Saturday, March 02, 2013

When Kelly Met Needles: An Amazonian Love Story

A few people have asked me about this picture:

"Where are you?"  "What kind of fish is that?"  "And what the hell are you doing to it?"

I was in the Amazon jungle.  We set out before dawn, our group stumbling sleepily out of the lodge, down through the jungle, and piling into long wooden boats that cut almost silently through the dark water.

We were headed for an oxbow lake, which is a U-shaped body of water that's formed when a wide curve of a river is cut off and creates a lake (thanks Wikipedia!).  This was allegedly the favourite haunt of some river otters, and was also a good place to view many of the larger birds that lived in the area.

And then we were going to go piranha fishing.  Naturally.

The journey through the cool early morning was beautiful, the sun creeping dreamily up over the tops of the trees.  We drifted around the edges of the lake, but the otters didn't appear to be at home that day.  We did catch sight of a toucan in the distance, and some of the ubiquitous monkeys chittered away from the darkness below the canopy.

A couple of other boats joined us, keeping their distance to maximize the chances of seeing some wildlife, but there wasn't much to see.

At least, not above the surface of the lake.

Our guides pulled out a few fishing rods and some bloody chunks of mystery meat and showed us how to thread the meat securely over the hooks.  We all took it in turns to drop the hook into the water and jig the gruesome bait around, hoping to arouse the interest of the piranhas.

It seemed that we had chosen a bad spot.  All around us, cheers and cries erupted from other groups tucked into the folds of the shoreline as they pulled piranha after piranha from the depths.  But on our boat, no luck.  Well, one of our guides DID manage to pull up some kind of large snapping turtle, which was cool but not the kind of excitement we were looking for.

For some reason, I was very focused on catching a piranha.  Despite the gorgeousness of the brightening sky and the exotic foliage and my general distaste for harassing wild animals, all of my attentions were concentrated on the muddy water below.

I tried first one end of the boat and then the other, holding my rod near to the sides and then as far out as the pole would reach.  Wrinkling my nose, I squeezed more blood out of the meat to scent the waters with.  I tried to think like a poor defenseless prey fish, doing my best to make the bait glide cautiously through the water, then jerked it around as though I were in distress.

I had just about given up on ever catching anything (and was thinking some very dark thoughts about the more successful fishermen all around us) when I felt a sharp tug on the line.  I'm not sure, but I think I may have squealed like a 12-year-old.  I tried to remember all the advice my grandfather had given me about reeling in a fish:  don't jerk too hard or you'll shake him loose, but don't hesitate too long or he'll work himself free of the hook and get away.  I gritted my teeth, closed my eyes and pulled.

I bet we made a pretty hilarious sight, with the piranha swinging wildly over the boat and everyone diving out of the way as though it were a great white.  One of the guides managed to catch him in his hands and held him up for everyone to see.  He was tiny, but SO AWESOME.  His scales were a shiny golden-green, his eyes wide and red.  The guide showed us how to hold him by pinching him vertically between your thumb and index finger.  In this position, he couldn't move much so we could get a good look at him.  He offered a thick leaf to the little guy and we watched as his teeth, like tiny shards of broken glass, shredded it effortlessly.  Needles, I thought.  That's his name.

I was feeling pretty bad for poor Needles, stuck up here out of the water, but I was ACHING to hold him just for a minute.  The guide passed him carefully over to me.  I was struck by how solid his body was.  The other fish I'd held were floppy and fluid, but Needles was like a slimy green rock.  With terrifying teeth.  I looked him in the eye for a minute, predator to predator, and thanked my lucky stars that I was so much bigger than him.

After everyone had had a chance to get a quick look, I insisted that it was time for Needles to get some oxygen.  As I tossed him back into the lake, I was worried that we'd kept him out too long, but my worries were in vain.  With a contemptuous flick of his tail, Needles shot off into the depths in search of less annoying company.  Or perhaps a snack.

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