No fish story:
An afternoon on the Rio Negro

An afternoon fishing trip for the Amazon’s most famous voracious predators becomes a whopper of a tale when UC students encounter some of the rain forest’s most wondrous creatures.

The University of Cincinnati honors study tour to the Brazilian Amazon was nearly over and Luke Swanson was looking for redemption – and maybe a real-life fish story to tell those at home about landing the “big one” in a river chock-full of man-eating fish.

On a fishing trip for red-bellied piranha earlier that week, the freshman engineering major was the only angler on his eight-passenger boat not to catch one of the Amazon River’s most voracious predators. But now two boats were setting out again on new waters in search of black piranha, the largest species of the blunt-headed carnivorous fish with razor-sharp teeth and the one packing the strongest bite. 

“It’s so disappointing,” Swanson laments to Jeff Maler, a senior nursing student sitting alongside him on a wooden plank in a weathered green canoe. “No way am I going to be the only one on the boat who doesn’t come back with a piranha story.”

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A pandemonium of parrots squawk from the trees overhead as experienced guide João Guimarães navigates the canoe through the tea-stained waters of the Rio Negro to the murky shoals where the freshwater fish with the fearsome reputation tend to congregate. The boat stops along a bank framed by drooping vines on trees arching towards the late afternoon sun. 

Guimarães quickly slaps the water with his hand in an effort to mimic the thrashing sound known by piranha to signal a possible meal. Swanson and Maler join senior Chelsea Morinec and junior Shiqi Ming in stringing chunks of beef on Huck Finn-style fishing poles fashioned by wrapping fishing line around a worn wooden handle. 

The trick to piranha fishing, Morinec tells her companions, is to wait for a sharp knocking on the line before striking with a firm and deft tug before the quick-chomping fish can clean the hook. 

“I do better at feeding the fish than I do catching them,” Maler laments as he pulls up a hook swiped bare. 

“I don’t know why people say fishing is relaxing,” Swanson replies. “It’s anything but relaxing. You know they’re there but every nibble that you get, you pull it in and you’re like, ‘Ugh, not there.’”

Ten yards away, a pink dolphin, or boto, surfaces with a majestic arc before dipping below the waters in a pool of rings. Then, astonishingly, two more dolphins emerge, their charcoal-colored triangular dorsal fins identifying them as the Amazon River’s other freshwater dolphin species, the grey dolphin, or tucuxi

“Did you see that?” Morinec exclaims breathlessly. 

The students crane their necks hoping for another sighting of the sought-after stars of the Amazon before the gurgling motor of an oncoming boat breaks the reverie.

“Look!  Otters!” cries Maler, pointing to a whiskered head covered in dense, velvety brown fur emerging from beneath the water 15 yards from the boat. Another curious otter emerges closer to the canoe and issues a warbling call, one of 22 identified distinct sounds made by one of the Amazon River’s most charismatic creatures.

A snowy heron flies gracefully across the water as Guimarães powers the boat to a more fruitful fishing location. As the canoe dips around the river’s bend, the guide wildly points to the red-cliffed shoreline. There, munching on leaves along a shallow shelf of shrubbery, stands one of the region’s more elusive wildlife finds: the gentle capybara.

A student dips his hand in the river as boats glide along the water.
A river otter pops its head above water.
Student holds a piranha on a fishing line.

“Capybara! Capybara!” the students erupt excitedly, as the supersized rodent – indeed, the world’s largest rodent, resembling a guinea pig on steroids – scurries along the shoreline before fleeing to the safety of water. 

“You see him?” Maler asks, pointing to the V-shaped ripples in the water ahead. 

“Where? Oh, look at the water!” cries Swanson.

“Ming, did you get it?” Morinec asks excitedly, as the two huddle over the third-year architecture student’s digital camera display. 

“You know how many times I’ve seen a capybara in all the times I’ve been out here?  That’s the second time, right there,” says Cindy Howard, a tropical ecologist from the University of Houston-Clear Lake tapped by UC to assist with the study tour, referencing her 25 years of leading expeditions in the Amazon basin.

“I feel so lucky,” says Swanson with a contented smile. 

“You should, because that’s an unusual sighting,” responds Howard.

“And to think,” Maler says, turning to Swanson and pointing to the second fishing boat motoring across the river occupied by female students still oblivious of the group’s sighting, “we almost went on the boat with all the girls!”

The capybara disappears from view, and the students get back to the task at hand, plopping beef-laden lines into the water below. Before long, Swanson jerks up his line to find a long awaited five-inch silver-scaled piranha with obsidian eyes dangling from the hook.

“Luke, you did it,” Ming calls out in congratulations. 

“It’s a game,” Swanson replies with newfound confidence. “Sometimes you get it, sometimes you don’t.”

The fading sun signals the days end with feathered strokes of purple, crimson and gold amid fleecy clouds. Guimarães turns the canoe back towards the riverboat that’s serving as the 10-day study tour’s floating home.

“I feel [people at home] will be a lot more impressed than they should be, but they don’t need to know that,” Swanson says of his catch. “There’s going to be a lot of embellishing going on.”

“We saw dolphins, otters and a capybara,” Maler says, gesticulating his hands animatedly. “The piranhas are nothing compared to the capybara.”

“I’m content,” Swanson replies. “Life is good.”

“It’s definitely one of those lifetime experiences,” says Maler.


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