Outdoors: Seeking piranha in the rivers of Argentina

Courtesy of David SartwellThe teeth on a piranha can tear anything to bits in seconds.

The five-weight rod bent to the task and whipped the sinking line out toward the reed-lined bank of a feeder stream of the Parana River. The eight-inch long, black marabou streamer at the end of the heavy leader arced out over the dark water, landing lightly on the surface before disappearing into the swift current.

Stripping the line twice with my left hand, I had it jerked out of my fingers by a slamming force I was just not expecting. I had been told, but I did not believe. The guide just grinned at the wide-eyed me, knowing another was now a believer in the strength of the legendary piranha.

The line fled the reel, the knob just a blur, as the big fish raced downstream. I knew better than to lift the rod. I just pointed the tip at the running line that was disappearing into the surface of the water and let the reel scream in protest. Although I had set the drag pretty hard, it did not make a difference. In a matter of seconds I was deep into the backing with no apparent change in the course of the running fish.

Just as quickly as it started, it stopped. Gripping the underside of the cork with the last three fingers on my right hand, I curled my thumb over the top and put my trigger finger on the taut line. By lifting the rod tip a bit, I could feel the big fish resting in the strong current, the line thrumming from the water rushing by it. I moved the fish a bit and he responded with a tail flick that brought him several feet to the left, more into the middle of the narrow river. He was sulking but not defeated.

Long experience told me to not let him dictate the terms. I raised the rod up and pulled hard. He shook his head and eased over to the reeds that lined the bank. Holding the rod to my side, I pulled him away from where he wanted to go. Making him expend his energy against my carbon fiber wand, I moved him about. He ran back at me, but I spun the reel as fast as I could, I kept the pressure on. After about three runs he started to tire.

As he rolled about 20 feet behind the boat, I could see his golden sides shimmering in the Argentine sunshine. My guide slid the net out of the holder and let me guide the struggling piranha to the webbing. With practiced ease he popped him over the rail and into the boat. I knew to be very careful here. Nobody had prepared me for how big these fish would be. I was thinking of some large aquarium fish, but this one was the size of a big largemouth bass with a mouthful of teeth and pit bull jaw strength.

The Parana River, at 3,032 miles, is the second longest river in South America. It originates in central Brazil and flows southward, joined by rivers from Bolivia, Paraguay and Uruguay, and then crossing into Argentina where it forms the huge Rio de la Plata estuary. All along its route there are rivers and marshes that drain into it. We were fishing in a huge marsh near Rosario that was surrounded by thousands of acres of rice fields. The water was dark and rich, just filled with a wide variety of life forms. It is an ideal place for the rapid growth of piranha and golden dorado.

In the early morning we had left the dock and headed out into the marsh. The banks of the 50-foot wide river were covered with 15-foot-high reeds that came right down into the river. There were no muddy banks, just a fast flowing stream of water perhaps 20 feet deep rushing through this maze. In just a few minutes I was lost. You could see nothing but reeds and the sun over head. Little boat-wide feeder creeks joined this main flow. After about 30 minutes of riding, Miguel, my guide, pulled up to the reeds and just threw the anchor into the tall stalks. It was there that I caught my first piranha.

After we landed the piranha, we moved down river to where a small stream joined in to the larger flow. There was a hole here that the guide indicated might hold the golden dorado. Again we used the marabou streamer. On the second swing through the hole we were rewarded with a really good hit and set.

This beautiful golden fish (salminus brasiliensis for you Latin fans) rolled to the surface and drove away from us with a powerful run. He did not strike with the same ferocity as the piranha, but he was a much heavier fish and a strong runner. Lifting the rod tip I let him struggle against the drag. He responded by going airborne, twisting back and forth twice before creating his own hole in the dark surface of the river. These fish can get up over 70 pounds, but this one was going to be in the eight-pound class.

After three good runs he gave up and came to the boat, his golden sides heaving in the bright sunlight. What a beautiful fish. It is named dorado after the Spanish word for golden. It has no relation to the ocean dorado, a whole different fish. Looking a lot like a big trout, it is the largest scaled fish in the river system and is prized as a trophy for fly fishermen.

Over the course of the day we landed several piranha and goldens. We had to change the 60-pound test fluorocarbon leader several times as both species of fish have really sharp teeth. It is always a good day, when, at the end of it, your arm is tired from fighting big fish! For more information on this and other top notch fishing and hunting adventures throughout South America go to Frontera Wingshooting (tfrontera@fronterawingshooting.com). They can make all of the arrangements for you.

Recommended for you