LeBlanc: A strange critter in Lake Conroe

A number of years back, we had an occurrence on Lake Conroe that caused a few of us to grow greatly concerned. A fish was caught in the lake that looked just like a red bellied piranha. It was right at 12 inches long and had been caught on a hook baited with a piece of shrimp. Scientific proof and the knowledge of Jeff Henson, now retired biologist of the Texas parks and Wildlife Department, showed that the fish was in fact a pacu, a close family member of a piranha.

It all started back on Sept. 30, 2006 when Rick Haynes of Montgomery was with his grand daughters and seven-year-old Natalie Reed wanted to go fishing. So Rick went down and bought some shrimp and they went out on a neighbors dock near the boat launch at Old River Road.

Natalie was fishing and she got a hard hit that took the bait. It was so strong she could not hold it, so her grandfather held the rod and she reeled in the fish. Once the fish was landed, Rick thought it looked like a piranha so he bundled it up in a towel and took it to nearby April Plaza Marina where they put it into an empty minnow tank and called the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. A game warden came out and he too said it looked like a member of the piranha family, but suggested they have a biologist look at it.

A few days passed and every time anyone at the marina went back to catch some minnows for a customer and walked by the tank where the strange fish was kept the fish would jump out of the water at them. Finally unnerved by this action the fish was killed and put in the freezer at the marina.

I received a call on Sunday morning from fishing guide Wayne Whitehead and he told me the story, so after church I went over there with my camera and took some pictures. Wayne and I and Ron Werner, marina owner at the time, were discussing the fish as it looked like a red bellied piranha to  us. Ron remembered one was brought into the marina in 1994, shortly after he purchased it.

Monday morning, I emailed a picture to Henson, and he got back to me stating it was a red bellied pacu and not a red bellied piranha. The pacu has a black dime size circle behind it’s gill that identified it for him.

Both the red bellied piranha and the red bellied pacu are in the same family, Serrasalmidae, but different genus. The red bellied piranha is in the genus Serrasalmus and the red bellied pacu is in the genus Colossoma.  

There is a difference between the two fish, even though they look almost alike.

Both fish are tropical and are South American freshwater fish. A red-bellied piranha voraciously carnivorous and often attack and destroy living animals. The pacu as an adult is primarily vegetarian, juveniles are omnivorous and will aggressively attack other fish. Their is a report of a pacu in a Fort Worth aquarium attacking and injuring someone, so they are not to be taken lightly.

So one may question how such a fish can get from South America all the way into a lake in Southeast Texas. The answer is simple. Ignorance has struck again. Someone undoubtedly bought the red bellied pacu for their aquarium as a little fish and when it reached the size of almost 12 inches long they dumped it into the lake or one of the feeder waterways.

To put any fish into Texas public waters is a crime, even native fish. To stock any fish in to Texas public waters, one must obtain a permit from the TPWD and that is written in stone.

The red-bellied pacu is a fish that can be legally purchased in Texas for aquariums, but people need to do their homework before they buy fish to make sure they have a large enough aquarium to hold the eventual size of the fish or be prepared to destroy the fish when they are tired of it.

Now we come to the look alike the red-bellied piranha. In 1961, a federal law was passed that prevents the importation of piranha. It is against state law to have a piranha in the state of Texas. Both of these laws have enough teeth in them to make sure that anyone who ignores these laws and are caught will rue the day they considered such a stupid idea.

However, let me point out another important point considering the aquarium industry. We have them to thank for other imports in our lakes and waterways and two of them are hydrilla and giant salvinia.

The federal government lets the aquarium industry import these plants and the ignorance of some people has introduced them into our waterways. As one can see the efficiency of the Federal Government is again at its usual ineffective level. This is the same government we expect to close the borders.

So folks, if you catch a fish that looks like a red-bellied piranha or pacu in one of our lakes call the TPWD immediately.


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