August 29, 2007

Cross Lanes Youngster Catches Coal River Piranha

By John McCoy

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When Hunter Aliff's fishing line started dancing up and down, he figured he'd gotten a bite.

He figured correctly. In fact, as soon as the 10-year-old angler beached the fish, it bit the line in two. Hunter and his fishing partners figured they might have something unusual on their hands, and they did - a piranha, fresh from the Coal River near St. Albans.

"I'd have to say that this is the most unusual thing I've ever caught," Hunter said.

Piranhas were the last things on the young man's mind Aug. 19 when Hunter, his father Eugene and friend Harvey Harman decided to do a little bank fishing near the river's Lower Falls.

"We were fishing for just anything," said Hunter, who lives in Cross Lanes. "We were just sitting on the bank with a few lines in the water. I used a piece of wiener and a mealworm for bait."

The youngster had cast his line far out into the river and was waiting for the bait to settle when the line started making some unusual moves.

"It was going up and down, so I jerked [to set the hook]," he said. "The line went over toward a tree, and then toward a log. I got it out of the tree, but couldn't get it out from around the log. I called for Dad and Harvey to come and help me, but before they could get there it came free."

When Hunter pulled the fish up onto the bank, he and his partners figured he'd caught a monster bluegill.

"But then it cut the line," Hunter said.

To keep the fish from flopping back into the water, Hunter reached into its mouth to grab it by its protruding lower jaw, much the same way bass fishermen routinely handle their catches.

"But as soon as my finger touched its jaw, I could tell how sharp its teeth were and I pulled back," the youngster said.

The two adults captured the fish and put it into a live well. Later, they phoned a Division of Natural Resources biologist and described the 12-inch, 1 1/4-pound fish.

"He told us it might be a piranha," said Eugene. "Later we showed it to a guy who had spent a lot of time in a pet shop, and he confirmed it as a piranha."

Bret Preston, chief of fisheries for the DNR, said people shouldn't be alarmed by the catch.

"It probably came from someone who had it in an aquarium and turned it loose in the river, probably fairly recently," Preston said. "I doubt if it would have survived the kind of wintertime water temperatures we get around here."

He added that Hunter's fish wasn't the first piranha caught in West Virginia waters.

"It happens from time to time, when a piranha gets too big for an aquarium and its owner decides to turn it loose," he said. "We've had piranhas show up in the Ohio and Kanawha rivers."

Preston added that introducing non-native species such as piranhas and other tropical fish is illegal under West Virginia law.

To contact staff writer John McCoy, use e-mail or call 348-1231.

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