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Jun 12 , 2016

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Dracula Is Alive, Living In Venezuela

by Frank Ross
Dracula Is Alive, Living In Venezuela

Far below the placid surface of Lake Guri life hangs in a delicate balance. Life belongs to the quick: dinner belongs to the quickest. I would imagine that piranha swim around thinking that they are pretty much in charge of the buffet table. 

They've got a mouth full of razor sharp teeth, and they can reduce a grown pig to pulp in a matter of seconds. 

Enter the payara: exit the piranha!

The payara is also known as the "Dracula Fish" due to the two large fangs that protrude imposingly from its lower jaw. While this species has yet to be cast in a Hollywood thriller, they certainly have the accouterments and attitude necessary to play the leading role in a summer screamer. Payara use their fangs to impale piranha as they blast through a school looking for an easy meal. It's hard to conceive that piranha would be an easy anything, but after peering down into a payara's mouth it becomes obvious that easy is relative to the tools at hand.

In addition to their two fangs, the payara have a jaw filled with razor sharp teeth of various lengths. If either of its two fangs become broken or dislodged, replacements are sheathed beneath the skin just behind the originals and quickly pop up to re-arm this piscatorial predator.

Where do payara prowl? Lake Guri is located about 500 miles southeast of Caracas, Venezuela. My main mission on Guri was to catch peacock bass, but after traveling that far, it seemed like a redundant question when our host, Jacob Elias, asked our group if we wanted to go after payara. 

Being aboard the Peacock Princess, a 65-foot houseboat, we had the flexibility to do anything we wanted. It didn't take us but about 30-seconds to respond with a resounding YES! The Princess' crack chef was happy to add payara to our menu for the trip. Coming up with the filets would be our responsibility. After numerous misfires, we soon found out that wanting and getting are two different equations when it comes to this marauding-mauler. The Peacock Princess is a unique approach to fishing Lake Guri. All other lodges on the lake are landlocked, and don't have the ability to cover this vast impoundment covering almost 2,000 square miles. Our plan was to fish for peacocks on our way down to the southern end of the lake where the headwaters held both the largest peacocks as well as an abundant supply of payara.

We launched at El Manteo, about mid-way down the eastern shore on a Tuesday and began working our way south. On the first day we fished several areas for peacocks, then rendezvoused with the Princess for our evening meal. The next morning we repeated the process, meeting at a new location for lunch, and another for dinner and the evening's mooring.

As we made our way south, it was amazing to watch my guide as he cut a path through standing timber and parted islands as we plied the waters under a hot equatorial sun. Raphael is part homing pigeon and part human GPS unit. It was remarkable to me how he always knew exactly where we were, and could go to exactly the right location to meet the houseboat, when all of the thousands of little islands dotting the lakes' landscape looked exactly alike. I asked Raphael how he was able to navigate so well without a GPS? His reply was a simple; "It's not a problem." Raphael has been guiding on Lake Guri for over 10 years, and he knows every isle and inlet like the back of his deeply tanned hands.

Dracula is not a misnomer for this fierce fighter.

After three days of battling peacocks we were all ready to tackle the ultimate challenge on Guri. We set out early to catch piranha for bait. In a light misting rain we made our way to the southern edge of the lake and set up in standing timber to fill our live-wells. Payara are thick in the Paragua river (Spanish for Umbrella), which probably accounts for the scarcity of piranha there.

Blue-gill With an Attitude
Piranha, or bluegill with an attitude, are somewhat tricky to catch, but there are so many, if you miss one, it doesn't take long to detect another delicate knock. You will be looking for small fish about 3-4" in length, so there will be a number that you catch which are too big for bait. 

Not to worry, the larger ones will end up on the guide's table. The guides maintain that piranha enhance masculine virility. To my knowledge, this theory has not been documented, but that did not diminish their enthusiasm for dropping the little rascals in hot oil. Steel leaders are mandatory. Piranha take very small, and rapid bites with razor sharp teeth. Usually there are several working your bait at the same time. Small pieces of sirloin steak are the optimum bait. If you hesitate more than a heartbeat, you'll be searching for more sirloin. A quick upward jerk is all that is necessary. Sometimes you will miss the nibbler, and foul hook one of the schooling hordes. There isn't a wrong way to catch a piranha, but there is a right way to get them into the livewell; pass it to your guide.

Piranha are a toothsome lot.
Piranha are a toothsome lot.

Each boat in our party was trying to catch at least twenty, before we made the 30- minute run to the headwaters, where the big payara prowl. Once you have a livewell full of piranha, you'll want to let the guide select and retrieve the bait, when you start fishing for payara. Sticking your hand in a livewell, filled with twenty irritated piranha, is not a good training program. You're also a long way from a 911 connection, so remember that discretion is the better part of valor.

When fishing for payara two leaders are used. The reason for two different lengths of leader will become obvious when your guide rigs you for a bout with the "Dracula Fish". The shorter leader will be used to suspend the piranha on a single hook, and the longer 12" leader is used with the large treble hook to foul-hook the fish under the jaw. The payara has a very hard, bony mouth, and is very difficult to get a hook into. While the stinger is added insurance for hooking this vicious fighter, its no guarantee you will get them to the boat.

I lost twelve before getting the first one to the gaff. Some were on long enough to produce an exciting battle before making their exit, but either way the result was the same. Most of them just came unbuttoned, even with massive upward jerks to set the hook. A couple simply cut the line above the leader, in swirling strikes. It's a tough challenge, but once you get one to the gaff, "high fives" are due all around the boat.