A Guide To Tigerfishing

This article was published in the current issue of Fishing Wild Magazine. This magazine can be ordered by visiting:

http://www.fishingwild.com.au/

A guide to tigerfish

A Guide To Tigerfishing

The tooth, the whole tooth and nothing but the tooth on fishing for tigerfish in Africa today.

(Text and Photos by Leonard Flemming)

Instead of the standard b.s. lyrics about how “big, bad and beautiful our fish are, baby” that annoy you like the late nineties hits of Britney Spears (a.k.a. B.S.) booming out of your local supermarket’s ceiling, I wish to inspire readers with content of substance. I am no stranger to swinging fists at these fish. I can rattle on about how hard tigerfish fight and what bad-ass teeth they have and other purple prose (although it’s mostly true), that may convince foreign fishers to visit Africa, but as with all great icons, there’s more to the tale. Beyond info simply telling how to catch tigerfish, really interesting research on this species group is emerging from Africa today.

Photo by Tourette Fishing
Photo by Tourette Fishing

Tigerfish are African characins, a group of fish probably best represented by the piranhas of South America. They are open water predators that may attack and eat fish that measure almost half of their own body length. Their appearance in the fossil record dates back to when early man is first predicted to have walked upright on the same continent. Although the fossils have been found mainly in North and East Africa, today tigerfish have a patchy distribution across the rivers and lakes of tropical Africa.

It is believed that the great ancestor of the genus Hydrocynus originated in the Congo basin and science hints that the goliath tigerfish (Hydrocynus goliath) is a very close descendant of the mother of tigerfishes. Besides the goliath that is restricted to the Congo River and its tributaries, there are four other recognized tigerfish species. They are the Tanzanian tigerfish (H. tanzaniae) in the Rufiji and Ruvu Rivers, H. forskahlii with Sudano-Sahelian (West Africa north of the equator to the Nile) distribution, H. brevis primarily in the larger West African rivers but also present in the Nile, and H. Vittatus, the well known species from the Kavango and Zambezi Rivers but with patchy distribution throughout the Congo Basin and East Africa.

Pic 4 - Tourette Fishing guide Dylan Perrett with a double figure tiger taken on foot

Tigerfish might be African but anglers from just about anywhere know what you are talking about when these fish are mentioned. The conversation usually lights up along the lines of their teeth, jumping ability and the wild remote places they live in. To cure my PTSD (post traumatic study depression) after my university years, I travelled through New Zealand’s South Island to focus on the things I love, like belly-crawling to catch big brown trout, instead of scientific papers. My fishing guide, Alan Kircher, smiled like a cicada, eyes glinting, when our chit-chat between casts switched from brown trout to tigerfish. We praise the name and looks of tigerfish as much as the Kiwi’s cherish their browns, Aussies glorify barramundi, the Poms push sea bass, and the Canadian salute their steelhead. The difference is that fishing for tigers comes with other things, like lions. Tigerfish may go ape on the end of your line, but it’s the buffalo, hippos and crocs that watch while you pose for your mug shot and the leopard’s grunt that wakens you to another day’s fishing that adds to the rush of a wild experience.

Photo by Flycastaway
Photo by Flycastaway

The most accessible tigerfish destinations are in the southern parts of Africa, but lately, several determined and well equipped tour operators have opened up more remote places in Central Africa. These new fisheries are like the LSD of fishing destinations, they’re expensive, but you can expect the ‘trip’ to last long after you wander wearily back through your front door and put your suitcase down. And one over the edge journey could be enough to turn you into a tigerfish addict, who might sell off a wedding ring at the traffic light just to book one more shot at the good stuff.

In this article I will discuss the fisheries that are worth the nickel and the bum-numbing travel to get you there. Keep in mind that the good destinations are popular and that you may have to book a year in advance. I predict that you could easily become a regular user.

Zambezi tigerfish caught on a fly by the author, Upper Zambezi at Katima Mulilo

Zambezi tigerfish

The Zambezi River and Okavango Delta Panhandle are the most popular and the more affordable destinations for tigerfish (H.vittatus, which we’ll call Zambezi tigerfish in this article). The fish are typically the most brightly coloured and boldly marked of the tigerfishes. They have shiny, silver flanks with black stripes running down the length of the body. Their fins are vividly scarlet to luminous orange with swathes of glowing yellow. They are pretty fish and plentiful in the rivers mentioned, but the average size caught on rod and line is way less than for Tanzanian or goliath tigers.

The Zambezi River is an extensive fishery that can roughly be divided into six sections. Starting upstream there is the Barotseland area in Zambia, which can be described as the upper-upper Zambezi above Sioma Falls; the upper Zambezi between Sioma Falls and Victoria Falls; the middle Zambezi from Vic Falls to man-made Lake Kariba; Lake Kariba itself and then the vast Zambezi River Valley downstream to another dam, Cahora Bassa, in Mozambique, and finally the lower Zambezi beyond to the Indian Ocean. Lake Kariba has produced several tigerfish over 30 lb, but don’t expect to catch one of these when you visit. Most of the fish in the Zambezi are below 10 lb and if you are lucky, you may get a 16 lb fish. Fish of 20 lb and above are as rare as seeing lions hunt an elephant—it happens but it’s a sighting of a lifetime.

Photo by FlyCastaway
Photo by FlyCastaway

The Zambezi can be fished any time of the year, even during floods, but the best time is considered to be from June to October. The water flows clearer then and the fish are a little more concentrated due to lower levels. It is also a good time to target the big African cichlid species (commonly known as bream) that will eagerly take smaller streamer flies, spinners, spoons, soft plastics, crankbaits or earth worms fished on light spinning or casting gear (species and technique varies according to location). Then there is the large catfish species, Vundu (middle Zambezi and downstream), and sharptooth catfish, that may also take lures, but are mostly caught on fish bait on the bottom.

The larger tigerfish easily come to trolled crankbaits fished up and down the deep channels. Small Rapala Magnums in Fire Tiger, Goldfish and Hot Orange are favourites. When drifting or anchored, fish fly, D.A.M Effzet spoons, soft and hard jerk baits, spinnerbaits or bucktail jigs. Flies that work well are SF Baitfish patterns, brush flies, small to medium Clouser Minnows, Zonker patterns and Whistlers. Load spinning or baitcasting reels with 30lb braid and attach a 20-30 lb monofilament leader. For fly fishing, fast sinking (DI7) shooting heads in 8-10 wt are recommended.  Although saltwater tapered leaders can be used, a single piece of 20-30 lb monofilament is the least complicated setup. All tackle type rigs should end in a 25 cm steel trace, either piano wire or knottable wire tied with a loop knot to the lures or flies. Keep your hooks super sharp. It is also good practice and more effective to replace treble hooks with larger single hooks on sturdy hardwear. Tigerfish have extremely bony mouths and the single hooks penetrate significantly better and cause less damage to the fish.

Photo by FlyCastaway
Photo by FlyCastaway

The Okavango on the other hand can be a difficult place to fish. The water is gin clear most of the time and the tigers prefer smaller, natural lures and flies. The fishing is at its best when large numbers of African sharptooth catfish congregate to chase and trap baitfish against papyrus and reed beds. During this phenomenon, known as the catfish run, many tigerfish and other predatory fish, such as nembwe (a cichlid not unlike a largemouth bass) and African pike, feed aggressively along the outskirts of the catfish mass that forms near the surface. This carnivorous fish frenzy has made the Okavango famous as a tigerfish venue and it usually takes place in September to October every year as the swamp’s level drops. Most of the dedicated Okavango fishermen swear upon following the white egrets, as they’re after the same food as the tigerfish.

Photo by Tourette Fishing
Photo by Tourette Fishing

African pike

Zambezi tigerfish are not restricted to these two fisheries. They are also found sporadically further north, and further south in rivers and lakes in South Africa. The Komati River near Kruger National Park has a healthy population of Zambezi tigers and so does the Pongola River and the Pongolapoort Dam (Lake Jozini) in KwaZuluNatal. A trip to the Komati is something for the Bear-Grylls fishing hiker and it is seldom fished, but Lake Jozini is very accessible, plus there are tour operators to put you onto good fishing for satisfactorily sized tigers.

Photo by Tourette Fishing
Photo by Tourette Fishing
Photo by Garreth Coombes
Photo by Garreth Coombes

The most exciting part of fishing Jozini is when tigerfish of over 10 lb can be sighted and fished to while they feed close to the surface in small bays. However, this is considered special fishing and doesn’t happen every day. Most of the fishing is done with standard gear and techniques, but tigerfish can be caught very successfully on fly at times. Dark flies, especially black and purple, and the infamous “Rosie’s Mudfish” pattern work well. Flies can be obtained from the outfitters. You won’t hook a ‘twenny-powner’ here but there are tigers a-plenty in this small lake and the cash spent on a fishing package will fit in your wallet.

Photo by Mavungana
Photo by Mavungana

Lodges and camps forZambezi tigerfish:

Xaro Lodge (Kavango River, Botswana)

This tented lodge near Shakawe in Botswana is situated on the main channel of the Kavango River and can accommodate up to sixteen people. The tents have glass doors to allow for a constant view of the river. Meals are served in a thatched roof dining area and drinks can be enjoyed in an inside bar area with lounge. There is electricity and power points are available for charging batteries. If you feel that your casting arm needs a break, there is a swimming pool to cool down in and an outdoor boma (fire place) where you can catch up on your book or have sundowners. All flights depart from Johannesburg and touch down on the Maun International landing strip. The cost is R 3300 per person sharing per night; this includes accommodation, all meals, hot drinks, professional guiding and unlimited boat use (flights and transfers are excluded).

Contact Keith Clover or Rob Scott of Tourette Fishing:

Tel: (0027) 343 2182

Mobile: (0027) 84 622 2272 (Keith); (0027) 71 191 7336 (Rob)

Fax: (0027) 86 719 3621

Email: keith@tourettefishing.com; rob@tourettefishing.com

www.tourettefishing.com

Photo by Garreth Coombes
Photo by Garreth Coombes

Sekoma Island Lodge and Ilombe Island Lodge (upper Zambezi River, Zambia)

These camps offer tented en-suite accommodation on the banks of the upper Zambezi River. June to the end of August is within the dry season and is generally a good time to visit, ditto if you’re fly fishing. The cost for Sekoma Island Lodge is R 1990 per person per night, and Ilombe Island Lodge is R 1890 per person per night; both trips include the following extras: R 800 per person return flights from Livingstone, R 500 per person transfer at Kasane, R 500 per person boat transfer, and R 50 per day for local guides (all meals, bottled water, unlimited fishing, guide, boat, 20 l boat fuel and laundry are included).  International flights, cool drinks and alcoholic beverages are excluded.

Contact Garreth Coombes:

Mobile: (0027) 83 708 3787

Fax: (0027) 86 554 1061

info@sekoma.co.za

garreth@afrig.co.za

www.afrig.co.za

www.sekoma.co.za

Skype: g-meister78

 

UpstreamTigerfish Package to Ilombe Island Lodge (upper Zambezi River, Zambia)

John Yelland and Mark Krige from Upstream offer fully guided packages for groups of up to 10 anglers to Ilombe Island Lodge on the upper Zambezi River. Attention is given to good fishing areas, such as the Kasai channel and Mambova rapids. What’s special about this package is the personal guidance from John and Mark who are very experienced and successful fisherman. The charge is R 2000 per person per day, which includes everything except flights, transfers, and drinks.

Contact John or Mark of Upstream:

Tel: (0027) 21 762 80 07

Mobile: (0027) 83 290 72 42

fish@upstreamflyfishing.co.za

www.upstreamflyfishing.co.za

 

Camp FlyCastaway, Panyame Lodge (middle Zambezi River, Mozambique)

FlyCastaway offers something special and slightly different; they host trips to the Zambezi River Valley and upper section of Lake Cahora Bassa in Mozambique. Big tigerfish are frequently caught in this area and a variety of packages are offered at affordable rates. The Panyame Lodge used as a base is situated in the Panyame hunting concession, which has an abundance of wildlife.  The accommodation consists of safari-style tented chalets with two double beds each and en-suite bathrooms. A separate lounge area, dining area and a swimming pool is also available. Fishing trips are hosted from July to September. Clients usually depart from OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg. Cost varies from R 2900 per person sharing per night (own transport there and back) to R 23000 for 7 nights per person sharing (includes charter flight and transfers, accommodation, all meals and drinks, boat and guide, and 25 l boat fuel per day).

Contact Ryan Hammond of FlyCastaway:

Tel: (0027) 11 234 1450

ryan@flycastaway.com

www.flycastway.com

 

Lake Jozini (Pongola River, South Africa)

Jonathan Boulton of Mavungana reports that the fishing in Lake Jozini is improving every year since he started guiding there and his team recently landed a tigerfish of 13.5 lb.  Fly fishing is recommended, since it yields the best results, but spinning gear and bait can also be used and spinning rods are available to clients. On a good day you will see more than 15 fish on the end of your fly line. A high powered skiff is used to transport clients from the Shayamanzi house boat, which is base-camp on the water. When not fishing, meals and Jacuzzi breaks are enjoyed on the big boat with a view of wildlife while drifting near the lake shore. The package includes transfers, accommodation in one of six en-suite cabins, all meals, unlimited boat use and fuel, and guided fishing. Drinks and gratuity are for your own account and can be paid at the end of a trip.  The cost is R 2500 per person per night over weekends and R 2250 on midweek days.

Contact Jonathan of Mavungana:

Tel: (0027) 13 254 0270 / (0027) 11 268 5850

info@flyfishing.co.za

www.flyfishing.co.za

 

Goliath tigerfish

If there ever was a fish that I would call ‘a fish of a lifetime’ then it would be a large specimen of Hydrocynus goliath. Travelling to the Congo River is not a regular trip and the government in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is as intimidating as fishing the vast expanse of the Congo itself. So when you find yourself in the DRC, it will not be for the cultural experience or sightseeing, but to get a crack at the biggest possible tigerfish that your tackle can handle.

It has always been the place for the Indiana-Jones type, but with recent political and sportfishing developments, the Congo River has drawn more and more foreigners with money to spend on recreational fishing. According to my knowledge, no tour operators have managed to establish highly recommended fishing packages with secure logistics, comfortable accommodation and professional guidance. The guys from Goliath Tiger Fishing will however see you through a week of shore and boat angling in which they guarantee at least one shot at a goliath per day. Goliaths don’t fall in the category of a-fish-of-a-thousand-casts for no good reason.

Photo by Tourette Fishing
Photo by Tourette Fishing

Pack in your heaviest spinning rod or a 10-12 wt fly rod and a good selection of the biggest lures, circle hooks and/or flies you can find in the tackle stores before you leave for this place. Of all the tigerfish destinations you could possibly visit in Africa, there are two for the bucket list and the Congo is one of them (see Tanzanian tigerfish for information on the other).

Goliath Tiger Fishing Trip

Very little information is available on the fishing package that Goliath Tiger Fishing offers and it is up to the interested angler to find out more. Tented camps are offered as accommodation, but even the owner of Goliath Tiger Fishing warns that it’s not for the faint hearted.  Cost of trips may vary from approx. Euro 350 – 440 depending on the group size.

Contact Robert Glynn (Bob) of Goliath Tiger Fishing:

Tel: (0044) 7795-214934 (Office number); (0044) 151-7213975 (Home number)

bob@goliathtigerfishing.com

www.goliathtigerfishing.com

 

Tanzanian tigerfish

If you would like to fish a place that will guarantee you sights of African wild animals and more importantly get you a tigerfish, no matter how far you can fling a lure or what kind of weather you’ll encounter, Tanzania is the place to book. The Mnyera and Ruhudji rivers snaking through the Kilombero Valley in southwestern Tanzania are two incredible fisheries and probably two of the last frontiers for exceptional fishing, and certainly for extraordinary tigerfishing.

These fisheries were only placed on the map after Keith Clover, director and owner of Tourette Fishing, landed a 23 lb tigerfish on fly there in 2008. The area has since produced more than 50 tigerfish heavier than the trophy benchmark, 20 lb. The standing camp record is 26 lb. Anglers have had bigger fish on the end of their lines, but one is yet to be landed.

A big tigerfish caught by Grant Dunbar in the Ruhudji River

The fishing is both interesting and challenging. A tenth of the Zambezi wide, the rivers are comparatively small and the tigerfish take plugs and flies close to the boat making the experience very visual. Clients get to cast to fallen trees and logjams where big tigerfish lie up in ambush. When these big tigers are hooked, it is no easy task landing them. They attack hard and unexpectedly and charge off at a speed that makes the human hand seem foolish.

Take care when handling Tanzanian tigers. Although all tigerfish teeth are unforgiving to human flesh, the Tanzanian fish have exceptionally long teeth and heavy jaws, features that distinguish the species. This may also be a reason why the guides in Tanzania often see dozens of broken steel traces. I’ve watched as a large Tanzanian tiger bit a five pounder on the line in half.

Keith Clover of Tourette Fishing with a trophy tigerfish ready for release

Pic 14 - Hydrocynus tanzaniae, a new species

Single, barbless hooks have proven to be safest for the fish and the boat crew, which consists of two anglers, a guide and a local boatman, placed in-line down the length of an aluminium jonboat. The guides are experienced fisherman and their ambition is to give every client a shot at a 20 lb tigerfish. The fishing may get very relaxing a few days into a trip where you’ll find yourself choking on a beer as a big tiger pulls your arm straight and your eyes swing off the elephants into their socket corners to see your backing disappear into the churn of a deep bend. That’s the time to drop the drink (if it’s still in your hand) and set the hook hard by palming the rod with the butt end shoved into your chest.

With the time I spent guiding on these rivers I found that the fight the big fish put up is as nerve racking as going on a first date. You don’t know what to expect and you kind of feel scared to even make contact, but the rush when meeting makes minutes feel uncomfortably dragged out and in the end you just want that fish IDB (in da boat).

Pic 6 - They may be less colourful, but Hydrocynus tanzaniae are gorgeos in their own way

Pic 33 - A personal best taken from the Ruhudji River

Tackle selection is quite specific for Tanzanian tigers. It is important to fish heavy braided lines (50 lb braid) on spinning or baitcasting reels and/or tippet material no less than 30 lb monofilament. Piano wire or knottable coated wired (e.g. American Fishing Wire) with a breaking strain of 30 lb is the minimum recommended bite trace and if you wish to pre-tie them, cut them 30 cm long.  Stout rods are preferred by the experienced anglers and 9 wt or 10 wt fly rods by the fly guys. Pack in a few spare spools of line and acquire enough medium to big lures and flies that could last a season (you could lose a shop-full in 6 days). Change all your trebles to single, barbless hooks before you go on the trip and attach them with the toughest split rings you can find. Good hooks, split rings, steel trace, swivels, custom bucktail jigs and flies can be purchased from Tourette Fishing.

Pic 7 - Delighted with his personal best, Johnny Travis poses with a 21

Tanzania tiger safari

Tourette Fishing is currently the only tour operator that hosts trips to the Kilombero Valley. The Tanzanian tigerfish package offered by Tourette is the best package available for this sportfish in Africa. Clients are well looked after and the fishing is exceptional. The tented camps on the banks of the Mnyera and Ruhudji Rivers are comfortable and conveniently situated to give clients access to the 40 km and 80 km fishable stretches on each river, respectively. Tengo camp on the Mnyera River bank is the base camp and has a covered lounge, dining room and living area where batteries can be charged, flies and jigs tied, or one can chill with a book and cold booze. The package includes everything, from all transfers to drinks; the trip costs USD 7995.00 for the year 2013 (the season runs from July to November). Note that although the Tanzanian Shilling is the official currency of Tanzania, USD are the preferred travel currency.

Contact Keith Clover or Rob Scott of Tourette Fishing:

Tel: (0027) 343 2182

Mobile: (0027) 84 622 2272 (Keith); (0027) 71 191 7336 (Rob)

Fax: (0027) 86 719 3621

Email: keith@tourettefishing.com; rob@tourettefishing.com

www.tourettefishing.com

 

Nile River tigerfish species

The Nile River is populated by H. forskahlii, a slender fish with a small mouth that rarely exceeds 16 lb and 10 lb is already a very big one. The largest recorded H. forskahlii to date was caught in Lake Nasser.This Nubian Desert watershed is probably the best angling venue for this species and a visit to this fishery will also give you the opportunity to catch big Nile perch, which alone makes it worth visiting. The lake is over 6200 km2 of flooded Nile River Valley and a boat is needed to fish it properly.

Photo by Mavungana
Photo by Mavungana

Hydrocynus forskahlii tend to shoal and feed around islands and along drop-offs in the deeper areas of the lake.The large Nile perch will also frequent structure near or in deep water. Countdown baitfish patterns, weighted crankbaits or deep diving minnow plugs fished along the clear, turquoise drop-offs yields the best results for both species. Sight fishing opportunities exist for the bank angler clambering along elevated rocky shore lines, but trolling and casting into deeper water off the boat will catch you the biggest fish.

It would be straight forward to say that the weather you’ll experience will be hot, damn hot, and besides a breeze that may cool your sweaty forehead, there will be no rain. With the weather being so constant it is hard to say which times are best to fish, but the new moon phases from April to early June are considered prime.

Heavy tackle in this lake is a necessity, since a large Nile perch of 100 lb or more could be hooked at any time (the lake record is 392 lb). Stout spinning or baitcasting gear is required for plugging and 10 wt fly rods (up to 12 wt, with several spare rods) for the fly chaps. Standard lures and flies will work for the tigerfish, but a few larger plugs and baitfish fly imitations should be included in your tackle box for the Nile perch.

Photo by Mavungana
Photo by Mavungana

It is not known for sure what tigerfish species are present in the Nile River itself in fishable numbers and there are no tour operators that offer tiger-specific, river fishing packages. A suggestion is to negotiate with Mavungana to include a day’s fishing on the Nile itself if visiting Murchison Falls with them.  Otherwise it is up to the travelling angler to access other fishing areas in Sudan, Egypt and Ethiopia.

Desert Lake Safari (Lake Nasser, Egypt)

Mavungana and the African Angler have teamed up to provide a most unique fishing package to anglers with a fetish for big fish. If you choose to, the trip may also involve a visit to the Great Pyramids in Cairo. The fishing is done off a fleet of boats and nights are spent onboard under the stars. There are shower facilities available at a lake-side camp after which sundowners and a meal is served. It’s potentially idyllic with no rain nor biting bugs to ruin the trip. The cost is £1425 per angler and includes 7 days guided fishing, all meals, a 5 star hotel stay over in Aswan, and airport transfers (flights and gratuities are excluded costs). Recommended currencies for travelling to Egypt are USD, British Pounds or Egyptian Dollars.

Contact Jonathan or Mark of Mavungana:

Tel: (0027) 13 254 0270 / (0027) 11 268 5850

Mobile: (0027) 82 573 3624

mark@flyfishing.co.za

jonathan@flyfishing.co.za

www.flyfishing.co.za

 

Adventure Corubal (alternative venue for H. forskahlii and Nile perch, West Africa)

Contact Laurent Durris of Paradise Fishing Bijagos:

Mobile: 00 245 661 51 27

Tel: 06 65 67 55 88 (France)

ilekere@orange.fr

decouverte.bijagos@free.fr

http://bijagos-kere.fr/

This French tour operator offers freshwater fishing packages as a side line to their saltwater trips in the Bijgaos Archipelago in Guinea Bissau; they are well organised and although you won’t catch any monsters in the river they fish, you will experience good fishing and have a great float-trip adventure.

Photo by Tourette Fishing
Photo by Tourette Fishing

 

Photo by Tourette Fishing
Photo by Tourette Fishing

One thought on “A Guide To Tigerfishing”

  1. metiefly says:

    Fantastic article Leonard… Filled me with nostalgia. Thanks very much – best regards – metiefly

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