A Michigan woman dangling a worm in a Detroit-area lake hooked a cousin of the piranha whose imposing teeth and undeserved reputation for biting testicles make it one of the scariest freshwater fish on the planet.
The “once in a lifetime catch” made last week by Holley Luft at Lake St. Clair was a red-bellied pacu likely released into the lake by a pet owner. At 15 inches and just under 2 pounds, it was big enough to look imposing, but small by pacu standards: in native waters of South America and elsewhere, the fish can grow as large as 55 pounds.
Luft was fishing about 15 feet from the shoreline with her husband, Tom, on the Harrison Township lake on Wednesday when she noticed something unusual tugging at her line, which was baited with catfish and a nightcrawler.
"At first we couldn’t believe it — we were flabbergasted."
- Holley Luft
“When it first came up, I’m like, ‘Holy crap,’” Luft, 52, told FoxNews.com by phone early Tuesday. “And just as I was ready to get it out of the net, my husband said 'I think it’s a piranha.' So I dropped the fish and when I did, the hook came out of his mouth. At first we couldn’t believe it — we were flabbergasted.”
“It was a very healthy and very pretty fish,” she continued. “We were totally shocked; the teeth were just flabbergasting.”
Luft said officials at Michigan’s Department of Natural Resources told her the fish most likely was released from a personal aquarium after becoming too large or aggressive. It’s unclear whether the animal was male or female, she said.
“They said for sure they thought it was somebody’s pet,” Luft said. “In 2007, somebody had caught another one in the same vicinity.”
Jim Francis, a spokesman for Michigan’s Department of Natural Resources, confirmed the exotic catch, saying pacus are caught about every other year in the area.
“It’s not like we see them all the time, but it’s not uncommon either,” Francis told FoxNews.com. “In most cases, we think these are incidental releases from an aquarium.”
The fish, which now sits in Luft’s freezer, would likely not have survived the harsh Michigan winter, Francis said.
“It’s a popular fish in the pet industry,” he said. “And this was rather large, so it’s possible there are other fish out there. There may be more out there, but they’d be at very low levels.”
Red-bellied pacus, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, are distinguished from piranhas primarily by their teeth, with pacus featuring two rows of molar-like dentition compared to a single-row of serrated incisor-like teeth in piranhas. They’ve been reported in 43 states and generally are vegetarian, eating fruits and nuts.
“This species is a popular aquarium fish and is sold in most pet stores as juveniles,” a USGS profile reads. “In warmer climates such as south Florida, it is also a popular pond fish. It is a prized food fish in South America.”
One wild pacu caught last summer in a sound dividing Sweden and Denmark, however, prompted museum expert Henrik Carl to warn against one specific potential target of the fish.
“[The pacu’s] mouth is not so big, so of course it normally eats nuts, fruit, and small fish, but human testicles are just a natural target,” Carl told NPR. “It's not normal to get your testicles bitten off, of course, but it can happen, especially now in Sweden."
"Anyone choosing to bathe in the Øresund these days had best keep their swimsuits well-tied,” Carl continued.
Although Carl later said he was joking, the fish have been known to chomp on fingers and toes.
In 2011, a pacu was reportedly blamed for the death of two men in Papua New Guinea, where the fish is nicknamed the “ball cutter.”
Luft, meanwhile, said she and her husband were joking that they’d be sure to wear footwear the next time they fish in Lake St. Clair.
“We were joking that it’s good we got it out of the lake,” she told FoxNews.com. “They said it’s a once-in-a-lifetime catch, so it’s really kind of a once-in-a-lifetime event for me. But if you’re going to be in the news, it’s nice to be in for something fun.”