Colorado fisherman snags role on new Animal Planet series ‘Fish or Die’
GREELEY — There are similarities between casting a fly-fishing rod in Big Thompson River in Johnstown and casting one deep in the Amazon rainforest, Jay Johnson said.
“When a fish takes (the bait), there’s nothing else in the world you can think of,” he said. “The pressures of this world are completely washed away as soon as the fish takes. That’s anywhere, any fish.”
But there are, of course, differences — the Amazon has bugs, torrential rain and indigenous people far removed from civilization.
There are also plenty of fish that call the rivers home.
Johnson, a fly fisherman who owns Colorado Stock and Grain in Johnstown, near Loveland, is one of four regulars who each week will take viewers to exotic locations on Animal Planet’s new extreme fishing reality show “Fish or Die,” which debuted this past Sunday.
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Johnson and his three longtime friends — Chris Owens, Tad Robison and Brian Jill, Johnson being the only one from Colorado — will trek deep into remote and uncharted areas of the planet to find, catch and study rare fish in their natural habitats. The guys filmed the series from this past July through last month. In that time, they visited 10 countries across five continents.
The pilot episode follows the quartet deep into the heart of Bolivia along a tributary of the Amazon River to catch the golden dorado, dubbed by the stars of the show as “the holy grail of jungle fish,” a toothy apex predator found in South America’s freshwater.
Along the way, they work with the indigenous Tsimane people to help get through various legs of their trip through the Amazon, and also learn their way of life.
That was Johnson’s favorite part of the expedition, he said.
“It’s mind-blowing to build relationships with people who are so far removed from everything we know — that have never seen a cellphone, that have never seen a store, never had shoes,” Johnson said. “It’s like being able to see what the Poudre River was like a thousand years ago. It was a rare and fascinating opportunity.”
Johnson and his buddies have been making videos for years, which got them on Animal Planet’s radar to create a show for their network. Johnson moved to Johnstown from Fort Collins about three years ago.
He grew up just outside Portland, Oregon, and was in and out of group homes and foster homes. That’s when he discovered his love for fishing and the outdoors, which allowed him to stay out of trouble, he said
“Fish or Die” puts the emphasis on the “die.” The guys encounter multiple hazards as they descend deeper into Bolivia: Bugs, snakes, poisonous trees, torrential rain, rushing river water, jungle rot and fireside tales of cannibals who still lurk in the jungle.
Johnson says it best in the episode: “Everything wants to kill you in the jungle.”
He had a brush with danger the first night they made camp in Bolivia. He wakes up to see one of his hands swollen like a balloon from bug bites.
The cure? A shot right in his bum. It was all caught on camera and made it into the premiere.
“Bugs just like me. If you’re next to me and we’re in a jungle and you get a bug bite, I’ll have 50,” Johnson said. “I haven’t had a shot since probably elementary school. Getting into a situation where you have to take a shot for a bug bite is scary just in itself, but having cameras running and all that stuff — what a situation.”
The rest of the season features trips to more treacherous lands including Zambia, Mongolia and Greenland. Johnson promises plenty more adventure.
“We’re going to get into some trouble,” Johnson said. “With exploration and trying new places, things happen. We’ll get to see some places that people haven’t stepped and interact in environments that really are (a) time machine.”
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Jeff Shiffrin, with his wife, Eileen, made the Vail area their home decades ago, and together raised Mikaela and Taylor Shiffrin, who was a member of the two-time NCAA Champion University of Denver Ski Team.