Nasty, mean, killing things lurk everywhere in South America’s jungles. There are blackflies, for example, that can give you onchocerciasis — river blindness — caused by worms that get in your eyeballs; sandflies that transmit a leprosy-like disease called leishmaniasis; assassin bugs whose load of protozoa can kill you with a heart/brain malady known as Chagas disease; and mosquitoes that carry dreaded illnesses such as malaria and yellow fever.
Large animals deal death as well. Twenty-foot anacondas can squeeze the life from you, fer-de-lance and bushmaster snakes inject deadly venom through inch-long fangs, electric eels deliver 600 volts of killing power, jaguars administer the coup-de-grace with a bite to the head, and catfish the size of great white sharks can simply swallow you whole.
Anglers visiting South America worry little about these creatures, however. Instead, they agonize about little fish called piranhas.
Theodore Roosevelt said there is good reason to worry. In his 1914 book Through the Brazilian Wilderness, the U.S. president and adventurer first gave widespread publicity to the notion that piranhas are man-eaters.
“They are the most ferocious fish in the world,” he wrote. “Even the most formidable fish, the sharks or the barracudas, usually attack things smaller than themselves. But the piranhas habitually attack things much larger than themselves. They will snap a finger off a hand incautiously trailed in the water; they mutilate swimmers — in every river town in Paraguay there are men who have been thus mutilated; they will rend and devour alive any wounded man or beast; for blood in the water excites them to madness.”
Several years ago, while fishing in Venezuela, I met several guides who exhibited the circular scars of piranha bites, but most admitted the bites occurred while handling piranhas. It was not unusual for these men to dive into the water to retrieve a lure hung on an underwater obstruction. They often bathed in the same waters where we caught piranhas on hook and line. They had no apparent fear of the fish some called “caribe capa-burro” — the cannibal that castrates donkeys.
One day, however, I witnessed an incident that exemplifies what can happen to careless anglers. We were using live piranhas as bait for a long-tooth, hard-fighting sportfish called the payara, or Dracula fish. The species we used, the white piranha, seldom exceeds a pound; those we obtained weighed only a few ounces each. We caught them on hooks baited with bloody beef, then dropped them in a livewell. Our guide, Jesus Perez, thought it funny to reach into the livewell and shriek as if he had been attacked each time he prepared to bait our hooks.
Once, after a particularly blood-curdling yell, Jesus withdrew his hand from the bait tank, and we gazed, horrified, at a piranha that had engulfed his finger. The piranha was dead, however. It was all a joke.
We ignored Jesus’ antics after that, but once while he was trying to corral an elusive piranha in the bait tank, he yanked his hand away and winced. I looked at him as if to say, “I’m not falling for it, Jesus.” Then I noticed blood on his index finger. In a split second, the piranha’s razor-blade teeth had removed his fingertip, including part of the fingernail.
In the Brazilian and Venezuelan waters I have fished, piranhas were amazingly abundant. They would immediately devour fresh meat dropped into the water. I caught several species using beef or fish flesh for bait. And many, including some truly large specimens, were taken on crankbaits or topwater plugs used to entice peacock bass. All were tough fighters, battling like bluegills on steroids.
The most fearsome specimen I examined was a black piranha. When I cast a big prop bait near the bank, this 5-pounder struck with unbridled fury, sending water high into the air. The piranha fought long and hard, requiring several minutes to land.
The black is the largest of all piranhas, weighing as much as 13 pounds. This struggling specimen had ebony sides, with a tinge of red on its belly — quite unspectacular except for its mouthful of wicked teeth. When I grabbed my line and lifted the fish, to avoid those razor-keen triangles, the piranha bit cleanly through the 3/0 treble hook and fell flapping in the bottom of the boat. Startled, I almost jumped in the river. My guide reminded me, however, there was only a single piranha in the boat.
“In the river,” he said, “who knows how many there are.”
Seventeen species of piranhas live in South American waters. Their common name comes from the Tupi Indian dialect, in which “pira” means fish and “ranha” means tooth. Close relations include popular aquarium fish such as black and neon tetras.
The presence of blood generally is believed to stimulate the feeding frenzy of flesh-eating piranhas. However, evidence indicates that sound may play a larger role in triggering attacks. Piranhas have highly developed auditory organs; sounds of splashing created by panicked victims draw piranhas like iron filings to a magnet. Often, when we targeted piranhas, our guides would thrash the water with a fishing rod to bring them near. And more than once, I saw a huge peacock bass attacked by piranhas while in the midst of a wild struggle against a fishing rod. Sometimes only minor wounds were evident when the peacock was landed. But sometimes we reeled in little more than a still-breathing head. No doubt, many hapless animals struggling in the water are attacked and killed by piranhas, including, occasionally, humans.
One night in Manaus, Brazil, I enjoyed a sumptuous meal in one of the city’s finest restaurants. For the first course, I was presented a bowl of thin broth flavored with tiny chunks of fish.
“What type of soup is this?” I inquired.
“Sopa de piranha,” the maitre d’ replied. “It is believed by our people to be an aphrodisiac.”
“If that is true,” I said, “then perhaps the piranha is not such a bad fish after all.”
“Indeed,” the man said, smiling. “Sometimes the piranha eats people; sometimes people eat piranhas. I am glad they did not eat you, so you might sit here and eat them.”
I could not have agreed more.