Animal Planet's 'River Monsters' visits Illiamna Lake

Mike Campbell
Photo courtesy of Animal Planet

For eons, fishing has been the realm of tall tales, exaggeration and hyperbole.

So perhaps it's no surprise that the next episode of the popular Animal Planet cable television program "River Monsters" visits Alaska and tries to get to the bottom of the Iliamna Lake monster legend in a program airing Sunday entitled "Alaskan Horror."

Never mind that host Jeremy Wade fishes in Alaska lakes, not rivers.

Never mind that he finds neither monsters nor horror in Alaska. He does manage to land a nice northern pike, though he could duplicate that feat in hundreds of lakes in Canada and the upper Midwest. While toothy and perhaps fearsome to 2-year-olds and ducklings, pike aren't monsters.

Never mind that the largest fish caught during the program, a white sturgeon, is landed on the Columbia River between Washington and Oregon.

This is television, the realm of myth and imagination, and Sunday's "River Monsters" episode really aims to tell the tale of a quest while conjuring up all sorts of fearsome possibilities. Stories, rumors and myth assume the same throw-weight as fact.

"I'm out of my element in a land of giant lakes," Wade says during the program, which features his visit to Iliamna Lake, at 1,000 square miles the eighth largest lake in the country, and Lake Clark, its 200-square-mile cousin. "Together, they cover an area the size of Rhode Island. Both lakes reach staggering depths up to 1,000 feet.

"I probably have more of a chance of winning the lottery than catching the monster myself."

Instead Wade gathers stories -- tales of shadowy figures in the deep, tales of tooth marks on props, tales of aerial sightings of huge finned creatures.

And, naturally, he goes fishing. Using a rod "usually used for marlin or tuna" he tosses a big, baited hook into Iliamna and waits all afternoon and through the night. Night brings dusky darkness. Dawn brings mist and fog.

"If you're out here any length of time," he says, "you're going to see things even if there's nothing there."

Anglers everywhere can sympathize with Wade's result -- nada.

One by one, candidates for the mysterious monster are discarded after exhaustive research.

Northern pike? Too small.

Beluga whales reaching the lake via the 60-mile Kvichak River that connects Iliamna Lake to Bristol Bay? Too white.

But white sturgeon? Ah, now we may have something. The largest freshwater fish in North America, sturgeon can live in both fresh and salt water, grow to more than 20 feet long and live to age 100. Although they're toothless, they possess sharp, bony plates. And they can jump out of the water.

It's a nice, convenient theory. But alas, Wade says, Iliamna Lake is an "absolutely immense body of water where nobody has ever caught one. Realistically, it's not going to happen here."

Thank God a plane is handy.

Wade boards it and flies back to the Lower 48 to fish the Columbia River Gorge, a waterway with a healthy population of sturgeon, with guide Jack Glass, hoping to at least savor the experience.

Bingo. Wade hooks not one but two white sturgeon, the largest nearly 9 feet long.

"This is probably the biggest freshwater fish I've ever caught," Wade gushes.

"I've been doing sturgeon on Columbia River for 27 years," Glass said by phone. "It's one of the biggest populations in the world. My son and I guide full-time."

Like many fishing guides, Glass, owner of Team Hook Up Guide Service in Troutdale, Ore., faces pressing local problems. For him, it's hungry sea lions that are moving upriver to devour sturgeon.

"A couple of big lions will take on one of those things, and it's a bloodbath," Glass said. "They'll hold on to them, ripping pieces off them while they're still alive."

Hmmm. Could a pilot for "River Bloodbath" be in the works?

Reach reporter Mike Campbell at or 257-4329.

An earlier attempt to find beast in Illiamna

During the first season of "River Monsters," host Jeremy Wade has pursued piranhas in the Amazon, huge catfish in India and giant freshwater stingrays weighing 1,300 pounds in Southeast Asia. The first season averaged more than a million households per episode, the biggest ratings success in Animal Planet history.

"People want to believe there's something out there, lurking in the remote corners of the world," Marjorie Kaplan, president and general manager of Animal Planet Media, said in a press release. "It's a quest for near-mythic creatures and a detective story with all the pleasures of a narrative."

But Animal Planet isn't the first to seeks the Iliamna Lake monster.

In June of 1980, the Daily News offered $100,000 for tangible evidence of the Iliamna Lake Monster and sent reporter Bill Wilson to the lake to untangle the myths.

The reward brought both serious and non-serious responses. One man, according to the website, reportedly played classical music to lure the animal up from the depths. There were no results, and to this day there has never been a well-financed search using sophisticated sonar and underwater photographic gear.

-- Mike Campbell

Five rivers to see and five fish to avoid

An earlier attempt to find beast in Illiamna Five rivers Wade thinks you should see before you die:

1. The Amazon: Take a boat from Belém, at the river mouth, to Manaus. Five days traveling day and night, and you're not even halfway up the main river. Then go up one of the tributaries, and explore a backwater creek -- another two to four weeks, if you're lucky. This is the only way to fully appreciate the sheer size of the world's greatest river system.

2. The Ganges: From snow-capped Himalayas to the scorching heat of the Indian plains, all human life is here. But, like too many of the world's rivers, the underwater life is barely clinging to survival.

3. The Colorado in the Grand Canyon: Mind-blowing by all accounts, but one I've yet to see.

4. The Congo: Hopefully the two events (seeing the river and dying) won't be linked -- although this has to be one of the world's most dangerous regions for outsiders and for the people who live there.

5. The River Near You: A hidden world awaits you just a short journey from where you live.

Five river monsters that think of you as dinner:

1. Piranhas: Only if they're hungry, and sometimes the boot is on the other foot. When I've been hungry, I've been known to reduce a piranha to a skeleton in a matter of seconds. Amazonians say that a soup made from piranhas works as an aphrodisiac.

2. Candiru: This vampire-like Amazonian fish, about the length of a toothpick, normally burrows into the gills of a larger fish where it enjoys a liquid feast of its host's blood. But sometimes it makes a mistake and burrows into a human orifice. Because it has barb-like, backward-pointing spines on its gill covers, it can't extricate itself and can only be removed by delicate surgery.

3. Bullshark: Most sea fish can't survive in rivers -- they absorb water and their body cells burst. But thanks to a fiendishly clever way of controlling the amount of salt in its body and the ability to excrete surplus water, this species of shark can swim and feed hundreds of miles inland.

4. Goonch catfish: People living beside Himalayan rivers say this toothy predator feeds on human remains from riverside funeral pyres.

5. Goliath tigerfish: This 6-foot cousin of the piranha can reach 100 pounds and will even bite pieces out of crocodiles. Fishermen say they will snack on the dangling extremities of unwary swimmers or paddlers.

Both lists come from

mcampbell@adn.comBy xxx
Anchorage Daily News