For a moment I am caught off guard and almost fall overboard. Something is sharply tugging 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.
I just caught a piranha!
Fishing in the Pantanal
Fortunately, Pablo doesn’t expect me to remove the hook from the razor-toothed jaws. In the Pantanal wetlands, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but also in Brazil’s other waters that are teeming with piranhas such as the Amazon,
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.
Are Piranhas 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 a 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.
Fishing in the Pantanal – Knowing where to Go
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 a 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.
Additional Reading about Food in Brazil
- Meet the Baianas de Acarajé in Salvador da Bahia
- What’s There to Like about Beans? – Check out Brazil’s Staple Food
- The Story of Limes and a Church – Making Caipirinha
- Eating Starch? – What’s the Secret to Making a Proper Beiju?
- Small and Excellent – Brazilian Coffee
- The Smallest, Tastiest Cookies: Biscoitos do Pará
- Maniçoba – Cooking Food for 7 Days? How Slow can Food Be?
Practical Information on Piranha Fishing in the Pantanal
- 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.
- The 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.
- More about visiting the Pantanal is here: 4 Gateways to the Pantanal.