Photographs and text by Leonard Flemming
In a fly fishing sense Africa is still very much a Dark Continent. Overpopulation, poor logistics across vast distances, and political unrest are a few of the reasons for the lack of numerous magical fisheries throughout its varied landscapes. I recently spent four months guiding Tourette Fishing clients for trophy tigerfish in the Tanzanian wilderness.
Here, in 2008, Keith Clover (one of Tourette Fishing’s directors) discovered an abundance of big tigerfish (Hydrocynus tanzaniae) that regularly go 20 lb plus and that’s part of what makes this destination African magic. What follows are snippets from my 2011 guiding diaries.
Rob Scott, my fellow guide and boss, an intelligent man with a piercing look, clears his throat, “Sheez Leonard, it’s a big fish, it’s 24 lbs…”; A trophy tigerfish cradled gently by the net lies in front of me. The Steve Farrar’s baitfish pattern has already fallen from its grip on the heavy jaw line. I reach out to touch my catch, but can’t. I notice for the first time the uncontrollable shake in my hands and then my entire body. I breathe in deep to calm myself. Rob conveys the importance of getting clients into 20 lb tigers, i.e., trophy size.
It is a jungle out here; trees are covered in carpets of creepers and vines with giant seed pods. Tassel pods, they call them. The water of the Mnyera and Ruhudji Rivers boils with fish species. In eight days since my arrival I have collected eight fish species, each one unique, for my scientific database.
A fly fishing reconnaissance starts down the rapids on the upper Mnyera River. Four of us, Rob Scott, Edward Truter (journalist and fishing junky), Saidi Kalimang’Asi (our navigator and Kiswahili interpreter) and I, are loaded on an eight-man raft packed to the brim with camera gear and enough food for four days while shooting through grade 4+ rapids, which cut through steep , rolling hills and rainforest where it’s questionable if any white man has treaded before.
The rafting expedition has barely started and I have already added three new fish species to my collection. Amongst these is an unidentified yellowfish, similar to the rhino fish found in Kenya, a mysterious hump-nosed animal that may grow in excess of 50 lb’s.
The guiding season has officially started. I stand nervously on the airstrip, a 900 m clearing in African miombo woodland, waiting to introduce myself to the first group of four clients that will arrive on a charter flight from Dar Es Salaam. We clear the strip of wild animals before Mike Riley arrives with his mates from South Africa. I learn that Mike enjoys this place so much he booked two slots for the season.
The break of dawn lights up the misted-over Ruhudji River, the morning sun casting a sheet of warm colours over the water. I am suffering from a gastrointestinal virus, with fever , cold shivers and stomach cramps testing my patience to the fullest. Mike’s group hasn’t landed a 20 lb fish yet and I am starting to feel the pressure. Two trophy tigers come out that day, including a 24 lb fish taken by Mike; the clients are satisfied, Rob and I are over the moon!
“Warm, glassy conditions; lots of big fish moving, lots of big fish lost” I entered in my notes for the day. As a guide it is not easy to convey the force required of the hook-set to penetrate the bony jaws of large tigerfish. Although the nights are still cold and the fishing slow, the water levels are dropping fast and the weather is improving every day. Tigerfish activity seems directly related to the weather; the hotter the sun burns down the harder they feed. Additionally, their feeding pattern may also be moon phase-dependant; full moon just never seems as productive as the dark moon phase. However, when these fish come on they ambush prey with such ferocity that the anticipation of the next take sends a cold shiver down one’s spine.
The catch register indicates that we have so far caught and released 6 fish over 20 lbs this season. Today one of the clients landed his personal best, a 21 lb tiger; when I mentioned the weight, he replied “Is that all!?”. Regardless of the amount of trophy tigerfish landed, the magnitude of their dimensions keeps blowing me away.
“Warm, glassy conditions; Lots of big fish moving, lots of big fish lost”. The temperature reached a high 30 degrees Centigrade today which resulted in the biggest fish yet taken from these rivers, a 26 lb tigerfish with jaws that could bite off a careless hand. The angler, Mike Tarr, happily claims the camp record and the thought of a 30 lb fish arises. Besides a remarkable increase in fish activity, the tigerfish are starting to show signs of the spawn. Young males are congregating around groups of large females. We designate several of these areas off limits to clients for the rest of the season.
Rob’s words, “This place tests your sense of humour,” plays in my mind; at this stage I have lost all sense of humour. A warm shower and music on my laptop before the next group arrives are the only things keeping me sane. Australian fly fisherman David Long arrives with friend and dorado fly fishing fanatic Mark Cowan, a man who has devoted his life to his favourite pass time. After spending a great deal of his fly fishing career chasing dorado in South America, Mark explains his excitement to test his skill against the infamous tigers of Africa.
The upper Ruhudji is magical, the narrow river complicating poling, but the water has a light blue tinge and big tigerfish can be observed taking flies up close as they rush out from behind clay outcrops that form like mushrooms in the deep river bends. Nothing compares to the sight of a large tigerfish screaming past the boat with your fly in its mouth.
David and Mark conclude their final day of a two day fly-camp on the upper Ruhudji with a remarkable number of trophy tigerfish landed on fly. The verdict from two experienced anglers place dorado as second comer to tigerfish when it comes down to sheer speed and power between these two species. “I like these fish…” Mark admits with an impressive tally of double figure tigerfish under his belt.
The floodplain surroundings of the lower Mnyera River has drained most of its pans, forcing wild animals to visit the main stem for drinking water. The number of hippos and crocodiles in the Mnyera has nearly doubled since my arrival and elephants are now regularly spotted grazing on the riverbank. The fishing is wild in the low and warm water levels. Wakes of large females can be seen as they give chase after fleeing baitfish. A 5 lb tiger is slashed in half right in front of our eyes shortly after its release by a fish of unknown size.
“Warm glassy conditions; Lots of big fish moving, lots of big fish landed!” I get the opportunity to fish for trophy tigerfish in Kasinga Rapids on the upper Mnyera River on my final day in the Kilombero Valley. The water clarity delivers incredible sight fishing opportunities. American fly fishing icon, Jeff Currier, joins me for some yellowfish in the shallow, fast water and adds to my list of 29 fish species documented over the season with a beautiful Labeobarbus sp. exploding with colour to make it look like a character form Alice in Wonderland. Later the day Jeff lands his personal best, an 18 lb tigerfish. I am rewarded with a 14 lb tiger at the same time and we spend the following 5 minutes posing alongside each other for photographs. What a way to conclude four months of intense guiding!
The plane hits the last dusty bumps on the landing strip and takes off to bank hard over the lower Mnyera River. A smile on my face hides the lump in my throat as the last colours of sprouting miombo woodland fades like a Monet into a hazy horizon.