One on One “Fish warrior” Jakub Vágner on big fish, small ponds and following your dreams
It is rare to catch world-record holding extreme angler Jakub Vágner in the Czech Republic. After all, he spends most of his time on fishing expeditions to remote destinations like the Amazon, in search of what he calls freshwater giants. In his home country, the 30-year-old fisherman has become a star in his own right, and is currently on billboards all over the city as the face of a new advertising campaign for a well-known Czech bank. He also has his own TV show on National Geographic, Fish Warrior, and last year, he appeared on the famous American Tonight Show with Jay Leno. I spoke to Jakub Vágner about fish, the importance of going after your dreams and how he first discovered his love for angling.
That is a remarkable first catch. You also come from a very musical family. Your father is the well-known producer Karel Vágner. What was it like to grow up in that environment, to grow up with a famous dad?
“I think my father is a great person, a very good musician, but most importantly, a great father. But he didn’t like fishing. He thought that I should become a musician. I found my own way of life. Now I am a fisherman and I enjoy my life, I really like being outdoors. So my father is a musician, and I am a fisherman.”
When you were studying at the Prague conservatory, you decided to pursue your dream of becoming a professional fisherman. Was that a difficult decision, to run away from everything?
“It was definitely not easy, because, as I said, my father was really proud that I was studying at the Prague Conservatory of Music, and my mother, too. They both wanted me to become a musician. But I knew that my dream was to become a fisherman, to live with nature, travel a lot and see a lot of different places and meet people from all around the world.
“And when I was around 17, 18, I decided to try this different lifestyle. And I said: ‘I have to leave the school.’ Because otherwise, I will continue studying, go somewhere else and will have no time to pursue my dream. So I decided to leave school and do my best.”
You went from Prague to Australia – certainly a huge step. How difficult were your beginnings there?
“It was very difficult. Because when I told my father I had left school, he kicked me out of our home. So it wasn’t easy and my family was really unhappy with me. So I asked my grandmother if she could lend me some money. So I bought a plane ticket to Australia and went there, with no work permit.
“I tried to find work and make some money. But it was really difficult, so the first three months, I had to live in Central Park and eat whatever I could. So definitely, that wasn’t easy. Then I found work in an Italian restaurant, I still remember the name, Limoncello. I was a kitchen hand over there, making 5 dollars an hour. It was a great school of life. And after six months, I met a great man, Rex Hunt. He was and still is a very famous fisherman in Australia, and all around the world. He had his own TV show on Discovery Channel for 15 years, Monday to Friday.
“We became friends, and when I was still living in Australia, he told me: ‘Look, if I’ve managed to have my own TV show in Australia, you should try it in the Czech Republic as well. Try to follow your dreams.’ So I came back here and I tried it.”
When was the moment that you would say you had a breakthrough, when you were able to live off of fishing?
“When I came back from Australia, I tried to listen to what my mentor Rex Hunt had advised me, and I was calling and calling Czech National Television for 3 months, every day, asking to get a meeting with its director, so I could speak with him about my idea, to have my own TV show about fishing. And for three months, they were telling me, he has no time. After three months, I finally got a meeting. I went there, and he told me: ‘You have 15 minutes, that’s it.’
And I told him: ‘Look, I would like to have my own TV show about fishing.’ And he says: ‘Is this the sport where you sit on the riverbank, don’t speak at all, you don’t catch anything and after 5 or 6 hours you go home?’ And I told him: ‘Yes, that is the sport. But it can be great fun, it can be a huge adrenalin rush, we can travel a lot, and I think it could be a great show.’ And after 3 months, I had my first show on Czech TV, so that was a great stroke of luck.”
Since then, you have also had TV series on other channels, among them National Geographic, where your show Fish Warrior is airing, and you’ve also published a book about your experience, My Friend the Catfish. Do you still have enough time to actually go fishing these days?
“I try to fish as much as I can, so that means always. Of course, it is not just about the fishing, I have to do my homework as well. A lot of writing, and preparing the expeditions. I would say I spend 2-3 weeks fishing somewhere in the jungle, then I come back for a week or 10 days and then I go off again somewhere else. But in my head, at least, I’m fishing 24/7.”
And talking about preparing these expeditions, what does that entail?
“It depends on where you want to go. If you go to Texas, where there is a lot of civilization, you don’t really have to prepare that much, you can pretty much just buy a ticket, take your tackle and go. But if you go somewhere in the middle of the jungle, the Amazon or Africa, then that takes time. And again, it depends for how long, where, etc. So sometimes I need to prepare myself and the expedition 3-4 months in advance, sometimes 2-3 years. It really depends on where you want to go.”
“I only do catch-and-release, because if you fish for those giant fish, they can grow over 2-3 meters and weigh 400, 500 pounds, or even kilos. And it is kind of silly to kill them. These beautiful animals are bigger and older than you and I have no reason to kill them. What I want is to show them to people all around the world, to show people: ‘Look, we have these beautiful creatures, not only in oceans, but in freshwater as well but they are disappearing.’ We have thirty to fifty years to see them, because they are disappearing extremely quickly.”
I believe that those really large freshwater fish are your special interest. What has been the most impressive specimen you have ever caught?
“There were many of them. And probably the most interesting fish for me was my first arapaima, in the Amazon. It was kind of a miracle for me. We discovered the first wild arapaima after many, many years, in the jungle. That fish wasn’t huge; it was maybe around 30 to 40 kilos, a kind of baby, but it was an amazing feeling.”
I’d imagine these extreme fishing situations can be very dangerous. Have you ever feared for your life?
“To be honest, no. If you travel to all these far-away places, you have to be aware that you are not travelling to the Maldives or Hawaii. It can be dangerous and difficult, and you have to be aware of that. You need to prepare but you cannot think about it. You go there, you know what you are going to do there, and you have to survive.”
You also hold several world records. Can you list a few for our listeners?
“Yes, I can. Some of them are: the biggest arapaima gigas in the world, all-tackle world record, that fish was over 3 meters and more than 150 kilos. Then one more arapaima, a wels catfish from Italy that was over 2.5 meters long, what else… probably about 7 or 8, I don’t remember it very well.”
You sometimes take celebrities fishing with you. Who has accompanied you so far?
“There are a lot of fishermen in the Czech Republic. And a lot of famous people fish. You would be surprised how many fisherman we have here, over one million, in a country with a population of a bit over 10 million people, so that makes it about ten percent. I went fishing with our president, Václav Klaus, and a lot of celebrities are great fishermen, even women, like Kateřina Brožová, and Karel Gott used to go fishing as well, when he was young. But my father is not a fisherman.”
So that may be the one person who you won’t get to go fishing with you?
“He actually went fishing with me after 15 years, finally, last year, in autumn. He went with me for 2 days and he caught a big wels catfish, about 45 kilos in weight. That was actually one of the most important fish for me, one of the most beautiful days.”
That must have been very nice. Maybe we can also talk about your experience in the US. You really charmed Jay Leno when you were on the Tonight Show. Could you talk about what it has been like to work in American TV?
“I really love the United States; I think it is a great place to live, a great country. It has problems, but those exist in every country. People here in the Czech Republic are often envious. A lot of them really are. It is different in the United States. If someone said on the Tonight Show: ‘I bought a new Ferrari today.’ Then everyone would stand up and cheer, and say ‘I really believe you had to work very hard to get that car.’ But if you said something like that on Czech Television, everybody would say: ‘How did he manage to buy such an incredibly expensive car? There has to be something behind that.’ So that’s why I really like the United States.
“And the show with Jay Leno was great; he is such a nice guy. I have to be honest and admit that I didn’t know who he was before. When I was waiting, there was a guy in old jeans and an old T-shirt standing next to me, eating a plate of fruit. And that was Jay Leno. He is a normal, great guy. He talked to me about Czech beer, Czech cars, because he loves cars, so that was a nice experience and he has a great personality.”
And lastly, you just got back from Amazonia a few days ago. What are you up to this year?
“The only thing I really want is to stay happy, do what I really want to do, go fishing, record some TV shows, write a new book and do a lot of work with children, teach them how to fish and how important it is to have respect for nature, and that’s it.”