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We first became interested in piranhas when a friend told us about a cruise ship passenger who went swimming in the Amazon. After returning to the boat, he commented that it had been an enjoyable swim — until he looked down and noticed that one of his nipples was missing!

Piranhas caught on Amazon fishing trip
Piranhas caught on Amazon fishing trip
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Another story we heard about the blood-thirsty fish, was from the cabaret singer aboard an Amazon cruise ship. The performer told his audience that he had gone swimming that morning, then he removed his tuxedo jacket to reveal a shredded white shirt — supposedly torn to bits by a school of fish that can inflict 1,200 bites a minute.

Savage reputation

Razor-toothed piranhas can reduce the body of their victim to a skeleton in less than a minute. But is their reputation deserved?

Well yes, and no, as we discovered when we went piranha fishing a few days after our cruise ended in Manaus. What determines the voracity of the fish is the species, the location and the time of year. Failure to acknowledge all three aspects could result in painful consequences — or unnecessary trepidation.

There are actually 20 species of piranha in the Amazon, and not all of them are carnivorous. The opossum piranha, for example, has an appetite for fins and tails of other fish. (Nibbles are rarely lethal. The fins usually grow back in a few weeks.) Other species eat only insects, fruits, seeds and leaves.

Amazon Lodge

The most fearsome species are the large (40-centimetre) black piranhas and the smaller, but no less ferocious, red-bellied piranhas.

As we board a motorized canoe, at the Amazon Ecolodge, for our piranha fishing expedition, our guide Marco admonishes our group: "Don't ever let anyone tell you that if you fall in the water you'll be devoured."

His advice would have sounded more credible, if he had uttered it before our boatman started chopping chunks of bloody, red beef for bait. Or before he showed us his scarred finger. "A red-bellied piranha took a chunk off the end of it," he says, sheepishly admitting it bit him when he tried to remove it from the hook to throw it back in the river.

Piranha impaled on stick
Piranha impaled on stick
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Amazon fishing trip

Motoring up an igarape, or small creek, we soon realize that we are cruising through a flooded forest, or igapó, as they call it here. "Between January and June, the meltwater from the Andes overflows the river banks and invades the jungle."

"Water spreads up to 50 kilometers inland, and up to 15-metres-high," explains Marco. We look down and, sure enough, see leaves and branches in the water below us.

When the forest floods, fish spread out over millions of hectares of land to gorge themselves on fruit and swim through branches previously occupied by birds and animals. Because the piranhas have full tummies, they're not dangerous at this time.

Piranha fishing

In fact, they play a vital ecological role by aiding in seed dispersal. (Seeds from the fruit they eat are deposited after passing, undamaged, through their digestive tracts.)

We bait our hooks, toss the nylon lines overboard, and wait. A toucan calls out. A howler monkey wails in the distance. A yellow and black weaver bird darts out of a stocking-shaped nest. Yet our poles sit motionless in our hands. Nothing happens. Not even a nibble.

Piranha-fishing from boat
Piranha-fishing from boat
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

"Piranhas travel in schools," states Marco. "If you don't hit a school, it can take a long time to catch one. If you do, you can pull out 100 in no time at all."

Pantanal Brazil

Whether it was the absence of schools, or the bounty of food below that prevented us from catching anything, we'll never know. Admitting defeat, we move on to another area. "I guess they declared it a school break!" quips Ron.

"When the water recedes in the dry season, many of the fish are trapped in small pools of water, without anything to eat," remarks our guide. "This is when they'll attack animals and humans. In the Pantanal area of Brazil, farmers will often sacrifice a cow upstream, so they can herd the rest of the cattle safely downstream, while the piranhas are feasting."

We arrive at our new fishing spot, and once again take out our bamboo fishing poles. Ron's bait barely sinks before a substantial tug ripples up his pole. He pulls up a small, but feisty red-bellied piranha. Within seconds, Barb pulls up another.

Swimming in Amazonia

Recalling Marco's bitten finger, we're reluctant to extricate the fish from the hooks. Undaunted by his previous encounter, Marco carefully removes each fish and impales it on a stick.

"You wouldn't want to swim in these piranha-infested waters," we comment. "It's safe," contends Marco. "Remember it's the flood season and there's plenty for them to eat." To prove his point, he removes his shirt and jumps into the water for a swim — just as we pull up a couple more thrashing fish.

Piranhas caught on Amazon fishing trip
Piranhas caught on Amazon fishing trip
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Even dead piranhas are dangerous

We think of our friend's story about the nibbled nipple, but Marco remains unmolested. His splashing has, however, scared away the rest of the school.

Marco emerges and gives the stick of still-flipping piranhas to our boatman to bring home for dinner. "Can you eat them?" we ask.

"Sure," he replies. "They're delicious, but we always eat them with our fingers so we can feel for bones. Piranhas have tiny forked bones which can lodge in the back of your throat."

Even when they're cooked, it appears that piranhas retain their dangerous reputation.

More things to see and do in Brazil:

Tropical Hotel Manaus Brazil

Manaus Brazil Shore Excursions

Amazon Ecolodge Jungle Tours

Parintins Brazil Boi Bumba Festival

Iguaçu Falls Brazil