Tigerfish On the
By Andy Ault
Tigerfish, photo by Brian Worsley
Fly-fishing on the
Zambezi river in southern Africa is a relatively undiscovered secret. This magnificent
river which stretches some 2600 km from its source in Northern Zambia down to its delta in
Mozambique. Along its length Anglers can enjoy some of the finest flyfishing to be found
in Africa, if not the world. In addition to this the river presents fishermen with the
opportunity to experience some of the most well protected wilderness areas and natural
spectacles in Africa. The two which immediately come to mind being Victoria Falls and Mana
Pools National Park.
Flyfishing is vastly
underrated on the Zambezi. The main reason for this being that most anglers still prefer
to use the more typical methods of trolling, drift baiting with strips of fillet or live
bait on a conventional spinning rod. Having recently returned from a three month safari
through most of Southern Africa I can confidently say that the Zambezi holds a lot of
promise for the flyfisherman who is prepared to get out there and try their luck.
The main angling species
on the Zambezi is unquestionably the impressive tigerfish. So called because of its
vicious teeth, beautiful striped markings and wild temperament. When a Tigerfish hits the
fly it can come in any shape or form. Typically, when using a streamer or minnow
impersonation the fish will hit like a steamtrain, leaving the angler in no doubt as to
who or what has just savaged your bait, and quite often a slack line. They
hit so fast, and so hard one cannot afford to lose concentration for half a second as any
resistance on the take can easily result in losing your fly and leader. They are very
quick and enormously powerful.
Other species that
provide good angling and exceptional eating pleasure include various members of the
Tilapia family or Bream of which there are more than 16 species. This
article intends to focus on the Tigerfish however.
The best time of year for
the Tigerfish varies enormously depending on which stretch of the river you intend
fishing. It truly is a river that will provide good sport angling almost year round. The
only exception being in the tropical summer period (December-February) when seasonal
flooding of the Zambezi tributaries turns the water a chocolate brown and fish have
trouble seeing the surface let alone any fly or alternative bait.
Photo by Brian Worsley
For our purposes I have
divided up the fishing into areas of specific interest where in addition to
great angling, participants are able to enjoy other features of interest at the same time.
These areas are: The Caprivi Strip, in Namibia. Victoria Falls, which can be accessed from
either the Zambian or the Zimbabwe banks, and the Lower Zambezi, which can again be
accessed from either the Zambian or Zimbabwe riverbanks.
The Zambezi river in the
Caprivi area of Namibia is a relatively narrow, fast flowing river with sandbars, deep
drop offs along the bank and good fishable structure all along the river. What makes the
Caprivi section worthy of special mention is its seasonal flooding. Being the most
northern section of our target area and with no artificial control of water flow upstream
of this area allows the river to swell from approximately 250 m wide in the dry season, to
a staggering 30 km at the widest point in the Wet season. This incredible flood pushes the
water up onto savanna floodplains that allow all of the fish access to a huge feeding and
breeding area. Later in the year, usually in late April, May, the river recedes again and
millions of fry start a mad scramble to get back into the main river. This obviously
provides a paradise for any predatory fish of which there are plenty. The Tigerfish
form efficient, aggressive attack shoals and drive these fry into a huge rolling shoal of
food that they herd out away from protective cover. Once the fry are out in the open the
tiger go into a frenzied attack pattern knifing through the shoal and snapping at anything
that twitches or glitters.
Unfortunately this is a
spectacle I have yet to witness personally although I have heard several accounts of the
same behaviour from fishermen whom I would refer to as "more reliable than
most!" It does not happen every day of the feeding season, but it does happen and if
you are lucky enough to have your timing just right will provide every angler with more
fun fishing and savage strikes than most of us ever dream of! This puts the fishing here
at its peak usually between May and July.
The next section of the
river that I like to fish is the Zambezi above Victoria Falls. This part of the river is
quite different from the Caprivi with more variety on possible fishing spots, different
structure and different "holes," where you can try your luck. The river is more
open here with islands and rock funnels in the river that create fast strong rapids with
deep holes and eddies at the downstream ends. There are numerous channels with good cover
for both predator and prey species. The best times of year here in my experience generally
tend to be between February and April, and again from Mid July through to November. The
cooler months of May-July still offer some good angling but at this time of the year you
will definitely work harder to find the fish.
Moving downstream again
will take anglers to what locals refer to as The Lower Zambezi Valley. This section of the
river is where I have spent the majority of my time and the section of river that is by a
long stretch my favourite part of the Zambezi, not least of all just because of its
remoteness and lack of civilisation.
There are sections of the
Lower Zambezi that are populated and although these areas can produce good fishing I have
always made a point of seeking out the most remote and inaccessible areas. These areas
have generally been spared the havoc that is wrought upon local fish populations by
fishermen with gill nets, drag nets and fish traps. Subsequently they offer some of the
finest angling I have found anywhere along the lengths of the Zambezi that I have
explored. In addition to great fishing the areas I have fished also provide excellent
opportunities to enjoy some of the top wildlife areas of Southern Africa. I have often
been driving down to the boats and encountered lion or leopard on the short journey and it
is a common occurrence to be fighting a tigerfish while drifting down past a herd of
elephant or buffalo that have come to the river for an afternoon drink or mudwallow!
Here again the river has
changed significantly and in some places is more than 2 km wide. Interspersed with sand
and grass islands there are a myriad of channels, drop-offs, river mouths and other
structure to fish here. The best times of year here for Tigerfish are more or less
parallel with those times of year that work well at Victoria Falls.
There is much more I
could write about each section of the river but I hope with this article to give
interested anglers a brief overview of what possibilities are available at the Zambezi.
Should there be sufficient interest I will more than happily respond with more details
about the areas, and the fishing prospects.
Photo by Brian Worsley
As for strategy, and
different techniques. I think I can safely say that the field is wide open. Being a
relative newcomer to fly fishing I am not very well versed on the different techniques and
styles of fishing that more experienced anglers employ. I am however a fanatical fisherman
and have discussed at length tactics and different methods with many fishermen much more
experienced than myself. There are several videos and a few books that have either been
designed for fly-fishing for Tigerfish, or include sections dedicated to this discipline.
After having looked at some of them, and after much dialogue with other flyfishermen it
seems to me that just about anything can work.
As mentioned earlier on
more people seem to concentrate on the more typical methods for fishing the
Zambezi. I have enjoyed good angling with quite heavily weighted minnows and deceivers
fished deep. I have also had reasonable success with lighter flies of the same sort fished
fairly shallow. Friends of mine have taken very good fish using shrimp impressions.
Streamers and variations of Wooly Buggers have proven to be more than successful in
certain waters, even fished with a floating line! Most proficient flyfishermen seem to
favour some of the more fantastical colours and fly patterns used in salt water angling.
Personally I prefer the more subtle natural colours with a bit of flash or angel hair to
them. I would say the most important factors to take into account are not so much fly type
or colour, but more to be sure that you are using a good quality leader material and
always check you have a sharp hook (duh!). These fish have a remarkably hard mouth, and
while the temptation is generally to use a larger hook, my personal preference has been to
go with the smaller hook that holds a sharper edge.
With regards the leader
I found that many of the fish that I hooked when I first started targeting the
tiger would break the leader as soon as they jumped out of the water.
Tigerfish will strike
hard and run with the fly held firmly in their jaws. As they start to slow down you are
able to take up the tension in the line, and with a bit of luck and maybe the right
technique you can set the hook. As soon as the fish feels the sting of steel they
usually steam off in a renewed rush of rage! You can often see the line pushing up toward
the surface and then all of a sudden they leap clear of the water and thrash around in the
air. By this time you normally will have a reasonable amount of backing out so the fish is
towing the whole of your casting line through the water behind it. The first few times I
witnessed this while fishing with a fly rod each time the fish landed back in the water I
had a slack line and found that the leader had broken. Careful inspection of the leader
seemed to suggest that it was neither wind knot or damaged line and it happened frequently
enough that I seriously doubted that I was using quality leader material. (I told you I am
a beginner). My final conclusion however was that with the fish towing the submerged
casting line when they leaped up and threw their head from side to side, the leader was
too light and did not have enough stretch to carry the weight of the submerged line
against the ferocity of the flailing fish. I subsequently moved up to an 8kg leader
material and since then have enjoyed moderately more success although this too has
not been without its fair share of failed attempts! Maybe another angler knows of a plan
to successfully work this problem out without having to use a bulldozer leader??
I have only recently made
my debut fishing for Tigerfish with a fly, but I was using an 8 wt rod with what I would
call a fairly stiff action you need a bit of power in the lower half of the rod if
you are going to keep the upper hand against most fish that you hook. I was using a type
six sink-tip line when I fished a sinking line and I used a weighted leader when fishing a
floating line. I have a pretty good saltwater reel this is invaluable as although a
lot of my fishing was from boats, inevitably you will do some fishing from sandbars and
islands and when you do this sand is unavoidable. Having a reel that is totally sealed
really is a big plus!
You would probably manage with a seven
weight, as long as you have plenty of backing. If you are the type of person who favours a
lighter rod then by all means enjoy fishing with a 5/6 for smaller tiger. I have heard
stories told of fishermen who had rods splinter in their hands after being hit by a
tigerfish, probably not so much because of the size of the fish, but more likely due to
the speed and savagery of the strike. Although I would not recommend using a light rod it
would not be a complete surprise to find myself out there later on this year with a 5
weight in my hands! I for one definitely enjoy the thrill of catching fish on light
tackle! All in all, fly fishing for Tigerfish on the Zambezi is an experience I would
recommend to anybody out there who enjoys the rush of adrenalin I know we almost all do
when you feel that first hint of tension in the line.
By Andy Ault, 2004 ©