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Out There: Piranha!

9/28/2004

"Come queekly, Senor Catfish!"

Popcorn, a young fishing guide, placed his hands on my shoulders and pushed me toward the stern of the Amazon Castaway, our home-away-from-home on Brazil's Rio Negro. Several people had gathered there to watch a most unusual spectacle.

The guides were about to dispose of a dead fish brought to the boat for the anglers to see. Its huge carcass — well more than 100 pounds — had begun to stink in the tropical heat.

One guide thrashed the water with a long limber sapling, while two others rolled the fish into the river's amber waters.

"Watch, Senor Catfish," Popcorn said. "What you see will turn your blood to ice."

Piranhas began swarming the carcass the moment it sank beneath the surface. Within seconds, their numbers were so great, the water surrounding them appeared to boil. We could hear an unusual clicking noise reverberating beneath us — the snapping of the piranhas' jaws.

The river ran red. Bits of shredded flesh turned once-clear water into a ghastly soup.

I turned and looked at the dozen people watching this hypnotic spectacle. Everyone had a death-grip on the boat's railing, fearing the consequences should an accidental fall place them in the midst of the gorging demons.

An hour earlier, many of these people had been swimming in the same water where a thousand piranhas now engaged in a nightmarish feeding frenzy. But in the days ahead, none would be so daring.

In less than five minutes, the giant fish was entirely devoured. After that, all of us had newfound respect for South America's ubiquitous piranhas.

This was not my first blood-chilling experience with piranhas. Six months earlier, on Venezuela's Rio Paragua, I used live piranhas to catch the payara, or vampire fish.

The species we used for bait, the white piranha, seldom exceeds a pound; those we obtained weighed only a few ounces each. We caught them on hooks baited with bits of beef, then dropped them in a live well.

Our guide, Jesus Perez, thought it funny to reach into the live well 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 big joke. Jesus got a good laugh, but, after that, we paid little attention to his antics.

That changed, however, when Jesus actually was bitten. I watched as he chased an elusive piranha round and round the bait tank. When 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 the index finger of his right hand. I never saw contact between Jesus and the fish. Yet, in a split second, the piranha's razor-blade teeth had removed the tip of his finger, including part of the fingernail. We bandaged the wound, but it continued bleeding for hours.

Months later, while reading the words of George S. Myers, a prominent ichthyologist, I thought back to the incident with Jesus.

The piranha has "teeth so sharp and jaws so strong," Myers wrote, "that it can chop out a piece of flesh from a man or an alligator as neatly as a razor, or clip off a finger or toe, bone and all, with the dispatch of a meat cleaver."

Jesus had been bitten by piranhas on other occasions. On each forearm were several circular scars from wounds he said he received while bathing in the Orinoco River as a boy.

He did not fear the piranhas, he told us. They do not normally attack humans as is often believed. However, he continued, if one swims with piranhas his entire life, sooner or later he is bound to get nipped.

And if a man is foolish enough to enter the water with a fresh wound on his body, the piranhas might leave nothing more than a skeleton when they finish with him.

Other guides I met in Venezuela also exhibited the classic circular scars of piranha bites, but most admitted the bites occurred while handling piranhas. It was not unusual for one of 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 for bait. They had no apparent fear of the fish some of them called "caribe capa-burro" — the cannibal that castrates donkeys.

Without doubt, the fearsome flesh-eating image of piranhas is exaggerated on the whole.

Michael Goulding, an expert on fishes of the Amazon, reports, "Piranhas are not the danger to people as portrayed in popular literature and films. In fact, most people are bitten by piranhas when the fish are being handled out of water. This happens especially when fishermen carelessly remove them from hooks after they have been caught.

"Many piranha species feed principally on seeds or fins and scales of other fishes. Piranhas are a good example of how one of many Amazon fish groups have evolved to occupy a variety of niches."

Seventeen species of piranhas — each differing in head shape, coloration, size and temperament, but nearly all possessing that incisive bite — live in South America's rivers, lakes and lagoons.

The can be found from the eastern slopes of the Andes through Colombia, Venezuela and the Guianas, south and eastward across the immense Amazon Basin, and into Bolivia, parts of Peru, Paraguay, Uruguay and northeastern Argentina.

Their common name comes from the Tupi Indian dialect, in which "pira" means fish and "ranha" tooth.

Virtually all piranhas belong to the genus Serrasalmus of the family Characidae. Close relations include popular aquarium fish, such as black and neon tetras, as well as game fish, such as the payara, tigerfish and dorado.

Many say Theodore Roosevelt, in his 1914 book, "Through the Brazilian Wilderness," 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."

Roosevelt noted that Col. Candido Rondon, the Brazilian explorer who accompanied him, had more than one unpleasant experience with these fish.

"He had lost one of his toes by the bite of a piranha," Roosevelt wrote. "He was about to bathe and had chosen a shallow pool at the edge of the river, which he carefully inspected until he was satisfied that none of the man-eating fish were in it; yet as soon as he put his foot into the water one of them attacked him and bit off a toe.

"On another occasion while wading across a narrow stream one of his party was attacked; the fish bit him on the thighs and buttocks, and when he put down his hands tore them also; he was near the bank and by a rush reached it and swung himself out of the water by means of an overhanging limb of a tree; but he was terribly injured, and it took him six months before his wounds healed and he recovered."

Another incident recorded in Roosevelt's book concerned a member of Rondon's party who was off by himself on a mule.

"The mule came into camp alone," Roosevelt wrote. "Following his track back they came to a ford, where in the water they found the skeleton of the dead man, his clothes uninjured but every particle of flesh stripped from his bones.

"Whether he had drowned, and the fishes had then eaten his body, or whether they had killed him it was impossible to say. They had not hurt the clothes, getting in under them, which made it seem likely that there had been no struggle. These man-eating fish are a veritable scourge in the waters they frequent."

Some piranha experts say Roosevelt's accounts undoubtedly were embellished. Others are just as adamant when proclaiming that some species — the wide-ranging red-bellied piranha, for example, and the blackspot piranha ("caribe capa-burro") — pose a significant hazard to humans, just as Roosevelt's narrative would indicate.

Despite the controversy, one thing is certain: piranhas are truly effective eating machines.

The short, extremely sharp teeth interlock, and the jaws are extremely powerful, allowing these fish to remove chunks of flesh in clean bites. Any human or animal that gets in the way will regret the encounter.

In the South American waters I have fished — Brazil's Rio Negro and Rio Branco; and Lake Guri and the Rio Paragua in Venezuela — piranhas were amazingly abundant.

During daylight hours, a piece of beef or fish, even another piranha, dropped into the water would be immediately devoured.

We caught several species using flesh for bait. And many, including some truly large specimens, were taken on the gigantic topwater lures we used to entice peacock bass.

The most fearsome specimen I examined was a black piranha in the Rio Branco.

When I cast a big prop bait near the bank, this 5-pounder struck with unbridled fury, sending a spray of water high into the air. I thought at first it was a peacock bass, a species known for its amazingly vicious strikes. The piranha fought long and hard, requiring several minutes to land.

Latinized as Pygocentrus piraya, the black piranha is 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 impaled in its jaw and fell flapping in the bottom of the boat.

Startled, I almost jumped in the river. My guide, however, reminded me there was only a single piranha in the boat. "In the river," he said, "who knows how many there are."

The presence of blood generally is believed to stimulate the feeding frenzy of flesh-eating piranhas. However, evidence indicates sound may play a larger role in triggering attacks.

Piranhas have highly developed auditory organs; sounds of splashing created by panicked victims draw them 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. I have no doubt that hapless animals struggling in the water often are attacked and killed by piranhas, including, occasionally, humans.

On my last night in Brazil, I enjoyed a sumptuous meal in one of Manaus' 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.

To contact Keith Sutton, email him at catfishdude@sbcglobal.net