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Battling Tigers in Africa

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Tigerfish need very little introduction. If you fish with any degree of seriousness you will have heard of them, seen pictures of them, or may well be lucky enough to have caught these aquatic super predators.

The tigerfish’s savagery, speed and guile are somewhat the piscatorial urban legend. I have heard of them leaping from the water and taking swallows dipping to drink.

On a recent trip I witnessed the demise of a kingfisher diving into the water for baitfish and never making it back out again!

Their Latin name Hydrochynnus vittatus, directly translates as the striped waterdog and pretty much captures the essence of these fish. Sleek silver bodies with contrasting jet black horizontal stripes, fins and tails with a deep red/orange glow and teeth that tell you they are not there for show.

Just as the take from your first tigerfish will never be forgotten, so will its sheer beauty as you admire it before slipping it back into the water. Tigerfish are brutal hunters, using pure speed to stun their prey, often coming around a second time to pick up the pieces. For a long time tigerfish were pursued on the mighty Southern African waterways like the Zambezi, Okavango and Chobe.

Large metal spoons and spinners as well as live and dead baits were used. Although this method is effective, like many predatory fish, tigerfish are attracted to a well-presented fly. Nowadays a competent fly rodder will usually put any spin fisherman to shame. The most practiced modus operandi is heavier rods like 8 and 9 weights with sinking lines from stationary or slow drifting boats. Heavy Clouser minnow type flies with lots of flash and a three inch steel trace, to protect the leader from the fierce dentistry, is the order of the day. It’s hard work standing in the heat of the African sun casting big flies and heavy lines but the stunning scenery usually takes your mind off things … until that take comes.

When it does, regardless of whether it is a fish of a pound or a double figure specimen, you are always taken by surprise. I’ve best heard it described as an electric shock through the line. Clichés like freight train and brick wall come to mind, but no one I know has quite managed to capture a suitable adjective.

The tigerfish has a bony jaw structure and the hooks don’t always stick. They fight in the most spectacular fashion, speeding off at such a rate that the flyline cannot keep up with the fish. To say tigerfish jump when hooked is an understatement. I am convinced that, when hooked, small to medium sized tigerfish of 1 to 4 pounds spend more time out than in the water.

I‘ve been fortunate to catch tiger fish throughout Africa. In fact I think I have caught them at the most extremes of their distribution… the Crocodile river that forms the southern boundary of the world famous Kruger National park in South Africa. In the North, I have caught them in Lake Nasser in North eastern Egypt, while fishing for Nile Perch. In between, I have pursued them on the Okavango River and throughout the Zambezi system.

As much as they must be the world’s premier freshwater game fish I find the scenery, bird and wild life one encounters equally as addictive as the fishing. One of the most spectacular settings is a very unique place. An island where four countries meet and here the Chobe river flows into the Zambezi 80 km upstream of the Victoria Falls. Impalila Island is situated on the very tip of the Caprivi strip and belongs to Namibia. The German colonists to Namibia dreamt of access to the Eastern shores of Africa and pushed an obscure geographical finger as far Eastwards, as they could. The Zambezi River flows along the Northern shore of the island, Zambia being the Northern neighbour.

The Southern shore of the Island is on the Chobe with Botswana to the South. The Kasai channel cuts the vertical side of the Island, connecting the Zambezi and Chobe resulting in a triangular shaped island - Impalila, which translates as ‘the spear head’. This unique location means that three different waterways can be accessed at any one time by high speed fishing boats. Additionally the renowned Chobe National Park on the Botswana side of the river provides spectacular game viewing such as extensive breeding herds of elephant and buffalo coming down to drink as well as a huge diversity of bird life unequalled anywhere in Africa.

For this reason there are a number of highly commercialised riverside lodges, taking people along the shores of the park to enjoy the game viewing. There are however only two operators situated on Impalila Island. On the southern shores of the Island is Ichingo River Lodge and on the northern side a company called Islands of Africa owns Impalila Island Lodge and Ntwala Lodge.

Although as the crow flies these two establishments are only a few kilometres apart it takes a good 40 minutes by boat via the gently meandering Kasai channel.

Downstream on both the Zambezi and the Chobe an impressive rock ledge runs across the two rivers resulting in a spectacular set of rapids and of course some very interesting tigerfish habitat.

Ichingo is situated right on the waters edge. Accommodation is luxury safari tents, each with spacious bathroom ensuite, shaded by the thick riverside vegetation. Ichingo owns two specially adapted et boats which allow guide and anglers to move up and down the rapids to fish the fast water as well as the upstream deeper, slower sections.

The daily timetable is to arise at dawn for coffee and freshly prepared biscuits. Sunrise is not only the most spectacular time to be on the water but also a time of feverish fishing as the tigers use the twilight to ambush bait fish. A short boat ride back to the lodge and a calorie ridden breakfast awaits. For the hardcore that want to get back out on the water straight away, lots of fluids and sunscreen are the basis for survival.

Another alternative is the swimming pool. Perilously close to the river’s edge, one can’t help but find yourself checking that a disorientated or deviously hungry crocodile hasn’t crept up the bank and slipped in at the deep end.

As the sting leaves the afternoon sun a game viewing cruise along the shores of the Chobe National Park is a must before in preparation for an evening onslaught with the tigers in either the Chobe, the Kasai or one of my favourite spots, the confluence of the two.

Ntwala Lodge is situated on the banks of the Zambezi at the head of the picturesque Mombova rapids. It is an undisputed five star lodge. Magnificently situated it is built with wooden walkways linking the rooms with the main lodge and boat jetty. Ntwala and its sister lodge Impalila Island Lodge can immediately access 40-odd kilometres of the mighty Zambezi, upstream of the rapids. This offers an excellent opportunity to take a day long trip in one of the high speed boats and take in the expanse of this magnificent river, its character and the people that live along its banks. Steep eroded banks provide ideal habitat for nesting kingfishers and stunningly coloured bee-eaters.

Pristine white sand banks look tempting for a dip until drag marks from an 18ft croc on the near bank put an end to those silly thoughts. The dynamics of this mighty river (played out over eons) are very interesting and affect the wildlife, surrounding communities and of course the fishing. In March/April the main floodwaters from the Angolan highlands and Western Zambia arrive.

The river breaks its banks and fills the flood plains.

The locals who have been grazing their cattle on the lush flood plains leave. The nutrients from the cattle and elephant dung as well as the rotting vegetation result in an impressive boom in the food chain, as hundreds of thousands of small baitfish and larger bream (tiliapia) species take advantage of the increased nutrient load.

Jonathan Boulton has fished and guided all over the world from the Seychelles to the Russain Artic, Egypt and New Zealand. He currently lives in Dullstroom and owns Mavungana Flyfishing Centre, the largest Flyfishing outfitter in the country. Click on his picture to go to his web site.

Come June/July the flood waters reside and come pouring off the enriched floodplains and back into the main river. Streamlets of warmer water deliver baitfish back into the main channel with the resultant effect on the tigerfish taking little imagination. Even though June/July and early August is the prime time September and October are also productive times for tigers on fly.

In saying that, fish can be caught reliably all year round on conventional spinning and live bait. June till September has the most comfortable weather and mosquitoes are at minimum.

Getting to this intriguing part of the world is by flying to Livingstone, on the Victoria Falls, in Zambia via Johannesburg. After that a short combination of land and boat transfers will have you sipping a refreshing cocktail at the lodges within two hours of landing.


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