Larry M. Lynch
They had it even before we knew what was happening. My rod bowed in prayer to something below the tea-colored
water’s surface. The six-pound test line danced like a cat on a hot pavement. All hell had broken loose. Beads of sweat rolled
down Doris’ back. Her clothes were now a second skin, clinging to her every move. We panted for breath. We had fish on.
The silvery oval-shaped body and red belly of a piranha broke the surface. I reached for it. "Don’t let a finger get near their
mouths or you’ll lose it", our native guide barked.
Minutes earlier, I shuddered from a breeze escaping from somewhere up ahead despite 85 degree-plus heat. The
double-digit humidity didn’t help either. A maddening buzz filled my ears, but thanks to my coating of Vick’s Vapor Rub, the
blood-suckers wouldn’t feast on me. My eyes burned. My nose dripped. A coffee-table-sized leaf or hanging branch slapped
into me every few steps. Curses burst from my lips even with my best efforts to become as one with the rainforest, as the
Our fishing rods extended from 18" to five and a half feet. I’d hoped the light mono would suffice, although I’d
squirreled away spools of twelve and twenty pound test as an afterthought. If we tagged into a 50-plus pound
tambaqui even that wouldn’t be enough. Vines as thick as my wrist dipped into light coffee-colored waters making little ripples as it slid past roots
and fallen branches. Tangled growth matted the gentle slope of the bank into tea-with-milk colored wetness. I’d flicked a
thumbnail-sized chunk of bloody chicken liver on a barb-less hook with a split shot into a dinner plate-sized swirl just beside a
snarl of mangrove roots jutting upwards through the surface.
Minutes later, his tanned skin gleaming with moisture, our guide demonstrated the efficiency of the scissor-like
teeth. A green leaf held near the gaping mouth instantly sported a neat, crescent-shaped bite. Three heavy blows to the head
prepared the killer for cleaning. After cleaning, he made a series of diagonal cuts along each side of the fish. Into these he
carefully rubbed a mixture of salt, garlic, and ground roots from a small gourd he carried. A simple shaved branch frame held the
fish over a smoky fire of glowing coals. The firm toasted flesh tasted smooth and a bit earthy, like a seasoned and mellowed
catfish. With a wink and a sly nod towards Doris he said. "Make these heads into soup and you will need many wives". She
glanced at me with a puzzled look. I smiled.
The Perfect Killing Machine
The Amazon is filled with danger. Soldier ants march by the millions devouring all life in their path. Submerged up
to the eyes, crocodiles lie in wait for the unwarywhatever or whoever that may be. Undulating its 20-foot length beneath
the surface, the Anaconda, one of the world’s largest snakes, uses heat-seeking guidance to find its next meal. The barbed
stinger in the tail of platter-sized stingrays can inflict a wound that takes months to heal. But none of these carry the fearsome
mystique of the voracious piranha. Ranging through South America from Brazil to the lowlands of Peru, they also inhabit waters
in Venezuela, Guyana, Colombia, Ecuador and Bolivia. In the Amazon and Rio Negro rivers of Brazil and the Orinoco
River in Venezuela, no creature is safe from the piranha’s razor-sharp teeth and powerful jaws. The serrated teeth fit together
like scissors, enabling piranha to cut the flesh from their prey. Like a shark, a Piranha’s teeth are replaceable, when one
breaks off a new one grows in its place.
The Yagua Indians of Peru often use the sharp edges between the teeth of a Piranha
jawbone to sharpen the point of their blowgun darts. A fish that is dying or swimming erratically will be quickly attacked by a
large school. Piranha will also attack without warning to defend their eggs and territory. A wounded animal that strays into
the water will be stripped to the bone so quickly it seems almost to "dance" on the surface as it’s ravaged from beneath. A
bird that falls into the water will be gone, feathers and all, in three minutes or less. A trapped fish struggling in a net will be
chewed clean to the head in a matter of seconds. Attacks on large animals and humans are often dramatically portrayed, but are
rare. In some regions piranha are known as "donkey castrators".
"They will rend and devour alive any wounded man or beast." U.S. President Teddy Roosevelt said, adding,
"Piranha are the most ferocious fish in the world." Piranha, also called
caribe or piraya only furthered their fearsome mystique
when Roosevelt encountered them during his exploits in 1914. There are about 35 known species of piranha, but only five
species represent a danger to man. Species range from the red-belly piranha (Pygocentrus nattereri)
with its characteristic red belly to the largest of the carnivorous species, the
black piranha with its demon-red eyes and a 17 and a half inch long dark body
weighing up to ten pounds. It could remove a man's hand in two or three bites.
Most species dine on fruit or seeds that fall
into the water from overhanging trees. The fish are not always aggressive. Women
wash clothes in knee-deep water where men spearfish while children bathe or swim
in these same piranha-infested waters without harm. Further adding to the
piranha's mystique, Indian men with half a dozen wives and up to a score of
children attribute their potency to piranha-head soup, although no scientific
justification for the soup's potency yet exists.
Piranhas are usually part of indigenous peoples’ diet in the areas where the fish are found. All you need to go
piranha fishing are lines with a metal leader next to the hook so the fish doesn’t bite through the line, a supply of red, raw meat
(worms or cut-up fish will do too) and a bit of luck. Piranha swim in large schools and are attracted by movement and blood. In
May of 1999, hundreds of anglers armed with rods, reels, and raw steak flocked to the Brazilian town of Araçatuba near São
Paulo for a one-Sunday piranha fishing tournament. The townspeople had declared open season on the flesh-eating fish, which
had decimated other species in the local river. The prize for the tournament was an outboard motor. But "most fishermen
were content to go home with plenty of the reputedly aphrodisiac piranha", claimed then town spokesman Nelson Custidio.
Piranha, earning their notorious reputation by reportedly killing 1,200 head of cattle every year in Brazil, is some of
the best eating fish in South America. Whatever name you call them and no matter where you try them, when cooked in a
variety of ways, their firm light flesh with its smooth, slightly nutty flavor, is a taste you’re sure to enjoy.
Prepare your fish native style, with these Brazilian recipes.
Cachama, a piranha-related farm-raised species, is often used where piranha are not locally available.
Cachama (in Spanish) and tambaqui or
pacu (in Brazil) also originate in the Amazon and Orinoco River basins.
Two cachama species cultivated commercially in Central and South America are the white one (Piaractus
brachypomus) and the black one (Colossoma macropomum).
Piranha in Tomato Sauce
Piranha, whole, cleaned and scaled
4 firm, ripe tomatoes
1 finely chopped medium-sized onion
2 tablespoons of finely chopped fresh parsley
½ cup of water
2 tablespoons of margarine
salt and pepper to taste
Peel and cut tomato into small cubes. Put half the tomatoes and onion into a large frying pan, place the cleaned
piranha on top then cover it with the rest of the tomato, onion and parsley. Add the salt and pepper.
Add half of the water and cook covered over a low fire for about 20 minutes or until the fish can be easily pierced
with a fork.
Carefully remove the piranha from the pan and place on a warm serving dish. Reduce the mixture in the frying pan
for an additional 5 minutes until thickened and pour over the piranha.
Brazilian Piranha Soup
Piranha, whole fish or heads
green vegetables in season or to taste
carrots, peeled and sliced or diced
yams, peeled and cut up
onions, whole small or quartered
salt and pepper to taste
1 or 2 small chiles to spice things up
a bit small ginger root, coarsely chopped
1 or 2 sliced or wedged lemons or limes
Boil whole fish in vegetable stock with spices and pieces of ginger. Add fresh cut up vegetables. Remove bones and
larger fins from the fish. Slice lemon or lime as garnish. Remember, the head is an aphrodisiac and is often served separately.
The soup can also be made entirely from piranha heads if desired.
A medium-sized whole piranha for each serving
2 or 3 cloves of garlic
salt and pepper
sprig of fresh parsley
whole lemon or lime
1 or 2 whole ripe tomatoes, sliced
small quantity of seasoned flour or corn meal
Clean and scale the fish thoroughly. Make a series of diagonal cuts along both sides of the fish from top to belly.
Crush the garlic cloves and mix with the salt and a little pepper. Rub this mixture into the cuts along the sides of the fish. Wrap
with a damp banana leaf (or a moistened paper towel). Allow to marinate for 30 minutes to an hour.
Some Colombian cooks leave refrigerated overnight. Heat some fresh cooking oil to a high temperature in a large
frying pan. Sprinkle the marinated fish lightly with seasoned flour or corn meal. Fry golden brown on each side, turning the
fish carefully after browning.
Serve hot garnished with sliced tomato and fresh lemon or lime juice squeezed over the fish.
Grilling Piranha Amazon Style
Grilling fresh-caught fish on an open fire is always a tasty way to enjoy a fresh catch. Use a whole cleaned and
scaled fish, rub it lightly with oil, season it with salt and pepper or other available spices, then place it on a grill, about 4 – 6
inches from the heat. In the wild you can use a framework of small twigs and shaved saplings to position the fish over the fire.
Cover the fish with a banana leaf (or foil), and cook until the fish is brown on the underside, approximately 6 – 8
minutes. Turn the fish carefully and continue until the flesh near the bone is (check with the tip of a small knife or long fork),
in approximately 8 to 10 minutes. Smaller fish usually work best using this method, especially in the jungle.
Larry M. Lynch is a writer and photographer
specializing in travel, adventure, and food-related writing for Blue Frog Media
Works. He lives in Cali, Colombia, and has more than 100 magazine articles,
stories, papers and essays published in print and online publications. His work
has appeared in Transitions Abroad, South American Explorer,
Escape From America, Mexico News and Brazzil magazines. He
travels and researches articles throughout Mexico and Latin America and teaches
at a university in Colombia. He can be contacted at: