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Tigerfish On the Zambezi River
By Andy Ault

Tigerfish, photo by Brian Worsley
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
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
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 ©
Murchison Fishing




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