Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Here there be Tygers

My wife and I recently packed up the truck for a road trip through southern Africa from our home in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. We covered just shy of 5000 miles in a month, and blitzed through our home country of Tanzania before traversing Zambia, Botswana, Namibia and South Africa en route to Johannesburg and our flights home.

It was an absolute feast for the senses, for the mind and for the soul. We saw and experienced some unbelievable things, and an upcoming blog post will outline those.

the mighty Zambezi

One of the days focused on flyfishing for tigerfish on the upper Zambezi river, and it was one of the trip's adventures that I was most looking forward to. For two years now, I have been trying and failing to gain access to some rivers in Tanzania without having to pay many, many thousands of dollars to wet a line. The last bastions of tiger habitat are locked down by private outfitters, and the other locations are not safe for a solo land-based mission. I've stopped short of grovelling.

However, on the Zambezi there are still tigerfish swimming in stretches that are accessible to the tourist who's biggest budgeted expense is gasoline, although their numbers are dwindling due to netting. I was fortunate enough to be able to book a cheap day on the water through a local outfitter - Angle Zambia - and fish the river about 20 miles upstream of the town of Livingstone and Victoria Falls. I was keenly aware that this single day on the water was probably going to be my first, best and last shot at actually catching a tigerfish.

The Zambezi is a massive river and forms the border between Zimbabwe and Zambia. It plunges over a cliff and into a gorge near the town of Livingstone, forming the largest waterfall on planet Earth - Victoria Falls. Before fishing, we explored the falls and were stunned by what we saw. Superlatives fail me, as they did during many moments on this trip.

In the local Kilolo language, this waterfall is known as Mosi oa Tunya, which means 'The Smoke that Thunders'. This is not only the most metal name for a waterfall that I've ever heard, but also incredibly fitting. From more than 10 miles away, a thousand-foot tall plume of white spray is visible above the surrounding forest and rolling thunder that never ends is the only way I can describe the sound and the feeling of being close to it.


the smoke that thunders after the mid-day sun burned off much of the smoke

a glimpse of the falls

At the narrowest point in Batoka Gorge, below the falls, the river cut a 120 degree turn and forms the boiling pot; a terrifying and huge whirlpool more than 100 meters across. This is where the river god, Nyaminyami, resides. It is easy to see how religions that worship and fear concrete natural entities, such as the Sun or a river, develop. For tens of thousands of years, people lived along this river and depended upon it for absolutely everything. A swirling serpent god, that gives and takes away, resides in an ultra-violent, all-devouring whirlpool near the base of a waterfall that literally shakes the ground you walk on? Sure, prior to science, I'd buy that.

We hiked down the gorge and stood in the spray along the bank next to the boiling cauldron of whitewater. In slack-jawed awe, I may have asked Nyaminyami to allow me to come tight to some tigers.

the lair of Nyaminyami

That night, a denizen of the river came ashore to feast on the vegetation surrounding our tent and wake us a bit earlier than we planned. The crunching sound of a hippo tearing the grass with it's 2ft wide mouth woke us and in the full moon light we could see her shadow on the nylon walls of our flimsy shelter. As we laid absolutely still, wide-eyed and open-eared in the darkness, one could take it as a response from Nyaminyami.

As dawn broke the sound of her chomping grew fainter and fainter until we felt safe enough to leave the tent. We gathered our gear and walked towards the shoreline to await our guide, who was supposed to pick us up riverside at this camp site.

I've accumulated a huge number of flies for tigers because tying is the next best thing to actually fishing.  Fortunately, I met a fellow angler at a camp in northern Zambia who gave me a beautiful red and black clouser that he claimed was the only fly that works for tigers, and of which I had none.  I brought along my Loop 10wt Evotec rod and an Orvis Mirage IV reel spooled with 400grain Depth Charge.


I showed Patrick, our guide, my box and flies and he immediately selected the black and red clouser that was gifted to me from amongst the dozen of other flies that I had tied. I looped it onto 30lb piano wire as Patrick explained how we'd be probing structure and fishing the slack water behind boulders.

We began to fish and continued to fish hard for 8 hours, stopping only for lunch and to move between spots. Patrick worked hard to find the fish and my casting arm began to ache like never before. That Evotec is more brookstick than 10wt, and throwing a 400grain sinking line with a heavy clouser on wire leader was destroying my muscles and tendons. Buck Fever kept my pace frantic, and the knowledge that some ice-cold Mosi Lagers would serve the dual purpose of ending an awesome day and icing my gnarled left hand.

happy about this first tigerfish

All told, I came tight to maybe 6 fish and landed three. Two of them were pretty much fingerlings, but one of them was a couple of pounds. There was one mighty pull in there, but we didn't stay connected.

Tigers hit hard, fight harder and reward you with gill plate-rattling leaps and plunges for the bottom. Their scales are burnished gold with black and deep red highlights. Their teeth define them. They are beautiful and capable of violence.

I can't think of something that swims more worthy of the title "Trophy Fish" than the 20lb tigers that hold court in the most remote rivers of Africa. I am extremely fortunate to have pursued them, and lucky to have landed even a small one.

not exactly a river monster

an icy Mosi Lager for the hand


Unknown said...

Awesome. Absolutely awesome.

Mr. P. said...


Douglas Kretzmann said...

Nice, glad you got to see the tiger even if not a big one..
my only tigerfish was caught above Vic Falls, about the size of yours, but not on a fly..


covers the options well - written by one of the guides on those expensive Tanzanian rivers..

my plan is to try Jozini when next in S. Africa. The guided trips are reasonably priced, and can probably rent a boat and try to fake it too..