Goin’ fishin’ for crappie — and piranha?


Randy Riley - Contributing columnist



Now that I’m neck deep in my retirement, I find that I have much more time on my hands than I can easily fill. I try to fill a lot of my time with volunteer projects. There are several fine organizations that I respect and try to help. I enjoy serving on several boards and for several worthwhile projects.

I think I must have inherited the desire to volunteer from my Mom. She used to say, “If you’re bored, if you are tired and want to feel better, find some way to help others. It will lift your spirits.”

Moms are usually right. My dear old Mom was certainly right about that.

When my boys were young, we would fill many empty weekend hours sitting along the banks of Cowan Lake fishing for panfish, bluegills and crappie.

I have a vivid memory of the three of us walking back to the car after a successful afternoon of fishing. Danny was walking ahead of us with our stringer of fish draped over his shoulder. The last few fish were sliding over the grass as he proudly displayed our catch.

When we got home, we would clean and filet the fish. As soon as my beer batter was ready, we would batter up the filets and fry them. We ate them about as quickly as they were fried and drained. We loved it.

I have only been fishing once since the boys grew up. Soon they got involved in team sports and girls. Then, they became a lot less interested in spending time along the lake shores with Dad.

Our weekend fishing outings might have been behind me, but I still had one final fishing trip that I will never forget.

Local physician and friend Keith Holten, working with the staff of the University of Cincinnati Hospital, organized annual medical mission trips to the jungle of the Amazon basin. Several physicians, nurses, therapists and other volunteers would fly into Manaus, the capital of the Amazonas state.

From there, we traveled on a double-decker, open boat up the Amazon River to the Rio Purus, a wide tributary of the Amazon. The boat trip from the city of Manaus to the small, native village of Aruma took two full days.

One year we found ourselves near Aruma on Easter Sunday. Our crew decided to take the day off and spend time exploring the jungle. In the morning we went fishing.

That afternoon we went on a long, hot jungle hike and that evening we went on a hunt for caiman — a South American species of alligator. They can grow to several feet in length and weigh a few hundred pounds.

Obviously, we were going to hunt the smaller ones. (I’ll save that adventure for another column.)

Our morning of fishing was a unique experience.

We used one of the small boats that we used each day to get through narrow jungle passages to the very small, remote villages. Our jungle guide — a strong, capable man named Bagode — would take us down some ridiculously small tributaries into remote jungle lakes. Where the lake would border the solid jungle was an area called the igapó.

It’s hard to maneuver through the igapó, because in that area trees start growing underwater and continue upward to join the thick jungle canopy.

Our mission that day was to catch piranha. The piranha is famous for its aggressive eating behavior. It has been reported by many people, including villagers, that a large school of piranha can strip all the meat from an animal the size of a cow in just minutes.

When a piranha clamps its jaws together, their saw-toothed, razor-sharp teeth fit together perfectly. Their bite can remove a thick, round chunk of flesh the size of a silver dollar. They look scary — and they are scary.

That was the fish we were trying to catch.

When sitting on the shore of Cowan Lake, I would always have to tell the boys to be quiet. “You don’t want to scare away the fish.”

It’s just the opposite with piranha. Once we were ready to drop our baited hooks into the water, Bagode told us all to slap the water with our poles. This simulated the sound of an animal falling from a tree into the water. That sound was supposed to attract the piranha. It sure did.

Within seconds, the piranha started stripping the meat from our hooks. That’s right — we used chunks of raw meat for bait.

Most of the piranha we hauled in were the size of a large crappie. Bagode used pliers to remove the hook from between those ghastly teeth. To show us how strong their bite was, Bagode held a piranha up to a tree branch. It would bite through a wooden branch the size of a thick pencil like it was a Fred Flintstone hedge trimmer.

Once they were killed, cleaned, and pan-fried, it was hard to tell a piranha from our finest Cowan Lake crappie. That Easter evening, we enjoyed an excellent fresh fish dinner.

Maybe this summer I’ll find my old rod and reel and head to Cowan Lake.

If anything looking like a piranha strikes my hook, I’ll be home in an instant … looking for some other way to spend my time.

Randy Riley is a former Mayor of Wilmington and former Clinton County Commissioner.

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Randy Riley

Contributing columnist