They had it even before we knew what was happening. My rod bowed in prayer to something below the tea-colored water’s surface. The six-pound test line danced like a cat on a hot pavement. All hell had broken loose. Beads of sweat rolled down Doris’ back. Her clothes were now a second skin, clinging to her every move. We panted for breath. We had fish on. The silvery oval-shaped body and red belly of a Piranha broke the surface. I reached for it. “Don’t let a finger get near their mouths or you’ll lose it”, our native guide barked.
Minutes earlier, I shuddered from a breeze escaping from somewhere up ahead despite 85 degree-plus heat. The double-digit humidity didn’t help either. A maddening buzz filled my ears, but thanks my coating of Vick’s Vapor Rub, the blood-suckers wouldn’t feast on me. My eyes burned. My nose dripped. A coffee-table-sized leaf or hanging branch slapped into me every few steps. Curses burst from my lips even with my best efforts to become as one with the rainforest, as the indian had.
Our fishing rods extended from 18″ to five and a half feet. I’d hoped the light mono would suffice, although I’d squirreled away spools of twelve and twenty pound test as an afterthought. If we tagged into a 50-plus pound Tambaqui even that wouldn’t be enough. Vines as thick as my wrist dipped into light coffee-colored waters making little ripples as it slid past roots and fallen branches. Tangled growth matted the gentle slope of the bank into tea-with-milk colored wetness. I’d flicked a thumbnail-sized chunk of bloody chicken liver on a barb-less hook with a split shot into a dinner plate-sized swirl just beside a snarl of mangrove roots jutting upwards through the surface.
Minutes later, his tanned skin gleaming with moisture, our guide demonstrated the efficiency of the scissor-like teeth. A green leaf held near the gaping mouth instantly sported a neat, crescent-shaped bite. Three heavy blows to the head prepared the killer for cleaning. After cleaning, the Embera made a series of diagonal cuts along each side of the fish. Into these he carefully rubbed a mixture of salt, garlic, and ground roots from a small gourd he carried. A simple shaved branch frame held the fish over a smoky fire of glowing coals. The firm toasted flesh tasted smooth and a bit earthy, like a seasoned and mellowed catfish. With a wink and a sly nod towards Doris he said. “Make these heads into soup and you will need many wives”. She glanced at me with a puzzled look. I smiled.
The Perfect Killing Machine
The Amazon is filled with danger. Soldier ants march by the millions devouring all life in their path. Submerged up to the eyes, Crocodiles lie in wait for the unwary – whatever or whoever that may be. Undulating its 20-foot length beneath the surface, the Anaconda, one of the world’s largest snakes, uses heat-seeking guidance to find its next meal. The barbed stinger in the tail of platter-sized stingrays can inflict a wound that takes months to heal. But none of these carry the fearsome mystique of the voracious Piranha. Ranging through South America from Brazil to the lowlands of Peru, they also inhabit waters in Venezuela, Guyana, Colombia, Ecuador and Bolivia. In the Amazon and Rio Negro rivers of Brazil and the Orinoco River in Venezuela, no creature is safe from the Piranha’s razor-sharp teeth and powerful jaws. The serrated teeth fit together like scissors, enabling Piranha to cut the flesh from their prey. Like a shark, a Piranha’s teeth are replaceable, when one breaks off a new one grows in its place.
The Yagua Indians of Peru often use the sharp edges between the teeth of a Piranha jawbone to sharpen the point of their blowgun darts. A fish that is dying or swimming erratically will be quickly attacked by a large school. Piranha will also attack without warning to defend their eggs and territory. A wounded animal that strays into the water will be stripped to the bone so quickly it seems almost to “dance” on the surface as it’s ravaged from beneath. A bird that falls into the water will be gone, feathers and all, in three minutes or less. A trapped fish struggling in a net will be chewed clean to the head in a matter of seconds. Attacks on large animals and humans are often dramatically portrayed, but are rare. In some regions Piranha are known as “donkey castrators”.
“They will rend and devour alive any wounded man or beast.” U.S. President Teddy Roosevelt said, adding, “Piranha are the most ferocious fish in the world.” Piranha, also called Caribe or Piraya only furthered their fearsome mystique when Roosevelt encountered them during his exploits in 1914. There are about 35 known species of Piranha but only five species represent a danger to man. Species range from the Red-Belly Piranha (Pygocentrus nattereri) with its characteristic red belly to the largest of the carnivorous species, the Black Piranha with its demon-red eyes and a 17 and a half inch long dark body weighing up to ten pounds. It could remove a man’s hand in two or three bites.
Most species dine on fruit or seeds that fall into the water from overhanging trees. The fish are not always aggressive. Women wash clothes in knee-deep water where men spearfish while children bathe or swim in these same Piranha-infested waters without harm. Further adding to the Piranha’s mystique, Indian men with half a dozen wives and up to a score of children attribute their potency to Piranha-head soup, although no scientific justification for the soup’s potency yet exists.
Fishing for Piranha
Piranhas are usually part of indigenous peoples diet in the areas where the fish are found. All you need to go Piranha fishing are lines with a metal leader next to the hook so the fish doesn’t bite through the line, a supply of red, raw meat (worms or cut-up fish will do too) and a bit of luck. Piranha swim in large schools and are attracted by movement and blood. In May of 1999, hundreds of anglers armed with rods, reels, and raw steak flocked to the Brazilian town of Aracatuba near Sao Paolo for a one-Sunday piranha fishing tournament. The townspeople had declared open season on the flesh-eating fish, which had decimated other species in the local river. The prize for the tournament was an outboard motor. But “most fishermen were content to go home with plenty of the reputedly aphrodisiac piranha”, claimed then town spokesman Nelson Custidio.
Piranha, earning their notorious reputation by reportedly killing 1,200 head of cattle every year in Brazil, is some of the best eating in South America. Whatever name you call them and no matter where you try them, when cooked in a variety of ways, their firm light flesh with its smooth, slightly nutty flavor, is a taste you’re sure to enjoy.