Photo essay of a fly camp to the Zambezi Deka Drum above Lake Kariba (all photographs by Leonard Flemming, unless credited otherwise)
(This is the first of a series of articles that will describe my experience in the Deka area)
Well-travelled African fishing and hunting explorers, Alex Jordaan and Russell De La Harpe (from Zambia and Zimbabwe, respectively) warned us that a 100 km road trip to the Zambezi’s Deka Drum may take up to twelve hours when the unpredictable thunderstorms wet the black powder sand roads and ravines become impassable barriers when in flood. As unlikely as it sounded to us during the driest nine-day fly camp adventure above the Deka Tiger Mile recorded since Lake Kariba was built, thunderstorms arrived on the final day of the trip, which lowered the lip-cracking 45°C midday heat to bearable and turned the Miombo ‘desert’ into a marshland. It was the first rain of the season and one could tell by the lack of undergrowth that it was much needed.
The concrete-hard top layer quickly soaked up the water and the track we navigated became sloshy and knee-deep soft so that the 4×4’s we travelled in got bogged down eight times on our return trip. Eleven hours on the ‘road’ gave us more than enough time to share many personal memories between the four of us.
Richard Wale’s fondest moment was the take from his best fish of the trip. The tigerfish ate his ‘Flash Clouser’ as we drifted past a rocky island situated in deep water. When the tigerfishing’s on it makes one feel like Arnold Schwarzenegger fighting the Predator. In other words, the angler feels outnumbered and overpowered even with an army of rods and flies to his aid. Rods break easily and flies quickly lose their dressing and with that their potency and although Richie snapped two rods and lost many flies to tigers during the trip, he managed to stick this fish without fault. It grabbed the fly out of the blue and ran straight to the bottom of the river channel.
The best sound in tigerfishing is the slicing noise of the line as it cuts through the water when the rapidly moving fish changes direction. There are very few fish that can make a fly line ‘sing’ as the tigerfish does.
Richard got the chorus of runs under control and landed the tiger with a puffed chest in front of a tour group of conventional fisherman chucking Mepps spinners with fish fillets attached to the big, brassy single hooks. I slid the net under the fish and Richie was congratulated at once by a quire of anglers, including me.
The highlight of the trip for Alex was without a doubt a short, but intense tigerfish frenzy he got to experience side by side with a Zambian angler. Alex was fishing one of Richie’s Flash Clousers and the Zambian chap baited a weighted hook with whole kapenta. The local managed to land the first tiger between the two of them, a lovely 7 lb fish that he threw on the bank to cook later for dinner. He re-baited and literally hooked the ‘mother’ of tigerfishes on the next cast. The fish ran so hard across the river that it nearly pulled the fisherman into the main channel. I had arrived just in time to observe the Zambian correct his balance with a wide stance, but then the line parted with a ‘bang’ that sounded like a Big Tom Thumb firecracker exploding.
Alex threw his arms to the sky as the poor Zambian’s head dropped. The fact that the fish never jumped was an indication of its size and by that time both Alex and the Zambian had realised what was lost. Alex continued to swing the Clouser through the shallow tail-out of the pool and hooked and tailed a beautiful tigerfish soon after the big one got away.
We admired the fifty shades of fire in the fins of the fish while taking photographs and chit chatting about the splash of tigerfish action. It reminded me of the Tanzanian tigers; when the big females ripe with roe attracted shoals of aggressive males the tigerfish action was on a par.
Russell’s trip would not have been completed if we hadn’t slept under the stars on a rocky outcrop in the middle of the Deka rapids. The clouds of insects (consisting of caddisflies in every colour of the rainbow, tiny golden mayfly spinners and speckled duns the size of a thumbnail, golden stoneflies and large owl moths) smothered our pillows as hordes of them hatched after sunset. We talked about deep space, spotted many shooting stars and gasped over luminous scorpions that turned bright chartreuse under Richard’s UV lamp while sipping on Mosi beers and hunting for small crocs in the shallow backwaters.
It was also in the rapids that Russell lost two memorable fish; a large tiger that ate a blue Clouser at the head of the fastest rapid section and a dinner plate-size chessa that was hooked on a weighted girdle bug a little later on close by. Both fish headed for the white water and snapped the tippet when Russ applied the necessary resistance to stop them. He’ll return to settle the score.
My favourite memory of Deka was the pleasure of shooting the entire fishing trip with one lens, a Canon 10-22 mm wide angle. Great disappointment that I had left behind my zoom lens and macro lens at home turned into a surprisingly enjoyable experience. I never had to brain storm over which lens to fix to the camera body. It complimented our basic lifestyle on the Zambezi by making life easy. Everything was ‘shot’ through a wide angle. This was great for landscapes and grip’n grins of course – or ‘hero shots’ referred to by some people nowadays (what’s wrong with celebrating a fish?). However, I was also pleasantly surprised at how well 10 mm worked for photographing my only upper-Zambezi yellowfish (which should really be re-named to ‘Zambezi yellowfish’) under water.
(The next feature will focus on the hand full of flies we used to catch tigerfish, chessa and the yellowfish in the Deka Drum)