(Text and photographs by Leonard Flemming)
My personality is not the kind that enjoys seeing the same place twice (in more than a year at least), unless there is unfinished business there, otherwise the place has to be as gripping as Terminator 2 (how many times has that been on TV and I watched it, again, for the umpteenth time?). So I found my feet pressing on the floor of the shaking Cessna Caravan when we touched down for the second year in a row on a dusty landing strip in the Kilombero Valley, southwestern Tanzania. I returned to the Mnyera and Ruhudji Rivers for one reason, and it wasn’t money. For those who try and make a living by guiding full time, I nudge my peak. It is a fickle business and salaries seldom justify the labour involved. You simply do it for the fishing experience and to be part of what would otherwise not be a regular thing. But tigerfishing in Tanzania hits the right buttons. The season is hard on one’s system, yet it’s so damn nice to be there! Besides, how many places are left where after four months it still feels you haven’t photographed enough of the landscape in today’s time?
Aerial view of the Mnyera River
My camera was ready and my kit sported a new wide angle lens, perfect for plump tigers but that particular season turned into way more than just tigers. There are as many fish species in the log-strewn rivers of the valley as there are spots on a squeaker catfish’s face, except there’s a catch that makes fishing for all of them tricky and even more alluring. Large creatures that bite (and sometimes eat) humans share the same water. Our boat didn’t only get smashed by a hippo (again), we also found a monster croc (biggest yet). We first came across it where it looked like it had been washed onto a Ruhudji sandbar. When I poled us closer, the ‘dead’ crocodile slipped away into the deep channel underneath us. Between having hydrophobic feet and an aluminium jon boat that seemed like a hippo magnet, I was a mildly nervous guide.
Dylan Perrett with his first rhinofish
Unidentified fish species are captured weekly, this is a new yellowfish species from the Mnyera River
The multicoloured dorsal of a new yellowfish species
I even had new Tourette Fishing guide Dylan Perrett police the river when I tried to con some n’dungos into eating my flower offerings cast while balancing in a waterberry tree. These pacu-like fish had gathered to snack on figs and sausage tree flowers that dropped in the water and drifted into an eddy formed by the fallen tree I was tip-toeing on. A few days earlier, I had exhausted the contents of my entire fly box on these herbivores before realizing their intent. Individuals rose to bobbing leaves and warm coloured one’s received the most attention. I eventually tossed a fleshy, red, sausage tree flower into the water and that did the trick. That morning, the flower I set adrift had a hook embedded in the firmer base of the flower and a large n’dungo steadily rose to swallow the whole bait. I fed the fish some slack and then lifted my rod sharply to set the hook. The fish pulled hard and its discus shape made it difficult to drag against the current, but Dylan was brave enough to jump in to net it. Drifts with flower-pattern flies drew their attention, but didn’t crack the whole code and I got the cold shoulder for the remaining week of the season, ditto the gundus, and so yes, that’s my ticket back there.
Large sausage tree flowers and figs seem to be the staple diet of Ndungo’s in summer
Ndungo’s gather in large eddies under trees around camp, this fish was tempted with a sausage tree flower presented on a dead drift – Photo by Dylan Perrett
Red spades on the lateral scales of the purple labeo are characteristic of this scavenger
More rhino fish and other yellowfish species came to hand in the rapids, fishing on foot. Tactics became clearer and several clients went home with more than tigerfish on their tick lists. Then of course there were the tigerfish. By observation, it seemed there were more trophy tigers concentrated in the hot spots than the year before. Yet another client insisted on catching the camp record. To build confidence, I picked a large, blue, saltwater baitfish pattern from his fly box. The choice was unconventional at the time, but the fly produced so many big fish strikes I took the time thereafter creating a slightly smaller pattern that proved to be the bomb. I call it the Dinner Bell, because it rings the gong for big tigers to feed. Speaking of which, Rob Scott guided me for a day on the upper Mnyera and the pigs were on the loose. I set the hook on two twenty plus fish, the first snapping my fly line on a mistimed strip-strike, the second wrestling my arms shaky-tired until Rob smashed the net over its head like Roger Federer serving an ace to win a Wimbledon final.
The author delighted with his second twenty pounder from the Mnyera River – Photo by Rob Scott
Butterflies litter the forest floor after a short life span in the tropical heat
On a different day, this time guiding clients on the Ruhudji River, the vundu were out and aggressively ate two jig and a fly, the client behind the latter not so successful, but the conventional anglers, Garreth Coombes and Ray Geyers, each landing fish over 70 lbs. Mark Cowan, an old client who came back for more, lifted into a tigerfish that swung a drifting boat on the strike. The invisible creature wouldn’t move until it kicked up a bow wave in 6 ft of water and let go of the fly. A 30 lb tiger? Perhaps it is out there.
Garreth Coombes with a big vundu caught on a jig – Photo by Rob Scott
Ray Geyers with his vundu – Photo by Rob Scott