Taming the piranha -- catching fish and busting myths in the Amazon
Our small canoe pulled away from the tiny dock and made its way up the murky tributary of the Rio Negro, a couple of boat hours north of Manaus, Brazil.
In these waters, I was about to tangle with one of the legendary monsters of the not-so-deep: the finned mayhem known as the piranha.
I could only hope that my fate with this demon seed would not go the route of so many Hollywood films: 1. luckless soul winds up in river 2. drop of blood turns piranha psycho 3. fish rip flesh like Edward Scissorhands trimming a hedge 4. victim disappears beneath boiling red froth 5. human skeleton floats to surface.
It’s an image that has made the piranha one of the most feared predators in the global imagination, right up there with sharks and zombies.
I’d heard tales in the Amazon of fishermen who have hooked peacock bass, known for their fight, only to have them picked clean to the head by frenzied piranha by the time the angler reeled them in.
Fortunately, I was going into battle with a crack team.
Expedition leader Mike, a former member of the Guyanese army, had jousted with the enemy for years. He barked orders like the former army captain he’d been.
The team members, tourists like me recruited from an eccentric jungle lodge on stilts, made up in toughness for their lack of experience. There was the Russian couple and their 12-year-old son, a stout lad and absolutely fearless.
There was Junko, a twenty-something, 98-pound Japanese tourist and her husband. “Steel” is the word that came to mind when I saw her.
Dennis and Mark had run a ballet studio in Miami.
It was going to be a bad day to be a piranha.
Getting to know your adversary
We journeyed upriver on a murky tributary of the Rio Negro. The current on the jungle river was calm.
A brown-collared hawk sailed from the canopy on one side of the mocha-colored waterway to the clump of forest on the other.
Suddenly, the fish were flying, too.
“Piranha!” bellowed the captain.
A few fish cracked the surface for a devious peek at the world above, leaving a ripple like the splash of a pebble, but others leapt like dolphins.
The mood of the troops grew sober. None of us had figured on an aerial attack.
The driver turned off the engine. The river grew quiet. Mike warned us not to crowd one side of the canoe, or we could tip over. The order did nothing to slow our pulse rates.
To underscore his point, he explained what makes piranha choppers so brutally effective: interlocking teeth, serrated for maximum slicing and dicing.
The triangular top teeth clamp down squarely into gaps of the lower teeth, a design suggesting that tofu is not the piranha’s first choice for a meal.
Powerful jaws complete the arsenal, snapping quickly and continuously, allowing piranhas to carve flesh off the bone like a buzzsaw.
Piranha haunt the major river basins of South America -- from the Amazon and Orinoco in the north to the Paraguay in the middle of the continent -- and do most of their damage in swarms.
Not all the several dozen species are dangerous like the black piranha, the largest of the breed, or the red piranha, the sociopath we were after.
Like sharks, they can smell blood miles away.
Face to ugly face
Mike handed each of us a pole with a hooked line, to which we attached the bait: a cube of raw meat. We tossed our lines overboard and waited nervously.
The Russian kid struck first, jerking one of the carnivores out of the water.
In his excitement, he touched off a small panic as he swung the still-snapping fish inches past my face on course for Junko, who, along with others, fled to the other side of the boat, causing a near-capsizing on the port side.
“Get back to the other side -- no, not everyone!” Mike screamed.
The group responded by scrambling starboard, tipping the boat again.
Mike grabbed the dangling piranha from the Russian kid’s line. With its red-orange belly and puny size -- red piranhas top out at three pounds -- the fish looked less like a serial killer than an overgrown goldfish.
Except for the teeth.
The captain took a thick stalk of reed and touched it to the piranha’s lips. In a nanosecond, its jaws snapped and razor teeth sheared straight through it.
After a few false alarms, my line bent. I yanked upward, wrenching a wriggling piranha out of the water.
I swung it to the boat for a closer look. The gap-toothed bite was an orthodontist’s nightmare, and only its mother could see anything lovable past that protruding lower lip.
With a face like that, I could see why this fish was so angry at the world.
Mike tossed the hand-sized fish back in the water, as he did all of the piranha, ensuring an ornery bite tomorrow for a new crop of myth-fed travelers.
Piranha P.R.: Myth or reality?
Some say the human-ripping piranha legend started with early 20th-century U.S. president Teddy Roosevelt -- and a set-up by the Brazilians.
To guarantee a good show for the adventure-loving Roosevelt, local fishermen blocked off a portion of the Amazon with nets and dumped hordes of starving piranha in it when the U.S. president explored the region on a hunting trip, according to Frank Magallanes, editor of "Oregon Piranha and Exotic Fish Exhibit."
Then they sliced up a cow and tossed it in the river, setting off a feeding frenzy, producing the now-fabled instant-skeleton effect.
Media traveling with Roosevelt spread the tale around the world; Hollywood would later emblazon various versions of the scene for posterity.
Piranhas have a nasty bite, and every year Brazilians swimming in rivers get nipped. But contrary to lore, they don’t strip live humans to the bone.
As we headed back after a hard day of busting piranha, I was possessed by a powerful urge to get the blood from the meat off my hands.
Cleansing water was inches away in the river. But the myth was still looming. I paused. Paused again. Then I dunked them in the water, washing out an Amazon of B-movies.
The author's piranha fishing expedition was arranged through the Manaus, Brazil's magnificent Ariau Amazon Towers hotel, a jungle canopy retreat on stilts that bills itself as "the largest treetop hotel in the world"; +1 305 944 0795; www.ariautowers.com
More on CNN: The world's greatest wildernesses