SI Vault
Gardner McKay
March 11, 1963
If you want to know what all this jazz is about piranhas, I'll tell you. You're clearly not with it unless you've at least seen some film on how a school of these fish can reduce a cow to gleaming bones in a few tense minutes.
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March 11, 1963

How To Eat A Piranha Before It Eats You

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If you want to know what all this jazz is about piranhas, I'll tell you. You're clearly not with it unless you've at least seen some film on how a school of these fish can reduce a cow to gleaming bones in a few tense minutes.

Everyone's heard of them. Few have seen them. I caught a piranha's act in a New York pet shop 10 years ago. I was dully staring into a fish tank at a lone, small fish, with no intention of buying it (I like a pet you can have a conversation with, like a dog), when the owner of the store came over to me, washing his hands in the air. He told me the fish was the Dreaded Piranha and, as long as it was feeding time, would I like to see it feed? I would, I guess, but not watching a small fish eat its lunch wouldn't have ruined my day. I wouldn't have let it. But I could see that the owner was anxious to express something to me, so I told him that I would very much like to see his fish eat.

Instantly he produced a smaller fish from somewhere, probably his pocket, and placed it in the tank. As the fish settled into the lower left-hand side of the tank, it stopped all movement, as though caught in hardening Jell-O. Then, and I'm not too sure of this, I think its eyes widened. The piranha didn't so much as flicker a fin but remained glued to the upper right-hand corner of the tank. Next, two things happened: 1) the piranha was face to face with the other fish, a move I couldn't see, and 2) after a pause, it ate the other fish. 1 couldn't see that, either; it was a type of speed and accuracy I wasn't aware existed in nature. Television commercials were not so richly developed then as they are today, especially the Scientific Demonstrations. I realized that I had just seen a thumping good one for piranhas. A man in a white duster had eloquently demonstrated how a Piranha-brand Fish compared with X-brand Fish. I never forgot the point.

So was it any wonder that a few weeks ago at the head of the Tapanahoni River, in Surinam near the Brazilian border, my eyes lit up? I had just been told by Moi, my Bush Negro boatman, that I must take care washing myself in this water because of the pir�n. It's not often we can reach out and satisfy a whim so easily. The next morning my assault team paddled downstream from the village of Granbori in our dugout canoe. We were a three-man squad. In the bow was Boengmoromie, a boy of the village. Since the villages don't keep track of time, I'd have to classify him as from 7 to 10 years old. We called him Boy and, as far as I knew, he couldn't speak. In the stern we had Moi (rhymes with boy), a good man to have in the rapids and the falls, a tireless worker who, as far as I knew, could speak but didn't have a good grip on any language, including his own. Communication among us was shaky but friendly.

I sat amidships with hooks, lines, bait and cameras. I'd lashed four-inch hooks to stout nylon line and wound a seizing of copper wire several inches up, forming a leader. We each had a line. Moi had found some live sriba, a fish, I noted gleefully, that looked exactly like the X-brand Fish the man had used in the pet shop so many years ago. And just to sew things up, I cut a hunk of ripe sausage I'd bought several weeks before in French Guiana. It was an Olida Sans Pareil. I also had a Jamaican cigar band in my pocket for luck. This was an irresistible combination; the fish wouldn't stand a chance. I don't like a one-sided match but, let's face it, I had to see these fish work. We slid downstream.

Around the first bend we pulled the canoe onto some rocks by a dark swirling eddy and began to fish. We fished there a long time, possibly 10 minutes, before Moi indicated that we should push on. We found a similar place where the water was deep, fished awhile and moved on. And again. And again. And again. It was like going down a long hall and quickly checking the rooms on either side to see if anyone was in them. Apparently, if a piranha was there, it took your bait. No protocol, no addressing the water and serving out invisible line from an excellent reel. None of that. This was a fish that ate cows when they were available, and it was looking for you just as much as you were looking for it. The only trouble was there weren't any around.

I could feel the air getting warm; the sun was high. Maybe they had all gone downstream. Maybe they were all trying to get into the movies. There would be a film titled The Prince of the Piranha People. I went over to the bank and stood in the shade. When I came back I saw that a crab was dining on my bait, and I dutifully photographed that incident. I was really short of material. We moved again. I gave the sausage to Boy. The sriba were nearly gone. Then I did something I've seen good Venezuelan fishermen do. I pressed a sriba's head between my thumb and index finger so that it would swim slowly—which is what it did. It swam slowly away. Moi and Boy looked over at me, but it wasn't worth explaining.

A quiet comes over this jungle at midday. It is a time when everything stops, when the monkeys sleep and the parrots knock it off for a while. Even the nearly continuous buzzing dies away to silence. It is a strong silence; you are in the center of a highly acoustical area that is surrounded by a deep, nonacoustical jungle. It would be like putting blankets up on the walls and the ceiling of an indoor swimming pool. You'd probably never get to hear the silence, though, because your wife or your swimming coach would come in after you'd gotten two blankets in place and ask you what you thought you were doing.

We withdrew. We paddled back up to Granbori, beaten but unashamed. We would try again in the afternoon. I had a three-hour lunch back in my hut. That's around four minutes of preparing and eating food and around three hours face up in the sack. You sleep well in the jungle, and I awoke inspired, a new man, ready for the assault. I grabbed the head of a pakira (wild pig) I'd shot. I saw in my mind a hundred crazed piranhas nipping it to a grinning skull while my Bolex 16 absorbed the action in full color.

We assembled at the boat. There was nothing to say. Technically, there wasn't anything we could say to one another anyway. Moi looked a little bored, but I could tell we were ready. This was it. The pig's head had been in a bucket for only a day and a half, but I was very glad to get it under water. I tied it by the tusks with woven nylon line and chummed the water around it with pieces of the meat. I set up the Bolex and waited. At a distance I could see Boy (by now I was sure he didn't even have a tongue) crushing some gray leaves and holding them under the surface of a dark, shallow pool. I half wondered what he was doing and turned back to my rotting pakira head. After a while Moi came over and stood beside Boy with one of the seven-foot Trio Indian arrows held a little above the water. These arrows weigh three ounces. Moi half crouched and moved the arrow, following something in the water. Then he threw it—down, straight, fast. It stopped upright and swung back to Moi, who pulled out of the water a prehistoric-looking fish called the warawara, which the piranha is supposed to like better than anything, even better than the X-brand Fish. The plant that Boy had used, I learned, was nekoe and acts as a sedative to fish in the area. When that warawara was speared, it was practically taking a siesta. Obviously, my rocket squad had really gone into action.

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