Text by Thomas Andrews (photos by Thomas Andrews and Tourette Fishing)
I’ve been fascinated by African tigerfish for most of my angling life, even though I live half a world away in Australia. I don’t remember where I first learned about them, but it was many years ago and once I’d discovered them I wanted to know more. Boote and Wade’s Somewhere down the Crazy River, Malcolm Meintjes’ An Okavango Season and Zambezi Tigers, Douglas Dann’s The Largest Tigerfish of the World: the Goliath, and other books all contained compelling stories of battles won and lost. But reading about it is different to actually being able to experience it; for many years I could only imagine what it would be like to battle a tiger with a fly rod.
I was finally able to visit Africa in November 2012 as guest of Tourette Fishing, and fished for tigers during the barbel run in the Okavango Delta. It was great, and the tiger’s reputation proved to be well-deserved, but the experience left me wanting to catch more and perhaps larger tigers. After many conversations with Keith Clover, co-owner of Tourette Fishing, I decided that my next trip would be to their trophy tiger fisheries in the Kilombero Valley situated in eastern Tanzania – the now world-famous fishery with a reputation for producing giant tigerfish. It proved to be an incredible, unforgettable adventure.
It took two years to organise, but in early October 2014 – and undeterred by the Ebola epidemic that was then sweeping across West Africa – I made the long journey from Sydney to Tourette’s Mnyera River camp in Tanzania. I found both the Mnyera and its sister the Ruhudji River to be ideal for fly fishing: both are reasonably shallow, clear, and teeming with the baitfish (red barbs, small catfish, and juvenile tigerfish) that are the tiger’s primary prey. With so much available food, the tigers in those rivers grow very large. Their potential maximum size is unknown, although the Tourette guides have reported losing several in excess of 30 lb. Prior to my visit, the largest landed by a Tourette client had weighed 26 lb.
The Kilombero Valley is pristine and beautiful, but there are potential dangers both above and below the water. The guides warned the ‘tourists’ (including myself) to be vigilant about the hazards surrounding us: crocodiles, hippos, buffalo, elephant, big cats, and puff adders. Long days of continuous casting with heavy rods, sinking lines and large 3/0 – 5/0 flies under the strong sun, and hooking but losing fish-after-fish due to broken leaders and thrown hooks, also proved very challenging.
I was fortunate to land two giant tigerfish during my week of fishing. The first was a neat twenty pounder that I landed on my first morning’s fishing with guide Andrew Danckwerts on the Mnyera River, on a red/black Bleeding Xaro Killer. This fish came from an eddy along a current seam at the junction of two branches of the river.
Over the next three days we caught a reasonable number of tigers (up to 11 lb), but no more really big fish. This may have been due to the Mnyera being a bit high, cool and murky from recent rain. My most productive flies were two of my own design: the Bleeding Xaro Killer and a red barb-coloured epoxy baitfish pattern.
On the fourth day my group was transferred from the Mnyera to the comfortable outpost camp on the Ruhudji River a couple of valleys away. Although it took us three hours to get there, it was a pleasure to see the clear river on our arrival. This, combined with a rising barometer, delivered improved fishing with many more tigers up to 14 lb landed.
On the fifth day I was partnered with John, a young college graduate from the US who was visiting with his father and younger brother. During the boat ride to the upper beat of the river, our guide Stuart Harley told us about the run of bad luck he’d experienced over the past several weeks, as every big fish hooked in the Ruhudji by his clients had managed to escape. Always professional, and passionate about tigerfish, Stu really wanted one of us to land a trophy.
Unfortunately, our day began with John’s loss of a nineteen pounder at the first location we tried. After trying several other sections of the river we arrived at a pool nicknamed “Grimey’s” by the Tourette crew – deep with clay banks and strong converging currents coming off a sandbar at its head, requiring a 350 grain sink tip and a weighted fly to reach the bottom. Grimey’s was named after a previous client who had hooked an enormous tiger there, an encounter that resulted in first the rod and then the fly line being broken.
My first few casts into Grimey’s pool were uninterrupted, but on the fourth cast, with my line swinging deep and across the current, the fly was savaged. There was a surge of ferocious power up the rod as I struggled to maintain my hold on the line to set the hook. As I struck the fish, the line ripped sideways to the surface and a huge snarling head and bulky shoulders burst out. John, normally polite and articulate, swore unexpectedly at the sight.
The fish only leapt once. It turned and bolted downriver, pulling the entire fly line and then backing off my spool; the fish then turned and kited across the current towards a dead tree in the shallows of the left hand bank. When the fish reached the half-submerged tree the line stopped dead and I couldn’t feel the fish any more. The only thing I could feel was the heavy grating sensation of line fouled on submerged branches.
For a moment I didn’t know what to do, but our boatman Saidi leapt into action. He powered the boat straight over to the snag, and once directly over it, we could see that the fish had somehow managed three complete circuits around the entire tree.
Quickly, Stu fell onto his stomach across the bow of the boat and ran his hand down the line, grabbing at the branches and trying to unwind the knotted mess. The remainder of the line was pointing straight down towards the bottom and I guessed that the fish had shed the fly. It took a few moments, but finally the line came free from the snag and Stu continued pulling up the fly line to recover the fly and leader. Suddenly the line snapped tight in his hands and then surged away – the fish was still on!
Using the power of the rod, I lifted the sulking tiger from the bottom and hauled it towards the boat. Our first glimpse of the fish as it swept out from beneath the hull was shocking; as Paul Boote wrote in Somewhere Down the Crazy River, it was “a metre of stainless steel with an alien’s smile”. Luckily, I was able to hold it on the surface and after a few more surges it rolled, jaws clacking, into Stu’s ever-ready landing net. The extra-strong 3/0 Tiemco 600SP hook was badly bent from the battle, but was firmly embedded between two enormous canine teeth in the lower jaw. The duration of the battle, from hookup to landing, was around four minutes.
Our tiger weighed 28 lb: the largest yet landed by a Tourette Fishing guest in Tanzania. We’d managed a spectacular end to Stu’s run of bad luck, and incredibly, the day got even better when we caught a massive vundu catfish during our lunchtime shore break. What a day!
There are undoubtedly even larger tigers waiting to be caught, both in Tanzania and elsewhere in Africa. I’ve since heard about Francois Botha’s exploratory trip to the Central African Republic that took place at the same time that I was in Tanzania. He caught a goliath tigerfish of 101cm on fly, and had opportunities at others. This amazing catch may lead to a consistent fly fishery being established in the Congo. If it does, I’ll try to make it there, but for now, if you’re looking for a giant tiger on a fly, Tanzania is the only place to consider. If you ever have the chance to go there, take it – you’ll never forget it.
For more information on Tourette Fishing’s tigerfish camp in Tanzania, please visit: The Mnyera and Ruhudji Rivers