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Adventures in the Amazon: Fishing for Piranhas

As I've mentioned in earlier posts, the Amazon Rainforest has an incredible diversity of wildlife. There are literally hundreds of different species of birds, amphibians, and mammals, and that doesn't change when you go beneath the surface of the Amazon River, where more than 3000 species of fish dwell. Fish like the pirarucu, which can reach ten feet in length and weigh over 400 pounds, or the payara, which can also grow quite large, and have two distinctive fangs on their lower lip. Of course, the best known fish in the Amazon is none other than the piranha, which has a mean and nasty reputation, despite its relatively small size.

While that reputation is well deserved, it has also been highly exaggerated by Hollywood as well. The fish is definitely aggressive, and their sharp teeth can inflict plenty of damage, but attacks on humans, or larger animals for that matter, are a seldom occurance, and rarely fatal. One thing Hollywood did get right, however, is that Piranhas do tend to travel in large schools, which has only enhanced the idea that they are organized and efficient killers.

On one warm, and especially humid, morning while I was in the Peru, I found myself aboard one of La Turmalina's skiffs, along wtih a dozen others, edging our way deep into the Amazon backwaters. At times, the jungle was so thick that we had to break out a machete in order to clear a path for the boat. We were in search of a calm, open patch of water that would make for a good fishing hole, and since it was the high-water season, the fish had retreated far from the main channel.

Eventually our guide indicated to the driver to stop, and they were soon handing out our sophisticated fishing gear which consisted of long wooden branches, which served as poles, with fishing line running their length and a medium sized hook on the end of that line. Chunks of beef were added to the hook, and would serve as bait for the hungry fish.

Our guide quickly demonstrated the process of attracing a piranha by dipping the end of the pole in the water and thrashing it about just below the surface. Apparently, this attracts the fish's attention just before we drop the bait into the water, and it seemed to work, as it wasn't long before several of us were getting tugs on the end of our line, tell-tale signs that the fish were biting.

The legendary aggressiveness of the piranha was on fine display that morning, as they were making it a habit of stealing our bait without having the common courtesy of joining us in the boat. The little fish would hit fast and often, and sometimes they would clean off the hooks without any of us even knowning. In fact, at one point, I drew my hook from the water to find that it was completely clean once again. This incited a round of chuckles from three of my fellow fishermen, whose lines dangled in the water right next to mine. I told them that they shouldn't laugh until they had checked their own lines and upon inspection, all three of their hooks were clean as well.

Eventually we did start to get the hang of it, and began to haul the piranhas on board. Most were no more than six inches in length, but their razor-like teeth were constantly on dispaly, reminding us how they got that nasty reputation. I personally managed to catch three of the silver and orange fish, plus a "talking catfish" so named for the hisses and squeels that he made after I pulled him from the water. Over the course of the morning, nearly everyone else managed to catch at least one fish as well, much to their delight.

Later, back aboard La Turmalina, the ship's cook would fry up the fish we caught and serve them as part of the evening meal. Most of my fellow passengers passed on trying the Amazonian delicacies, but those of us who opted to sample them, found the piranha to be quite tasty.

Our morning of piranha fishing turned out to be one of the most enjoyable of the trip. It was incredibly fun, and a bit surreal, to be fishing for the predatory fish while surrounded by the waters of the most powerful river on Earth. Afterall, how many people can say they caught, and ate, a piranha?

Next: Dolphins at the Confluence

Read more Adventures in the Amazon posts HERE.

Filed under: South America, Peru, Ecotourism

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