A teenager fishing for striped bass in South Carolina hooked into what he called “a-once-in-a-lifetime fish.” But it wasn’t a striper. The South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR) confirmed that the fish was a South American pacu, cousin of the infamous piranha.
Drew Patrick, the fifteen year-old angler from Anderson, South Carolina who landed the invasive fish, is a regular on the Lake Hartwell, a 56,000-acre reservoir in the state’s northwest corner. “I try to fish in Hartwell every week, and my family striper fishes,” Patrick told WYFF-TV. “I’ve been fishing since I could remember, and I’ve always had a special place for it in my heart.” Now, he has an unforgettable memory.
The fish was unlike anything Parker had ever seen come out of Hartwell, so he brought it to the SCDNR. Ross Self, the agency’s Chief of Freshwater Fisheries confirmed that it was a pacu, noting that the Amazon Rainforest natives and piranha look-alikes are popular aquarium fish occasionally released into local waters when they outgrow their tanks. He said they’ve been caught in the state before—but warned that it’s illegal to release them.
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Unlike piranhas, which sport a full set of sharp teeth, the chompers on a pacu are flatter, and perhaps more human-like. The flat teeth and powerful jaws allow pacu to feed on fruits and tree nuts that drop into waterways. The fish are common throughout their native range, but they’ve also established breeding populations in places where they don’t belong—including Florida and Texas. They don’t pose a threat to humans, but they can outcompete native fish species and introduce exotic parasites.
SCDNR’s Self told WYFF-TV that pacu aren’t a problem in the Palmetto State, since breeding populations haven’t taken hold in state waters. Patrick said he plans to get the piranha look-alike mounted and hang it in his barn.