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Pirana Fishing

When Brandon and I decided earlier this year to make a second trip to Peru, focusing our visit on the Amazon rainforest, I immediately told him I wanted to try my hand at piranha fishing.  I’ve always loved fishing, even though Brandon holds little interest in it.  In fact, the first time Brandon ever went fishing was with me.  And between you and me, he’s not very good at it.

Piranha fishing in the Amazon jungle is different though.  Anyone can fish for piranha.  It doesn’t require patience or silence or an incredible lure like most traditional fishing does.  All it takes is some fresh bait (preferably pieces of another fish or other chunks of meat) and some good strong line.

A Beginner's Guide to Piranha Fishing in the Amazon Jungle

During our 9 day trip in the jungle our guide Dustin took us fishing at least 4 times.  He made the poles from the trunks of a thin but sturdy tree and the line was strong enough to hold a 20 lb fish.  Though the piranhas would only weigh about a pound each we needed stronger line or their teeth would easily cut through it.

The three of us took a little aluminum boat upriver to a good fishing spot.  Dustin didn’t bring any bait with him, instead opting to bring a three-pronged spear to catch some fresh bait.  I think he wanted to show off a bit too which was fine with me because it was quite entertaining!

Dustin picked a bank to find some bait fish hanging around the banks of the river.  Instead he spotted an electric eel about 6 feet long.  It looked like a slowly moving log to Brandon and I but Dustin knew it would mean serious harm if we happened to fall in the water.  It also meant we needed to look elsewhere for bait fish so we tried another area.

In the end it took almost 15 minutes to spear a fish but we were in for a real shocker when Dustin finally caught one.  It turned out that inside the stomach of the bait fish was a tiny little catfish that it had literally just eaten.  When Dustin pulled the tiny fish out, it was still alive!  The tiny fish looked a little worse for wear though, so when Dustin threw him back in the water we didn’t have high hopes for the little guy.

Piranha Fishing in the Amazon
A live catfish in the belly of another fish

Armed with fresh bait we were ready to start fishing for piranha.  Dustin show us how to attract the piranha to our boat by smacking the water with the poles, swishing the tips around in the water and causing all kinds of racket.  This makes the piranha think that a wounded animal is in the water and they come swimming over to check it out.  After “prepping” the water, you then flick your pole downward in a quick motion (like hitting a nail with a hammer) so that the bait on the end of the line plops loudly into the river.  Forget about trying to be quiet so you don’t scare off the fish.  That rule doesn’t apply to piranha!

There’s also no waiting around for a piranha to bite.  If they’re in the area, they’ll take the bait in less than a minute, usually within seconds of dropping a hook into the water.  No need to set the hook either, as soon as you get a bite just YANK! and your lunch comes flying into the boat.

Piranha Fishing in the Amazon
Our first catch! Red bellied piranhas

At first we let Dustin get all the fish off our hooks, then eventually Brandon decided to try it himself.  It’s harder than it looks.  Even though the fish are small they are vicious and will continue to try and swallow the bait even with a hook still in its mouth.  You also have to be careful not to let the fish fall on the floor of the boat.  A piranha flopping around near your feet is a bad idea, especially if it manages to get the hook out of its mouth.  A swift blow to the head with a machete kills the fish and we start collecting our lunch.

Piranha Fishing in the Amazon
A delicious catch
Piranha Fishing in the Amazon
A white piranha

On our first fishing trip we caught a total of 40 fish between the three of us, mostly red piranha, sabaló and pacu.  We kept the largest for lunch (about 10 in all) and threw the rest back.  Red piranha and pacu look almost identical.  Pacu, while a part of the piranha family, is actually different in many ways.  Instead of razor sharp teeth it has flat teeth very similar to a human’s.  Pacu can also grow to enormous sizes, reaching up a 3 feet in length and weighing up to 55 pounds.  Some of you may recognize pacu from an episode of River Monsters.  Sabaló is one of the more common freshwater fish in Peru, and while there’s nothing spectacular about the fish itself Brandon and I found it to be the tastiest.

Piranha Fishing in the Amazon
The flat teeth of a pacu
Pirana Fishing in the Amazon
The razor sharp teeth of a piranha

The Verdict:  Without a doubt piranha fishing was our favorite activity when visiting the Amazon jungle.  It’s perfect for people with no real fishing skills and great for kids because they’re not forced to sit in a boat quietly waiting for a fish to nibble the bait off their hook.  If you ask your guide, they can even boil the meat off the head of the fish so you can take the skull and teeth back with you as a souvenir!  Just remember to bring a sturdy box to carry it back home in.

If you’re interested in making a trip to the jungle, I highly recommend the company we used, Amazonia Expeditions (also see our review here).  On our first trip to Peru we attempted to see the Amazon jungle through the Manu Cloud Forest near Cusco and it pales in comparison to our trip through Iquitos.

What to Bring:  A hat and good sunscreen are the two most important things to bring.  While Dustin tried to park our boat in the shade by tying a rope to a tree on the bank, we weren’t always guaranteed to be out of the sun.  You also may want to consider bringing some sinkers or extra thick fishing line as a gift for your guide.  These things are hard to find and Dustin had to fashion our sinkers out of some ordinary metal that he bent around the fishing line.  It was some long and tedious work.

When to Go: The rainy season in Peru is April/May, when the waters reach their maximum height.  It’s hard to fish in these conditions because the fish have so many places to hide and so much food to choose from.  We went at the end of June, a perfect time of the year.  While it was only two months after the rainy season the difference in the water levels was almost 20 feet!  Mid-July through October comes the dry season.  This time of the year has the lowest water line and little room for the fish to swim, but it also makes it impossible to get into some of the hidden lakes around the Amazon.  However this is the perfect time to fish for another prized fish, peacock bass.  I caught one on our trip by pure luck.

Child Friendly?  We had a few kids staying at the lodge with us who went piranha fishing and they had a great time.  If your child is old enough to fish at home without snagging something (or someONE!) with a hook then they’ll be old enough to fish in the jungle.  It’s not hard to catch a piranha and the guides are quick with taking the fish off the hooks and killing them (humanely!) so that there aren’t 40 piranhas flopping around the boat by the end of the trip.

Pet Friendly?  No

Piranha Fishing in the Amazon
A delicious lunch! From top to bottom: pacu, sabalo, peacock bass

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