They had it even before we knew what was going on. My wand leaned in prayer to something below the surface of the tea-colored water. The six-pound test line danced like a cat on hot pavement. All hell had broken loose. Beads of sweat rolled down Doris’s back. His clothes were now a second skin, clinging to his every move. We gasp for breath. We had fish. The oval-shaped silver body and red belly of a piranha surfaced. I reached it. “Don’t let a finger get near their mouths or you’ll lose it,” our native guide barked.
Minutes earlier, I was shuddered by the breeze escaping from somewhere ahead despite the 85-plus degree heat. Double digit humidity didn’t help either. A maddening buzzing filled my ears, but thanks to my Vapor Rub Vick cape, the bloodsuckers wouldn’t delight in me. My eyes burned. I got a runny nose. A leaf the size of a coffee table or a hanging branch hit me every few steps. Curses spilled from my lips even with my best efforts to become one with the jungle, as the Indian had done.
Our fishing rods ranged from 18 “to five and a half feet. I was hoping the lightweight jumpsuit was enough, although I had sneaked twelve and twenty pound test reels as an afterthought. Tambaqui wouldn’t even be enough. Creepers that thick how my wrist plunged into light brown water making little ripples as it slid between roots and fallen branches. Tangled growth matted the gentle slope of the shore in the color of milk tea. I had thrown a piece of chicken liver Fingernail-sized bloody on a spikeless hook with a shot splitting into a plate-sized swirl right next to a grunt of mangrove roots protruding from the surface.
Minutes later, with his tanned skin glistening with moisture, our guide demonstrated the efficacy of scissor-shaped teeth. A green leaf held near the open mouth instantly sported a clean crescent-shaped bite. Three heavy blows to the head prepared the killer for the cleanup. After cleaning, the Embera made a series of diagonal cuts along each side of the fish. On these, he carefully rubbed a mixture of salt, garlic, and ground roots from a small pumpkin he was carrying. A simple frame of shaved branches held the fish over a smoldering fire of burning coals. The firm, roasted meat had a mild and slightly earthy flavor, like a seasoned and honeyed catfish. With a wink and a sly nod to Doris, he said. “Turn these heads into soup and you will need many handcuffs.” She looked at me with a puzzled look. I smiled.
The perfect killing machine
The Amazon is full of dangers. Soldier ants march by the millions, devouring all life in their path. Submerged up to the eyes, crocodiles stalk the unwary, whoever or whoever. Rippling its 20 feet long below the surface, the Anaconda, one of the largest snakes in the world, uses the heat search guide to find its next meal. The barbed stinger on the tail of plate-sized stingrays can cause a wound that takes months to heal. But none of these carry the fearsome mystique of the ravenous Piranha. Spanning South America from Brazil to the lowlands of Peru, they also inhabit the waters of 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 sharp teeth and powerful jaws of the Piranha. The serrated teeth fit together like scissors, allowing Piranha to slice through the meat of her prey. Like a shark, a piranha’s teeth are replaceable, when one breaks, a new one grows in its place.
The Yagua Indians of Peru often use the sharp edges between the teeth of a piranha’s jaw to sharpen the tips of their blowpipe 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 her eggs and territory. An injured animal lost in the water will be stripped of its bones so quickly that it almost appears to “dance” on the surface as it is ravaged from below. A bird that falls into the water will be gone, feathers and all, in three minutes or less. A fish caught fighting in a net will be chewed clean to the head in seconds. Attacks on large animals and humans are often outlined dramatically, but they are rare. In some regions, piranhas are known as “donkey castrators”.
“They will tear and devour every wounded man or beast alive.” US President Teddy Roosevelt said, adding: “Piranhas are the fiercest fish in the world.” Piranha, also called Caribe or Piraya, only fostered their fearsome mystique when Roosevelt encountered them during his exploits in 1914. There are about 35 known species of Piranhas, but only five species pose a danger to man. Species range from the red-bellied 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 1/2 inch long dark body weighing up to ten pounds. It could remove a man’s hand in two or three bites.
Most species eat fruits or seeds that fall into the water from hanging trees. Fish are not always aggressive. Women wash clothes in knee-deep water, where men spear fish while children bathe or swim in these same piranha-infested waters without harm. In addition to increasing the mystique of the piranha, Indian men with half a dozen wives and up to a score of children attribute its potency to piranha head soup, although there is still no scientific justification for the potency of the soup.
Piranhas are often part of the diet of indigenous peoples in areas where fish are found. All you need to fish for piranhas are lines with a metal guide next to the hook so the fish doesn’t bite through the line, a supply of raw red meat (worms or cut fish will do that too), and a bit of luck. . Piranhas swim in large schools and are attracted to movement and blood. In May 1999, hundreds of fishermen armed with rods, reels and raw steak flocked to the Brazilian city of Aracatuba, near Sao Paolo, for a Sunday piranha fishing tournament. The townspeople had declared the season open for carnivorous fish, which had decimated other species in the local river. The prize of the tournament was an outboard motor. But “most of the fishermen were content to go home with many supposedly aphrodisiac piranhas,” said then-city spokesman Nelson Custidio.
Piranha, which earned its notorious reputation by slaughtering 1,200 head of cattle each year in Brazil, is one of the best eaters in South America. Regardless of what name you call them and no matter where you taste them, when cooked in a variety of ways, their firm, light flesh with its mild, slightly nutty flavor is a flavor you are sure to enjoy.