To catch a piranha, you need to find murky water. The Yanallpa Creek in the Pacaya Samiria National Reserve in Peru will do just fine.
The location is deep within the tropical rainforest and surrounded by thick tangles of vegetation. It’s about an hour by skiff from where the Marañon and Ucayali rivers merge to form the Amazon River, which flows eastward to the Atlantic Ocean.
Twenty American travelers plus crew and nature guides were cruising the waters with tour operator International Expeditions. On this particular morning, we left the comforts of our luxury riverboat to go fishing. Our target: Piranhas. Ferocious, blood-sucking, flesh-eating red-bellied piranhas.
Our fleet of two small motorboats nudged into secluded coves and tied up to saplings. Black water stained by tree tannins and brown water loaded with silt mix it up here, creating an ugly opaque stew that piranhas apparently find cozy.
During seasons of low water, June through December, the fish are more populous because they have less space in which to roam. But this was the high-water season. How did our guide Segundo, who grew up in the Amazon River Basin, know they were here? He shrugged. “We just feel it,” he said.
You don’t need fancy gear to hook a piranha. Ours consisted of simple bamboo poles, 2-inch hooks and chunks of raw beef for bait. Segundo demonstrated: Wrap the meat around the hook as tightly as possible, so the fish has to struggle to remove it. Lower the bait into the water and splash the surface a few times with the end of the pole.
“They like the blood,” he said. “They think something is swimming by, and they come.”
Within seconds, Segundo yanked a reluctant piranha from the water. He held it in outreached arms, so we all could grimace and photograph the razor-sharp teeth. Other than the extreme dental work, it’s a rather beautiful fish, with a crimson face and underside and a silver back.
Segundo moved to return the fish to the water, but we objected. We wanted to eat it. Obligingly, the guide flipped it into a plastic-lined cooler.
The rest of us weren’t as quick to snag our prey. The wily fish bit, but they swam off with the bait, time and time again. One dragged the pole along with the meat, but Segundo expertly snared it back with the hook of another. We kept trying, catching a few wayward sardines, moving about the boat to different locations, congratulating those who had been successful and encouraging those who hadn’t.
Segundo diplomatically suggested we might want restrain our chatter, but that didn’t happen.
As we got the hang of securing the bait, the fish became ours. Everyone caught at least one piranha. Scratch that one off the Bucket List.
Gleefully, we motored back to our floating hotel for the week and to deliver our catch to the chefs. They scaled and cleaned the fish, and served them at lunch. The recipe: Deep fry in oil, salt, and serve with citrus.
How did they taste? Here’s the deal: Piranhas are pretty bony, without much meat. They tasted pretty much like any other flaky white fish.
But I’m proud to brag: Piranhas don’t eat me—I eat piranhas!
(Read more about our thrilling cruise of the Amazon River in my story by Journal & Topics.)