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Animal Planet host Jeremy Wade takes viewers to places they’ve never seen

Jeremy Wade host ‘‘River Monsters’’ Animal Planet poses last week along Chicago River. | Brian Jackson~Sun-Times

Jeremy Wade, the host of ‘‘River Monsters’’ on Animal Planet, poses last week along the Chicago River. | Brian Jackson~Sun-Times

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Updated: May 2, 2012 8:12AM

We began local, over lunch at The Gage on South Michigan Avenue. Then Jeremy Wade — the host of ‘‘River Monsters’’ on Animal Planet — spoke, and our world expanded.

‘‘So I go headfirst in with somebody holding on to my ankles, feeling around completely in the dark,’’ he said, describing his first time noodling. ‘‘Can’t see anything. Can’t hear anything. Then we had worked out a system of signals. To pull me out, I was going to waggle my right foot. If I waggled it slowly, the idea was to pull me out slowly; if it was fast, it was to pull me fast.’’

Amid the hubbub, Wade’s concern was that the cameraman would be able to pick up the sound when the catfish bit down.

‘‘I asked him later, and he said, ‘I didn’t just hear it, I felt it,’ ’’ Wade said. ‘‘He felt it through the soles of my boot.’’

A lot of us have felt worlds we never will know through Wade’s boots on Animal Planet’s hot show. The season premiere is at 8 p.m. Sunday. This one is close to home with ‘‘American Killers,’’ Wade’s first excursion into the United States. Part of the episode involved noodling for catfish in Oklahoma.

Watching the preview, I felt an eerie sense of a tribal ‘‘River Monsters’’ episode. Only this time, it was our tribe — or a fringe of it.

‘‘I like taking people to a world they wouldn’t normally go to and to creatures that a lot of people didn’t know existed,’’ he said.

Pretty simply, that’s the draw. It’s why I love it, even beyond being a fisherman. It’s why my 10-year-old daughter will curl up on the couch and watch the show with me.

Wade comes to his fishing naturally enough, like many others.

‘‘I started fishing when I was 7 or 8,’’ he said. ‘‘Once I started catching fish, I think that thing that happens to all fishermen happened: You want to see what else is down there, you want something bigger. On the river where I grew up, it was, ‘What is around the next bend?’ ’’

‘‘River Monsters’’ takes us to new places with a familiar format, one that evolved from the first episode of trying to find a killer fish in India.

‘‘It’s an underwater mystery,’’ Wade said.

There’s a crime scene (monster fish), witnesses, expert witnesses, then the assembling of a lineup of suspects, narrowing it down to prime suspects, going after the prime suspects, then the suspect doesn’t want to come quietly, then ‘‘the finale is you got it and put it back,’’ Wade said.

‘‘There is a cryptozoology strand because that particular catfish had not been on television before. It’s like hunting for an underwater Yeti.’’

Maybe that’s the point: There are layers to ‘‘River Monsters’’ far beyond giving viewers a how-to on fishing.

‘‘There’s an element of the fairy tale, something archetypal going on,’’ Wade said as he ate a sandwich of roasted woodland mushrooms. ‘‘There is this monster living near the village. What we do is go after it, encounter it and show it to everybody. In doing that, you see and understand, then lose the fear.’’

Three women, in for a convention, at the next table caught the publicist’s eye. One said, ‘‘We’re from Alabama, and everybody watches that show.’’

It was time.

I got my bison burger, with one bite out of it, to go. Animal Planet had promotions for their star performer. There were photographs to take along the Chicago River. Three of my kids showed up as we walked into the March heat. They wanted to see the man they watch catch fish they never heard of.

‘‘River Monsters’’ draws an astonishing 40 percent female audience, and the average viewer is 33.

Archetypes have broad appeal.

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