Swimming with Piranhas
Karl, the facially scarred East German barman, had three teeth missing, and a grin full of mischief. Four days into an epic adventure up the tributaries of the Orinoco Delta, I am convinced he is mixing more than just rum into my stiff Cuba Libres. I had been warned that after a couple nights sleeping in a hammock wrapped inside a mosquito net, this high up in the northern Venezuelan jungle, chancing upon a remote lodge with a well stocked bar could lead to some vicious tropical jungle juju. Defined as: Taking the barman on the speedboat to view the sunset, and ultimately, diving into a river widely known to contain flesh-chewing piranhas. No sooner had we entered the water, than a rare pink dolphin leaped into the air, her skin glistening with all the colours of the rainbow. OK, I don’t know if it was a female dolphin, but only a pink lady could look that beautiful. According to the indigenous Warao Indians, seeing a pink dolphin is a sign of immense luck. This explains why I am able to climb back on board, at loss for words from the experience, but fortunately with all digits in place.
With teeth like razors and skin like barbwire, piranhas have the sunny disposition of a Filipino death squad. Sharks may be the grunt soldiers of aquatic terror, but South American piranhas are riverside hit men, shredding their prey with efficient ferocity. Found within rivers from Argentina to Colombia, they hunt in large packs, sending out scouts to locate the prey before initiating a feeding frenzy characterized by a scene of boiling water. Kayaking through piranha infested waters along the Orinoco sounds more like an adventure tourism sales plug than a reality, until my Warao guide Pina hands me a stick, some gut wire, and a crudely fashioned hook. Rather alarmingly, all I need to do is splash my stick on the water surface to attract the beasties, and within seconds, my bait has vanished. The combination of heat, storms of mosquitoes, and inhuman humidity make me want to dive into the river, but the combination of bloodthirsty carnivorous piranhas make me want to stay on shore more. Although they only grow to 2ft long, nature has equipped piranhas with deadly tools, from interlocked teeth to excellent hearing and unparalleled teamwork. Each fish takes a mighty munch and instantly moves out of the way for his pal. Theodore Roosevelt, on an expedition to Brazil in 1913, described a horrifying scene of a cow being attacked and stripped to the bone in minutes.
Eat me? Eat you! I am determined to catch a piranha, both as a challenge, and to reaffirm my place in the food chain. With dark clouds of mosquitoes raining down on my neck and a skinny loyal Warao dog at my side, I persist, constantly replacing the bait that seems to vanish seconds once it hits the water. Finally, I tug up at the right time, and a small, sharp, and thoroughly bemused piranha is on my hook. A hot makeshift grill, a dash of strong lime, some trusty Tabasco (I always travel with a bottle), and I have to confess: piranha is a tasty, albeit bony fish. It’s not enough to quench a major hunger, but at least you’re on the right side of the fork.
Cut to: The following day. For hours, a torrential downpour dumps its moist guilt on our twin-engine open-roof speedboat. I’m excited at the prospect of sleeping on a real bed tonight in a rustic shack so much more attractive than another wrapped up buggy night in a hammock. Large tapirs are running up and down the wooden boardwalks in this remote jungle lodge, while banana-beaked toucans and chirpy macaws rest on the tables at the bar. Drinks flow. Hey, lets go watch the sunset at the congruence of three tributaries! Hey, let’s bring our sketchy free pouring barman along! Swimming with piranha: a good idea at the time. Of course, the local Warao swim, drink and bathe in the same waters, and in truth have more problems with rabid vampire bats than bloodthirsty piranhas. For piranhas tend to attack weak fish first, and healthy humans last. Still, how big a thrill is a jungle adventure in the Orinoco Delta? As big as a piranha’s appetite.
The float plane took off as I held my cup of piping hot coffee. According to Scott, an editor at Outdoor Canada, that's the typical cliche opening for any remote fishing lodge story, so I thought I'd stick with it. Only there was no piping hot coffee, and I was rocketing a Ford F-150 at 160 km/hr across the flat Manitoban prairies. Through fate and circumstance I was invited to Eagles Nest, a fly-in fishing lodge located on the Winnipeg River. My fishing experience:
Jason, one of the bronze leathered fishing guides, says there are only two things you need to pack when you go fishing: a raincoat and sunglasses. When it rains, water whips across the boat. In the sun, skin quickly sizzles. Rain or shine, mosquitoes and horse flies take their pound of flesh.
In the capable hands of fishing guides and far more experienced fishing buddies, it takes no time before I catch my first wall-eye. Sport fishing is strictly catch and release, but we keep the right size wall-eye for the shore lunch. Pike's flesh is not as desirable, so we throw them back, even the ones that can feed a small family. I learn to jig, cast and troll. Demetri Martin is right: fishing should be called tricking and killing. Or tricking and letting go. There's a healthy respect here for the fish: barbs are pinched to minimize damage, the biggest catch is gently handled, and always released to give future anglers a similar thrill. My trophy is a 31-inch pike, and in one session I haul all the species above save for sturgeon, including a healthy sized smallmouth bass.
We gather on an island for lunch, the guides making short work filleting the fish, which are rubbed in spice, or dunked in flour and cornflakes, served with deep-fried or fire roasted potatoes. Fish has never tasted better, or fresher.
In one of the world's largest flowing rivers (by volume), Winnipeg River boasts abundance. Abundance of water, clean enough for hardier anglers to drink, and warm enough for late afternoon dips. Eagles fly overhead, mink, bear and deer roam the shores. Casting with new friends at sunset, I share Fred's sentiment that fishing is just an activity, something to keep you busy while you ponder life, staring over calm lapping waters under a big prairie sky.
Special thanks to Ford Canada and Travel Manitoba for hosting my visit to Eagles Nest.
Please come in. Mahalo for removing your shoes.
After many years running a behemoth of a blog called Modern Gonzo, I've decided to a: publish a book or eight, and b: make my stories more digestible, relevant, and deserving of your battered attention.
Here you will find some of my adventures to over 100 countries, travel tips and advice, rantings, ravings, commentary, observations and ongoing adventures.