Did someone really pull a relative of the piranha out of the placid waters of Lake Saint Louis Tuesday?
If true, were the angler's grandchildren actually there when it happened?
And in the far reaches of New Guinea has this same species turned into a carnivore that now noshes on men's private parts?
With this fish story, what follows is as close as I can get to the truth.
About 8:30 a.m. Tuesday, Lisa Fanger, 49, was fishing for catfish from a Lake Saint Louis marina. Her bait was a hunk of hot dog.
But instead of a catfish she caught a strange-looking 15-inch fish with a lot of teeth.
"We thought it was a monster blue gill, or maybe a perch," Fanger told me Friday.
Experts at August A. Bush Memorial Conservation Area later that day identified it as a red-bellied pacu, a fish native to the Amazon region of South America.
The pacu is related to the piranha, but pacu teeth are not as sharp and the pacu prefers fruits, nuts and vegetation to meat.
With that said, I should mention some gruesome stories floating around on the Internet, specifically Animal Planet's River Monsters. They recount how the red-bellied pacu was introduced in New Guinea, where over the years it might have changed its dining habits. It seems they might now like meat and, in fact, are suspected of following fresh urine streams in the water to the human male source of those urine streams and ... OUCH! THAT REALLY HURTS!
Fanger has lived in Lake Saint Louis since 1991. On Tuesday she was fishing with her friend Barb Reitz, who Fanger calls the "Fishing Queen of Lake Saint Louis." They were with Reitz's teenage son Josh.
Also with Fanger were her two grandchildren: ages 3 and 1.
But wait. Were they? At some point in reporting this fish story it becomes apparent to me that the grandchildren weren't there.
Fanger demands I write that they were because she loves them and wants them to play pivotal roles in her 15 minutes of fame.
The way she sees it, the words of this story will echo through the Fanger generations.
I tell her I can't write something I know is false. I point out that KSDK-TV already reported that she, not her granddaughter, caught the fish.
Aha, there's more to it. Fanger tells me her granddaughter caught a little catfish, her first fish, a couple of days before and the catfish died. Fanger admits she already told the girl that all this media attention is over that fish, the one her granddaughter caught. If I report the truth, she pleads, "She'll know I lied to her."
We butt heads as we try to negotiate. I suggest she hide the newspaper from her granddaughter. I suggest she someday tell her the reporter who wrote it was in a drug stupor and got everything wrong.
She cautions that if I don't acquiesce, I'll never even sniff a picture of her prized fish, dead or alive. Our negotiations are about as productive as the congressional wrangling over raising the debt limit.
Finally, I agree to place the following two statements into this story: The fish caught on Tuesday is her granddaughter's fish.
Mama Lisa and her granddaughter caught a Big Ass Amazon Fish.
(If only I were making this up.)
Fanger's plan on Tuesday was to eventually keep the fish in an aquarium she had already purchased for her granddaughter.
But by Tuesday afternoon the fish wasn't doing so well. It was barely flipping about in a 5-gallon paint bucket, filled with water, in Fanger's home. She took it to Petland in Lake Saint Louis for safe-keeping. Unfortunately, by Wednesday morning the fish was dead. Fanger says someone has volunteered to mount the fish for free for her granddaughter.
The fish currently resides in Fanger's freezer, wrapped in a towel. I asked to see it, perhaps take a picture of it. But that's not possible, Fanger tells me, because the fish and towel have become one frozen block.
Lynn Schrader, the fisheries regional supervisor at Busch, had little trouble identifying the red-bellied pacu. Unfortunately, he says, several of the species are found in Missouri waters every year.
The best guess is that someone buys the fish at a store and the fish outgrows its tank. The species can reach more than 24 inches in length in the wild. Instead of taking it back to the fish store, Schrader says, owners simply release it into a lake or river.
In all likelihood, red-bellied pacus will not survive in Missouri once water temperature dips below 40 degrees. Occasionally some do, he says. "You can never be sure what will happen to them and they could end up competing with the native species."
I left phone messages with the operations manager for the Lake Saint Louis Community Association. I wanted to ask if the same species, or other exotic species, have ever before been taken from the lake. I also left a message asking for his help in locating Fanger, which I subsequently accomplished without his assistance.
In hindsight, he might not have wanted to help me get in touch with the angler who pulled a piranha-like fish out of the lake.