A goliath, African Pygmies and an arm full of rods… Exploring the “dark” side of Africa

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By Keith Clover

Photographs by Tourette Fishing (www.tourettefishing.com)

In the run up to departing on our Congo exploratory trip we knew things would be different.  Planning the simple task of travelling from the Kinshasa Airport in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), to Brazzaville in the Congo – simply put, just the other side of the Congo River – was a mission of epic proportions.  To mention minors.  Getting from Brazzaville, via 800 km of road, bush track, and forest sludge, to two of the most remote and untouched rivers on the planet was the next step.  If this was not enough, we then needed a boat, a motor, a chainsaw, boatmen with some knowledge of the unexplored river, food for a week, and the fish to cooperate to make this trip a success.  Success being a very subjective term when it comes to exploring remote African fisheries.

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Only minutes after landing in the DRC, any inkling of hope that this trip would proceed in a normal manner was promptly squashed, or roughly fondled should I say.  The wiry custom official, wearing a pair of what were once white gloves and matching official looking shirt, was taking no chances in the airport security “tap down”.  My flimsy, quick-dry fishing shorts offered no protection when his gloved hands continued past the traditional inner thigh pat and followed through to give ‘my goods’ a comprehensive searching.  Doing all I could not to laugh or squirm away, I managed to gain my composure in time to turn around and watch with hilarity as I saw my companions Rob Scott (Tourette fishing guide) and Ed Truter jump back in what looked like karate stances, just as the bony fingers in sweated-through gloves met with their more sensitive areas.  This was to set the tone for a novel experience in jungle hardship, fishing victory, disappointment, and pristine fauna and flora.

 

Cutting a boat-path through fallen trees

Cutting a boat-path through fallen trees

Our first night in Brazzaville was spent with Leon Lamprecht and his wife Christelle, the caretakers of Odzala National Park, with whom we had arranged this expedition.  Our aim was to explore the sport fishing potential in the two rivers which flow through the park.  Two of the most remote, pristine and untouched rivers we had ever come across in our quests to find “the next big thing” in terms of fresh water fly fishing in Africa.

Visiting a nearby bai on foot

Visiting a nearby bai on foot

After settling down to a European style buffet for dinner (the French influence in Brazzaville is alive and well), we began gathering as much first-hand information on the area as possible.  Thoughts of 25 kg goliath tigerfish (Hydrocynus goliath) and aggressive predatory yellowfish were however soon shunted to the back of my mind as the risks of contracting Ebola virus and the realities of “river blindness” were discussed with nonchalance.  As it turned out, our planned rendezvous point with the vehicle at the end of our exploratory trip was once a thriving African village with over 300 people.  Now, it was a mere ghost village after the majority of its inhabitants were wiped out during the last Ebola virus outbreak in 2005.

Brycinus sp. we used as live bait, the equivalent to tigerfish ice-cream

Brycinus sp. we used as live bait, the equivalent to tigerfish ice-cream

My neurotic questioning only led me to more sleep depriving realisations.  The jungle, into which we were heading, was the epicentre of the Ebola virus; the supposed place of origin of this deadly virus.  It is theorised to have spread from local African Pygmies who contracted the infectious agent from ingestingdead primates (the virus may be endemic in wild monkeys).  Being spread by direct contact with infected blood or bodily secretions, I was wondering if my stripping gloves and buff would offer adequate protection should we bump into an infected native roaming the jungle.  I was certain to be on the look out for any fresh bushmeat sandwiches in our crew’s food supplies.

 

Getting Started

The following morning, we packed a Land Cruiser with supplies and headed for Odzala National Park.  We arrived late that night after a 14 hour, bone jarring, bum numbing, and most forbearing drive.  Our driver blissfully unaware of the hazards of overtaking on blind rises and risks of driving at 100 km per hour on single lane jungle tracks!  We were treated to a dinner prepared by the local cook of “road runner” (free-range) chicken stew and wild spinach, which was surprisingly tasty.  A quick bucket shower saw us to our sleeping bags with minds racing in anticipation for the upcoming five days exploring the remote jungle rivers.

 

Butter barble for supper!

Butter barble for supper!

Ed hoisting a bottle nose that locals caught by panga and hand in shallow rapids

Ed hoisting a bottle nose that locals caught by panga and hand in shallow rapids

When Leon told me that the local dugouts (wooden boats carved from a single tree trunk used by African natives to fish and navigate rivers) fitted with a tiller arm outboard would be big enough to carry our crew of three, plus support team of three local staff, and all our equipment for six full days in the jungle, I was sceptic to say the least.  My experience with dugouts until then had been the typical canoe-sized crafts used on the Zambezi and Okavango Rivers.  Then again, I had never fished a river flowing through equatorial rain forest, home to massive trees that disappear in the blue above. With trees that big, and mans intrinsic urge to build things bigger and better, it should not have been surprising when we first set eyes on our dugout.  An immense, 10 meter long vessel measuring over a metre across and easily weighing half a ton!  Our skipper explained that the trees from which these huge dugouts were made came from the DRC, where the forestry laws were more lax than in Congo, and were transported up the Congo River and its tributaries, to eventually arrive on the Lekoli River;  the river where our Congo adventure would commence.

 

Searching for goliath

Having stopped at a few markets along the way to Odzala National Park, we had the time to inspect various fish species on offer.  Our inspections confirmed the fact that the Congo basin is one of the most diverse river catchments on the planet.  The species diversity is prolific.

Apart from the traditional fish species [catfish, vundu, bream, bottlenose, tigerfish (Hydrocynus vittatus) and yellowfish species etc.], we encountered fish species of which we had only read about previously.  These included, amongst many, ‘sand pukers’, snake head and a fish very similar to the pacu of South America, which grows in excess of 13 kg!  Evidence of these fish, and the extreme diversity available, had the three of us very confident in crossing paths with numerous of these delightful specimens in our search for goliath tigerfish in the small jungle rivers we were about to explore.

 

Bites from tiny flies manifested by a rash around our ankles

Bites from tiny flies manifested by a rash around our ankles

After finishing packing the dugout and meeting our crew, we glided out of a small side channel into the unknown.  While Rob and I opted for 9 wt outfits rigged with 300 grain lines and a host of traditional tigerfish fly patterns, Ed threw plastic on conventional gear to spread the offering.  We all set to our task at hand with gusto.  However, it was soon apparent that the Lekoli River was not likely to hold any big fish as the average depth was only a couple of feet.

Focusing on the deepest outside cuts we soon hooked up on a couple of good sized Brycinus species, a fish that at first glance resembles a small tigerfish, but on closer inspection differs with a small mouth full of molar-like teeth.  They are structure based and can grow to around 3 kg.  Weight by weight, these fish species are right up there with tiger fish when it comes to fighting ability.  After 5 days on the water we really refined our tactics when targeting these Brycinus sp.  We switched to floating lines and longer leaders with heavily weighted flies, smallish in dark and natural colours.  Size 2 Swamp Donkeys and Clouser Minnows worked a charm.  Drifting down-river, we cast as tight to, or as deep under structure as possible and felt for takes on the drop.  Ninety percent of takes were on the drop, deep in the structure.  Occasionally a brave fish followed a fly out of the structure and grabbed it on the retrieve.

 

Psychedelic squeaker (Synodontis sp)

Psychedelic squeaker (Synodontis sp)

Before we headed for the confluence of the Lekoli and Mambili Rivers, we took the time to walk into one of the area’s famed bais.  A bai is a clearing in the jungle, home to large numbers of a variety of mammals and birds, a jungle hotspot, so to speak.  They are formed due to a highe concentration of minerals in the soil, which attracts wildlife to the area.  Over the centuries, the constant movement of animals to these isolated areas has left a clearing on the forest floor.  We approached the bai on foot and were fortunate enough to see forest sitatunga and forest buffalo, as well as signs of forest elephant and various primates.

 

Turquoise wonder, a large predatory yellowfish from the Mambili River

Turquoise wonder, a large predatory yellowfish from the Mambili River

On reaching the Mambili River, our quest for goliath tigerfish once again began in earnest.  The Mambili River was the major river we were looking to explore as it runs through the beautiful Odzala National Park.  Although the river was at its lowest, the amount of suspended sediment and the organic load in the water spoilt the clarity to less than ideal.  On the positive side of things, this river was far deeper with great structure, rocky outcrops, deep pools and pronounced deep bends and drop offs.  All of these areas seemed like the perfect hunting ground for goliath tigerfish.

The remainder of the day was spent drifting towards our predetermined fly camp while fishing as hard as our bodies and minds allowed.  With not so much as a bite we arrived at the small national park outpost that evening.  It became apparent that we needed to change our strategy to confirm if there were indeed goliath tigerfish in such far-flung tributaries of the Congo River.

 

A 5 lb tigerfish that got bitten by something larger while reeling it in towards the boat

A 5 lb tigerfish that got bitten by something larger while reeling it in towards the boat

Over a meal of freeze-dried lamb fettuccine it was decided that apart from flies and lures, the following day we would attempt to fish with live bait off anchor in some of the deeper holes.  That night we went to bed with mixed emotions, disappointed that we were not connecting with many fish, but optimistic about what lay ahead.  A certainty, however, was our itchy ankles!  All three of us had been bitten by tiny flies that made minute incisions through the skin around our ankles.  They caused no discomfort at the time of the bite, so we let them be.  It was only later that night when the most incredible itch set in, an itch that lasted a week before relenting.

The next morning we drifted down stream, casting to structure and swinging our flies through deep pools.  With neither H. vittatus nor H. goliath coming to our flies and lures, we focused on the Brycinus sp. to use as live bait.  In our experience, these little fish are a tigerfish delicatessen in Tanzania.  We refer to them as tigerfish ice-cream.  Our cooler box was soon transformed into a live well and the first Brycinus sp. that succumbed to a black clouser was sent out on an 8/0 circle hook into a deep pool above a rapid complex.  While we continued to swing flies deep through the swirling waters of the pool, Rob sat back and controlled the nervous bait at the end of the line.

It did not take long for Rob’s posture to stiffen and he let us know that the live bait had been picked up by something bigger.  With the finesse of a much more “delicate” fish the live bait was repeatedly picked up and dropped.  Rob’s experience in fishing paid off as he allowed the anonymous fish mouthing the live bait the necessary time before eventually setting the hook.  The immediate buckling of the rod under solid weight, followed by a powerful run, was enough to know we were into a fish of decent size.  Five minutes of battle brought the fish close to the dugout, where six sets of eyes were all straining to catch a glimpse of the creature.  Line speeding to the surface just prior to the first jump was a promising sign and then the coppery gill plates, followed by silver flanks and a ruby red tail confirmed our desires.  We had found goliath tigerfish!

Rob's goliath caught on a drifted bait

Rob’s goliath caught on a drifted bait

The magnificent goliath of around 13 kg was tailed and photographed before being released.  Unlike the pictures you see of goliath tigerfish in faded magazines and spam e-mails depicting rotten looking fish with little colour and opaque eyes, this specimen was fin perfect and certainly the most beautiful any of us had ever seen.  The coppery, olive colour of its gill plates was astonishing and beautifully complimented by the bright red of its fins and gun mettle silver flanks.   A majestic fish if ever there was one.

At last, our spirits were lifted.  The rapid response of a goliath tigerfish to our live bait was a definite sign of the Mambili River’s potential for these fish.  Later that morning we also witnessed two large swirls and a fish clearing the surface, which were suspected to be goliaths.  The remainder of the day was spent exploring a rapid complex for yellowfish species and tigerfish, but to no avail.

The majority of the remaining 4 days was spent travelling.  We had mapped pre-determined fly camps on the river, all roughly 30 km apart, which would have allowed us to cover a large section of river while still fish productively.  On paper this approach seemed possible, but the river was a navigational conundrum.  Three quarters of our time was spent navigating through log jams and hairpin bends with the heavy dugout as we slowly made our way towards the exit point.  We adopted a shot gun approach, fishing on the drift, targeting tigerfish and an elusive predatory yellowfish the locals had told us about.  When a small tigerfish (H. vittatus) or Brycinus sp. was captured it was used as live bait in deep pools or swirling back waters.  Due to the severely limited time, even this approach allowed only 2 hours of fishing a day.

We had our work cut out for us, but our efforts were rewarded.  I landed a beautiful 5.4 kg yellowfish species which broke away from cover and engulfed a small, black brush fly.  The fish gave a wonderful account for itself before allowing us to Boga-grip it and admire its amazing colours and unique shape.  We observed a goliath tigerfish of epic proportions attempt to eat a 2.5 kg tigerfish (H. vittatus) that Ed had sent out on a float in a deep pool flanked by fast rapids; we perfected the art of catching Brycinus sp., even as far as targeting them on dry flies when conditions allowed; we joined our crew in catching butter barble on hand lines for dinner; and we stalked yellowfish holding on white river sand in tiny, crystal clear tributaries.  Besides the fishing, we enjoyed the sights and sounds of the equatorial jungle, from massive blue turaco’s and giant-size hornbills, to an unusual mix of primates, and slender-snouted crocodiles lazing on riverside logs.

 

Reflection in the jungle

Like every other night we spent on the river, smothered in jungle darkness, our discussions revolved around the numerous questions we had come to answer.  Yet, the more time we spent on the water, the more questions arose, with seemingly little answers.  We knew that goliath tigerfish were found in small jungle tributaries, their density and movements remaining a mystery.  Realistically thinking, the potential of targeting them on fly did not look promising.

The mass of fish species we had expected to encounter, including H. vittatus and the predatory yellowfish, was conspicuous by their absence.  Goliath tigerfish may predominate the system, forcing all other fish to remain structure bound or in the deepest pools, to avoid these super predators.  But if so, why were we not seeing more goliath tigers on the fly?  Or could it be that the goliath tigerfish are so well adapted to their environment that they are not easily fooled with flies or artificial lures?  The list of questions remains endless.

We had only just scratched the surface of this intriguing fishery, but for those looking to land a goliath tigerfish, the Mambili is possibly the most pristine and productive river available.  All in all, it is an exciting place to spend a week searching for elusive fish and immersing oneself in a pristine environment.

After a week drifting through the jungle with no sign of human interference, we rounded a bend, approximately 40 km outside the borders of the park, and stumbled upon a river-side building site in the middle of a tropical storm.  When the blinding rain subsided, we found ourselves surrounded by Chinese men in traditional straw hats who were building a road through the jungle.  The cultural incongruity of the Chinese workers in an African jungle was disturbing.

 

Things soon turned from strange to absurd when first we met a local hunter riding down the road with a live crocodile and shot gun strapped to his bicycle; then followed a lift in a lorry driven by a Chinese man with a large, live catfish on his lap.  Later still, while drinking Polar Bear Beer (in the middle of an equatorial jungle) we rescued three more crocodiles from the boot of a car.  If our trip started on a strange note, it certainly finished on the bizarre.  We left the Congo better prepared than when we entered, and far richer from our amazing jungle adventure.

Enjoying beers after a timeless exploratory fishing trip in Africa

Enjoying beers after a timeless exploratory fishing trip in Africa