Catching Piranhas in the Amazon

Catching Piranhas in the Amazon

A Norwegian-Indian adventurer goes looking for deadly piranhas in the Amazon. Here’s a first-hand account of the river's lure

By Sagar Sen

Piranhas (1978) was probably one of the first B-grade horror movies my parents took me to during my childhood days in Bangalore, India. If I can recall, I saw it in a makeshift movie theatre on the badminton courts of the Indian Institute of Science Gymkhana. The bloody carnage of the piranhas was forever etched in my memories. They were a horde of carnivorous fish that could devour a human in minutes and turn the water blood red.
Twenty years later, in July 2013, I find myself in Brazil for a computer science conference- one step nigher to spotting the piranha from close quarters! Whenever I think of South America, I think of the Amazonas. One, for the movie ‘Piranhas’ and the other, my childhood fascination for a not-so-well-known adventure game from Sierra Entertainment called Ecoquest 2: The Lost Secret of the Rainforest.
Coming to Brazil instantly meant a chance to venture into the Amazonian rainforest. The Amazonas stretch up to 5.5 million square kilometers, spanning countries such as Brazil, Peru, Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana. It’s more than the half of Europe. Amazonas is mostly unchartered and its mysteries lie beneath a thick green canopy.


THE PIRANHA-FISHING EXPERIENCEEco-tourism in the Amazon involves a wide range of activities including spending a night in the jungle, spotting/swimming with pink dolphins, bird watching and jungle treks, to name a few. Nevertheless, fishing for Piranhas is one of the most unique experiences you can have in the Amazonas. Osmar and Fabiano, our jungle guides, took us to a shady lagoon on the Mamori lake. They called it the ‘Piranha Place’ and asked us promptly: “Who wants to swim?”.
Of course everyone on the boat had seen the movie and preferred staying dry. Osmar handed us a bag of bait, essentially small chunks of raw meat and a fishing rod with a hook. The technique to catch piranhas is to stick a small piece of meat to the hook, perturb the water with the fishing rod and drop the hook. One must ensure that the fishing cord is tense and not loose. When piranhas start nibbling on the meat, one must be able to sense the vibrations in the fingers and give a jerk to hook the piranha.
Despite all this technical know-how, I managed to catch only one piranha. They are stealthy and nibble away the meat with their razor sharp teeth with astonishing speed. Our Argentinian friend Jose caught one but it came off the hook and started jumping around in the boat. He tried to catch it with his bare hands and instantly got bit by the piranha on his index finger with blood oozing out of the gashes in an ellipse. Osmar told us that two places in the Amazonas one wouldn’t even dare swimming in, are ‘Queen’s lake’ and ‘Piranha Lake’. We caught about 15 fish in total but put them back in the lake.


To call it a day, we went into the lake for a swim, a little far away from the piranha habitation. Osmar explained to us that it wouldn’t be advisable to do the same in the dry season. Nevertheless, it's uncommon for humans to eat carnivorous creatures. However, one can try the piranha soup or Caldo de Piranha (it’s a popular Brazilian delicacy). This whole experience helped to single out truth from reality about the piranhas. It taught me how to live with them in harmony, more like a symbiotic relationship- you don’t mess with them, they don’t harm you!
Image © Sagar SenPlaceManaus, Amazonas