It was 8:00 AM. I had been awake for nearly an hour already. I had a strange, lingering headache from what I feared was one of those brain-eating amoebas. I suspected I contracted it while swimming in the Black River, an Amazonian tributary. Will I die at the advancing age of 26? Perhaps, but not before I catch some piranha. I felt good, energetic.
Roger, our guide, told us to cover from head-to-toe and apply extra bug spray. He told us we’d be going deep into the jungle that day, down a small waterway where he knew piranha would be lurking. We hopped into the skiffs, as was the routine, and headed out from the Aqua Aria. Even at 8:00 AM, the humidity in the Amazon Rainforest was stifling. It was like breathing in a steam room, and I’m only slightly exaggerating.
As we’re gliding over the water in our twin-prop skiffs, I remember looking down at the water. It was very murky, almost black. You can’t see six inches below the surface. “What terrors of the deep lurk beneath this surface?” I remember wondering.
I was travelling with fellow journalists. They were all women. En route to our fishing hole, they lightly poked fun at my unseen fishing skills and suggested that my fish ought to be the largest, since I’m a man. In stride, I took that challenge and reminded them how lucky they were to been in the presence of such a skilled fisherman. I couldn’t come up with anything better because I think at glacial speeds.
We approached a break in the shore line. I would’ve never thought that this was the place to turn in, but Roger and our skiff captain knew otherwise. If the Black River was 5th Avenue, we just made a left down a shady alley.
Ducking below branches and ramming our way through the fallen trees floating in our path, the captain skillfully maneuvered our skiff down this waterway that was only a few feet wider than the vessel. We went around three or four bends before ramming the skiff into a bank of clay. Put the boat in park. This was it.
Roger had already prepped us for what would happen next. He pulled out a zip-lock bag containing chunks of what looked like bloody skirt steak. The poles were nothing fancy; a bamboo dowel, maybe six feet of fishing line and a basic hook. They were as ancient as the fish we sought, but they’d do the trick.
Roger showed us what we were to do. Securing meat on the hook, he grabbed the pole with his right hand and the hook with his left hand. He slapped and stirred the water vigorously with the end of the pole and dropped in the line. We waited. It must have been ten seconds before he started getting bites. Within thirty seconds Roger was yanking a piranha out of the water. It thrashed violently on the floor of the skiff. We all jumped back instinctively, reflexively. The body of his catch was roughly the size of a Big Mac. Roger picked it up behind the gills while the captain came over and used a fish hook to pull down the lips, exposing a row of razor sharp teeth.
If you fell in the water, do you think the piranha would feel bad for you?
At this point, I was ready to get one of my own. Let’s fish. We all loaded up our hooks with meat, slapped the water, and dropped in the bait. One of the journalists was an outspoken vegetarian and staunchly refused to partake. She felt bad for the fish. Our guides ribbed her a little asking, “if you fell in the water, do you think the piranha would feel bad for you?” That visual was enough to kick-start her interest in fishing. She grabbed a pole and ended up catching (and eating, though she might deny it) the biggest fish that day.
Everyone caught a fish that day. We brought them back to the Aqua Aria where the chef gutted, cooked and brought them out to us on a platter. It was a romantic presentation with the fish on skewers, upright in a way that looked as if they were swimming in a school. We feasted. The piranha is a very bony fish, and not too flavorful. It’s probably more work than it’s worth to eat, but not too bad when done right, and a staple in the diet of Amazonian natives.
There’s a saying in fishing, that it “requires the patience of saint and the prayers of a sinner.” Allow me to be totally open with you guys — hunting one of the world’s most feared and little-known fish was a lot of fun, but wasn’t like that quote. It required shallow water, bloody meat and about thirty seconds of actual “fishing”. It wasn’t filled with the hype, vague paranoia and ginned-up mystique that Hollywood gives it. Believing that those things exist? That’s the biggest fish of all. There were no safety scares. I was in about three feet of motionless water. The fish wasn’t that tasty.
But that doesn’t make a good story, so let’s keep it between you and me.