MOUNT HOLLY, N.C. -- Jerry Melton wanted to catch his dinner while fishing Thursday morning on a stretch of the Catawba River, but what he caught could have taken a bite out of him.
Melton, 46, was fishing for catfish in Mount Holly when his line went taut around 11:30 a.m. "It was fighting like it was a bream or maybe a crappie," he said. "When I got it on the bank, I didn't really know what it was; I hadn't seen anything like it before."
State wildlife officials later identified the fish as a piranha, in a new instance of a potentially dangerous non-native fish being dumped into local waters.
Melton noticed something very different when he opened the fish's mouth with his pocketknife: "It had a whole bunch of teeth. Then, it just bit down and left an impression in the blade of my knife."
Melton called wildlife officials, and they told him to freeze the fish until they could identify it. On Saturday, a ranger visited Melton at his Gastonia home and told him he had caught a 1 pound, 4 ounce piranha.
"I never thought I would have a piranha in my freezer," he said. "How cool is that?"
Jacob Rash, an N.C. Wildlife Resources biologist, said he believes this was the first piranha caught in the river and possibly in the region.
And Paul Barrington, an ichthyologist with the Fort Fisher Aquarium, said finding one in the Catawba may be unique but is part of a growing problem.
"People get these exotic animals as pets, and then they outgrow the tank or people don't want them anymore, then they just dump them into our water system," he said.
Officials believe that was the case earlier this year when photos surfaced of a snakehead fish caught in Lake Wylie. The angler threw the voracious Southeast Asian predator back, thinking it was a bowfin.
Barrington said piranhas, freshwater omnivorous fish indigenous to South America, could survive in the Catawba River but only during summer months when the water is warm. He said it must have been released within the past couple of months.
In a recent study, scientists from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland found that the classic image of piranhas as aggressive predators isn't true. Researchers found that they form their famous packs for protection from predators rather than to hunt for food.
That isn't going to ease Melton's mind, who said he will never swim in the Catawba again.
"I've been fishing there my whole life," he said. "Catching something like that is definitely going to make me think twice about what's in that water."
Melton said he plans to mount the fish so he can show it off to friends and family.
"I don't know anybody who's ever caught a piranha," he said. "But I especially don't know anyone who has one on their wall."