For a moment I am caught off guard and almost fall overboard. Piranha jaws sharply tug at the chunk of fat I had fastened on the hook. Pablo, my host, guide and friend helps me pull in my line until the feisty creature plops on the bottom of the boat in fluttering spasms.
Fortunately, Pablo doesn’t expect me to remove the hook from the razor-toothed jaws. In the Pantanal wetlands, but also in Brazil’s other waters that are teeming with piranhas such as the Amazon, Paraguai, Orinoco and São Francisco River, it is not uncommon to encounter fishermen who miss the top of a finger. Even experienced anglers may still get caught by surprise, thinking the piranha has drawn its last breath, only to find it dangling from a finger.
Is Piranha Dangerous?
The piranha is known for its carnivorous preferences, although certain types of piranhas that live on seeds and fruits, or just eat the scales or fins of other fish without killing them. Only few of the piranha species constitute a threat to other creatures. Pablo’s warnings tell me the ones here belong to the latter.
Piranha can grow up to fifty centimeters long and when hungry, a school of piranhas is capable of devouring a pintado fish weighing twelve kilos within two minutes. In general, there is no need for humans to be concerned about a massive attack by schools of piranha, but for safety reasons it is advised not to go swimming in closed-off lakes.
The Pantanal’s Wildlife
Pablo grew up in this region, his diet has always included piranha and he knows exactly where they hunt in packs. “It’s just a question of finding where the big fish are, that’s where you’ll find the piranhas,” he explains.
We’ve paddled down a stream and stopped at various spots to try our luck. Among the region’s waterfowl is the 1.6-meter-tall jabiru stork, white but for a red neck and black head, and the symbol of the Pantanal. Other birds we see are kingfishers, toucans and owls. Although we watch capybaras and giant otters enjoying the water scene, the piranhas appear to have gone out for lunch themselves.
By the time our stomachs start to grumble we finally hit gold and reel in one piranha after the other. Our lunch is going to be a feast.
Eating Piranha do Pantanal
We paddle to the shore where we kindle a wood fire and scale, gut and slice the piranhas. The offal, which we throw into the stream, attracts a caiman that moves as close as one meter from us – a tad too close, as far as I’m concerned. Pablo doesn’t chase it away but watches the reptile’s movements from the corner of his eye and bribes it to stay put by sharing part of our lunch.
We rub a mixture of salt and garlic into the cuts along the side of the fish, sprinkle it with lime juice, cover it in flour and fry it in – this is the crucial ingredient, Pablo insists – pork fat. “Don’t fry fish in something like sunflower oil,” he emphasizes.
We guzzle the lot with rice and salad. There is something utterly gratifying in having caught my own meal and I feel content with the world and myself.
- The wetlands of the Pantanal are situated in west Brazil, along the Bolivian border. There are three gateways to the wetlands: Cuiabá, Corumbá and Campo Grande. They are far away from everywhere, but all have airports with domestic flights, and international flights to other countries in South America as well as to, among others, the United States.
- Best time of the year to visit is July/August, in the dry season when the water level is low and the likelihood of spotting wildlife and catching piranhas high.
- Piranha fishing trips are organized by tour operators in the above-mentioned cities, as well as by local guesthouses (often called pousadas). We did the piranha fishing trip at Fazenda 4 Cantos.
- For tips about visiting the Pantanal and other mind-blowing places in Brazil, check out Insight Guides or this Travel Guide.
- For more stories on Brazil, see here or find them on our Landcruisingadventure website.