The two dead piranha found recently in a Yorkshire lake were almost certainly swimming around an aquarium a few days before their discovery; to see them in all their vital glory you’ll need to visit South America where there are dozens of different species. They all have one thing in common though: TEETH – very distinctive, interlocking, sharp, triangular gnashers perfect for ripping flesh. I can see a set from here.
Yes, you read that correctly. By lifting my eyes to the cabinet over my desk, I can see the upper and lower jaws of a big piranha I caught from the outer reaches of the Orinoco in the final year of the twentieth century.
I’d been living in a small, stilted village with the Warao tribe for a few days resisting the urge to cool-down with a dip in the murky river. Its flow was lacklustre to say the least, so swimming in close proximity to the settlement’s unique ‘long-drop’ sewage system wasn’t too appealing. However, on my fourth day beneath a sizzling Venezuelan sun I laid my fishing rod to one side and plunged headlong into the drink – home to the celebrated Orinoco Crocodile. Their numbers were in decline and unlikely to make an appearance, but there was no shortage of caimen which commonly grow to 7-9ft – sometimes more. With classic complacency I swam and wallowed around for twenty minutes or so without a thought for what company I might have been keeping, but I eventually emerged unscathed and keen to continue fishing.
I’d been float-fishing chicken-guts and sitting between a pair of lads who’d quite understandably taken an interest in the whirring Shimano 8000 and the telescopic Browning 12 footer. Occasionally, one of them would disappear and quickly return with a cup of water for me; in return, I’d let them hold the rod for a while. One of the boys caught what they said was a tambourine fish; then the other caught a catfish of a species requiring great delicacy when handling – these things can be quite dangerous and even deadly depending on their size. I’d already had a few of 10-12”, learning to my cost of the barbed, stiletto-like pectorals that lock at right-angles and seemingly seek to stab at the palms of the hands. If one of these daggers goes right through, the fin must be severed and pulled out point-first: there is no alternative. If a sharp knife or scissors are not to hand you must spend the rest of your life holding a catfish.
It was my brother who’d warned me of these little whiskered assassins; he’d had a bad experience in Peru the year before when a specimen of average size had flipped and punctured his hand: blood everywhere and a great deal of pain. When next he caught one, the hook-shank was held at arm’s length by the jaws of a Coleman tool and the fish removed with a deft flick of the wrist; however, the little cat executed a perfect pirouette and inextricably pinned Barry’s foot through the soft leather of his moccasin!
One of the lads disappeared again and came back with a handful of pork cubes. “Try these” he said in Waraoan, so I took a sample and fixed it on my size 6 round-bend. Out it went, there to drift a foot or two then to bob once and plummet from view; I struck and saw the top section of my rod take on a reasonable bend – if only briefly. Very soon, an irate piranha boiled and splashed to the surface and fixed me with an angry eye and an even angrier set of teeth: ever seen a dog curl its lips back and growl? Well it was like that but with less potential for disaster. I had the upper-hand being 14 stone and 5’ 8” while the fish could only muster a couple of pounds and a length of 12”, so I was alright.
Suddenly I was besieged by well-meaning tribesmen and women urging me in their very unfamiliar tongue to be careful! Their warnings would not, of course, have been out of place in an English-speaking country but it was clear to me that they saw this unworldly, pasty European as completely and utterly clueless…like I’d never seen photo’s, film or even a real piranha before!
In true jungle tradition, the fish was immediately dispatched and taken away for cleaning i.e. it was killed and had its guts ripped out. That evening, I dined on fresh Orinoco piranha garnished with jungle-salad and a single tomato supplied by our expedition leader – very nice too. Doubtless, piranha will soon make their way to the world’s supermarket shelves along with coley, pollack and basa…what the hell’s a basa?
At around midnight our small group took to dugouts and quietly paddled downstream in an atmosphere of wonderment and sheer disbelief. Head-torches lit our way into the backwaters where we sought to lasso a croc or a caimen; a four-footer was the target and we’d been instructed to look for pink eyes 3-4” apart. We saw plenty, but they invariably sank from view on our approach.
I broke-off from the group; not so completely as to render myself alone but far enough to impart a feeling of independence. Picking out a bed of rushes in the beam of my Petzl, I went over, pushed the nose of my craft into the growth and found myself looking into a pair of large pink eyes some 8” apart. For a couple of seconds they remained transfixed by my light but then their owner decided to depart in a huge, spumy and very exciting eruption. My dugout bucked in the swell and my heart leapt at the wonder of it all!
Once I’d calmed down I switched off the head-lamp and sat peering up at the unfamiliar stars from my hollowed log deep in the sultry night air of the jungle wilderness. This was the real thing, ten hours from what we know as civilization and about as wild as it gets; if something goes wrong you’re probably in big trouble, I thought. I made my way back to the group to find they’d successfully snared the four-footer they’d been after, a caimen; a real, live caimen there in a pool of head-beams – and there was a distinct lack of Attenborough.
Back at base camp in the dark of early morn we sat drinking tea and chatting around the long table, re-visiting the highlights of our venture. Moths the size of sparrows circled the single bulb that hung from the rafter. Outside, the resident macaw kept its eyes closed and waited for breakfast-time. Soon, we were in our hammocks, re-charging our batteries for the new day and for the weeks to come: Angel Falls beckoned!
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