, which can again be listed. This time it’s a longer list, much of it about the right gear, but each thing is more clear cut and more manageable. There’s less excuse for getting it wrong. In fact I’d go further, and say there’s no excuse for losing a fish at this point, if that is through human error. If an angler has really thought about this second part of the process in full, then the likelihood of getting the fish in, once it has taken the bait, should be very high. But if just one component of this second part has been neglected, then the far harder achievement of tempting the fish to the bait could all be for nothing.

So there’s a hard part and an easy part–or a relatively easy part. Tempting and landing. To catch big fish intentionally, rather than by happy accident, every component of each part needs to be addressed. That still gives us a lot to think about, but the problem now starts to have a shape. It’s something we can work on: a mental framework, or a checklist, or a formula, however you choose to visualize it. What was once a problem of such magnitude that it threatened to paralyze our thought processes can now be addressed with a clear head.

Recently I was locked in a small room with four other people and we had an hour to get out. This wasn’t as traumatic as it at first sounds–it was one of those games for corporate team-building–but there’s still something about being in a confined space with a clock ticking that concentrates the mind. Inside the room were a number of locked boxes, a locked cupboard, a selection of other objects and a second locked door, which we assumed was the way out. Most of the locks were combination padlocks, but there was also a dial lock, a keypad, and others that were more arcane. Clearly we needed to get opening those locks–but how? The simplest locks had three rotating barrels, so we were looking for one correct combination out of 1,000 possibilities (000 to 999). I used to be able to open bike combination locks by feel, but modern locks are more robust, plus I’m out of practice since I left school. So forget that. Another possible strategy was to work through all the options for each lock (000, 001, 002…) but even at the rattling rate of one combination per second that’s potentially fifteen minutes for just the simplest lock. It was beyond obvious that this would never get us out in time. The other possible strategy was to investigate our environment for clues. Picking up a statue on a shelf, we found a key underneath it. This opened one of the boxes, which contained a document, on which were some numbers… After half an hour of shouting and sweating, we had several of the locks open and were well on our way to escaping. Then we discovered that the second door just led to another room, containing yet more locked boxes.

Did we get out in time? Not quite. We failed by eight seconds. But if we’d been working our way through random combinations for each lock, rather than looking around us and thinking things through, we’d still be there now. Yet this unthinking approach, of proceeding mechanically without looking for clues, as if there were all the time in the world, is common in fishing. And it can seem to make sense, because once in a while, as with playing the lottery, somebody somewhere, out of all the countless participants, gets the result they hoped for. But for most that result never comes.

To do better than this, to fish with a realistic expectation of catching a big fish, it is necessary to gather information and feed this into the decision-making process. The more information, and the more intelligently this is handled, the greater the chance of success. Ideally every single aspect of how you fish should be considered: not just choice of tackle and method, choice of bait, and choice of where to present the bait, but also a number of less obvious items that are not normally considered at all, and deeper layers of detail. Some of these other things can be crucial, the difference between success and failure. So nothing should be left at a default setting, unless there is good reason.

But all this takes energy. In practice it’s much easier to fish with a large chunk of what we do on a lazy ‘auto’ setting. To do better, we first have to recognize that by following such an approach we’re settling for less than optimum results. Then, to make the shift from there, to fishing in a way that is truly effective, we have to really want that big fish. But what does that even mean? How do we do that? Personally, I try to fish as if my life depended on it.

I know this sounds rather extreme, a bit airport-book-motivational, for a pastime that’s supposed to be a rest from the hamster wheel, but bear with me. In the escape room there was a sense of urgency. Even though it wasn’t a real life-or-death situation, the adrenaline was flowing almost as if it was. And the effect of adrenaline is to boost the supply of fuel, in the form of dissolved glucose, to the muscles and brain. It awakened memories of the kind of nerves I used to get in exams, bordering on panic. But panic is a sign of failure to deal with a crisis. It’s precious energy being squandered on pointless activity. And if you don’t channel some of that energy into mental processing of the situation, you’re done for.

I once got lost in the Amazon jungle, with no compass, no GPS, no food and no water. At the time, I was based in an isolated hut a long way from the river, a simple raised platform with no walls and a palm-thatch roof, next to a hole in the ground that served as both bath and drinking water supply. Contrary to most jungle-explorer mythology, the people scattered along the riverbanks weren’t all drug traffickers trying to kill me. I’d spent a lot of time learning some Portuguese before I came here, so I was able to decode their menacing-sounding mutterings, complete with waving machetes, as offers of freshly sliced watermelon. And, if I wanted it, a place to sling my hammock. José was introduced to me as a fisherman, but mostly he cultivated a clearing near his hut, on the edge of a hump of slightly raised ground. In the wet season this higher ground became an island and he could paddle all the way here, through the treetops, from the river. Now it was an hour-long assault course, balancing across log bridges, crossing a small lake by canoe, and wading through thigh-deep mud.

I paid rent in the form of occasional weeding and portering plus the odd fish or two from the small lake, to save José having to go there with his tattered gill nets. This gave him more opportunity to do what he enjoyed most, which was walking in the forest with his dogs and shotgun. Among the river folk, who mostly kept in sight of water, José was something of a legend. He would carry just three or four cartridges, and normally came back with the same number. But if there was a shot, he would be back with a paca, a curassow, or maybe a wild pig. Early in my stay, we dug out and killed an agouti from inside a hollow fallen tree. At the time this drawn-out and visible death made me sick to my stomach, but it was interesting, over the following weeks, how a monotonous and patchy diet dialed down my scruples.


On Sale
May 18, 2021
Page Count
272 pages
Hachette Books

Jeremy Wade

About the Author

Jeremy Wade was the host of River Monsters, one of the most watched, most successful programs in Animal Planet's history. More recently he has hosted Mighty Rivers and Dark Waters (Animal Planet) and Mysteries of the Deep (Discovery). A former science teacher, newspaper reporter and advertising copywriter, he has written for The Times, Guardian, Sunday Telegraph, and BBC Wildlife magazine. He lives in Southern England.

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