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SPOTLIGHT: Retired NIU professor roams world

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In a photo taken March 7, 2012, Leonard Kouba, a retired Northern Illinois University geography professor, is seen in a room at his home in Sycamore, Ill., with a collection of African masks. Kouba has traveled all over the world hunting and fishing and s

In a photo taken March 7, 2012, Leonard Kouba, a retired Northern Illinois University geography professor, is seen in a room at his home in Sycamore, Ill., with a collection of African masks. Kouba has traveled all over the world hunting and fishing and setting records along the way.

Daily Chronicle, Kyle Bursaw) MANDATORY CREDIT, Associated Press

SYCAMORE, Ill. — Leonard Kouba's heart stopped when he came within 15 feet of a 400-plus pound silverback gorilla in Africa.

His legs shook after two hours of battling and reeling in a 163-pound Mekong catfish in Thailand. And his adrenaline rushed at the sight of a charging bull elephant.

Those are some of the adventures Kouba, a Sycamore resident, has experienced in his trips to more than 100 countries, where he has set about 150 fishing world records in the past 40 years. With more than 160 international trips, the retired Northern Illinois University geography professor boasts enough world travels to make Indiana Jones blush.

"I've just had this strong desire to see everything," Kouba said.

That desire was sparked from a lifelong passion for fishing - a hobby that has resulted in frequent world records, including multiple records from a November trip to Thailand and a February trip to Argentina.

Kouba's most recent accomplishment - a 46-inch striped catfish caught in Thailand - will be listed in the Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame's spring publication. He said he always releases his fish, but sometimes the fish is too large or the fight is too long, which leads to its death.

"You set a record, and next year someone looks to knock you off," he said. "Or I look to knock them off."

He always enjoys setting new records, but the most recent one does not measure up to some of Kouba's most memorable catches that include a 210-pound tarpon caught in West Africa, a rare two-bass-on-one-line catch and an elusive chase for a Nile perch.

That chase took him from Uganda to Kenya and eventually Egypt, where he was able to catch the 200-plus pound fish. The chase also showed him the dangers of international travel after terrorist attacks in Cairo and Valley of the Queens delayed his first attempt in Egypt.

Kouba also had to be evacuated from Libya and has seen increasing dangers in Venezuela - the country he has visited the most in pursuit of peacock bass and payara, also known as vampire fish because of its two large fangs.

In his most recent trip to Venezuela in 2009, he said officers were extorting ranchers and fishing camps.

"Venezuela is great, but there is an unfortunate part to all this and that is President (Hugo) Chavez," Kouba said.

Those international dangers likely will prevent Kouba from setting foot on three regions he has always dreamed of seeing: south Sudan, Central African Republic and Chad.

Despite the dangers, Kouba said his journeys have been more than he could have asked for.

"Everywhere I've been, I've been treated nothing but nicely by everyone," he said.

Kouba still plans to travel and has one final goal in fishing. His next trip in September will take him to multiple countries, including Paraguay, Iceland and Greenland. Kouba hopes to catch his 10th fish species weighing more than 100 pounds. He has caught 19 fish from nine species weighing triple digits.

"I'm obsessive about even numbers," he laughed. "I need that final fish."