"If you don't hide the hook, you'll just be feeding the piranhas!" my guide Rui explained as he showed us how to place the chunks of cow heart we were using as bait on the hooks of our bamboo fishing rods. Here's a photo of my pile of bait, sitting on the side of the canoe:
We'd met Rui and Amadeo at the dock where we always boarded the little canoes for our outings, and I was surprised that they only took us about 100 feet upstream to fish on the Ariau River, which eventually makes it way to join the Rio Negro and eventually the Amazon. Here's the area where we fished.
I must admit that I fed one or two (or more!) of the piranhas as we fished...several times the sneaky little guys were able to eat the bait without getting hooked. But, I was also pleased to catch about ten piranhas. Because of the drought, a lot of fish are concentrated in a little water, which makes them easy to catch. Here I am with the first piranha I caught...which was small enough that we threw it back, but not before taking a photo:
Most of the piranhas I saw were quite small, no bigger than the size of your hand. All of them had serious teeth, and many of them had parts missing because they'd been bit by their friends. Here's Rui, showing off the teeth of a piranha we'd just caught:
Here's a video where Rui explains that a school of piranhas can eat an entire cow in five minutes:
Here's Amadeo cleaning the piranhas--he always chopped off their teeth first, and was kind enough to save a jaw for me to take home as a souvenier. (Which reminds me: having a piranha jaw in your bag makes a great emergency conversation piece if you ever run out of things to say to the other tourists around you!)
One time I caught something much bigger than a piranha on my line, and it was a fighter. I'd lost a few other fish that were able to thrash their way off my line, and didn't want to lose this one, so I pulled it in as quickly as I could and tossed it on the bottom of the boat. Here's what happened next:
Yup, the sharp dorsal fin on the fish cut Rui's hand as he attempted to remove the hook. As Rui squeezed the blood off his hand, letting it drip into the river, I had a sudden realization: "I'm standing in a canoe in piranha- and caiman- infested water with about 7 other people--I hope nobody rocks the boat!!"
It turns out that I'd caught a Peacock Bass, a fish that is highly prized by sports fishermen for its fighting qualities. Here's a video where Rui explained that people make trips to the Amazon specifically to catch this fish:
For those who can't see video, here's a photo of Amadeo holding the fish:
Here's a closeup, where you can see that the fish has an inner mouth with little teeth things it uses to grind its food:
Amadeo was kind enough to put the fish back on the hook so I could pose for this photo. "Bring the fish closer to your face" Rui kept saying as he prepared to take the photo, but since I'd seen it draw blood, and it was still thrashing a little, I figured this was close enough!
Later, when some native fishermen came by in their canoe, and Amadeo called out to them and then held up the Peacock Bass for them to see, I knew that catching this fish was a Big Deal, and it made me all the more thankful for the experience!
Another person on our boat caught something even bigger. They hooked a caiman, which is a small crocodile about 3 feet long. Here's Rui working to get the pole un-stuck:
We ended up just cutting the line, and didn't try to reel that one in! Here's an earlier photo I took of it, where you can just see it's head poking out of the water:
After dark that evening, we went caiman spotting, which I'll write about later.
At this point, though, we happily took our catch back to the Ariau Jungle Lodge, where they cooked it into a soup we ate for our Thanksgiving dinner!
I'm not typically a fish eater, but I couldn't pass up the opportunity to eat a piranha I'd caught myself. There wasn't much meat on the fish, but it was good. The peacock bass, however, was great...it had a lot of white meat that didn't have a fishy flavor at all. I was very thankful for the opportunity to eat it for my Thanksgiving dinner, and thankful for the experience of fishing in the Amazon!