Nothing could have prepared me for the complete and utter raw fury that is Murchison Falls. The Nile that I had been introduced to below the gorge was very big but also placid and smooth flowing. Almost pastural, in an over-sized African way (instead of cows and sheep roaming the pastures it’s elephant, buffalo and hippo)!
What presented itself above the falls in the view from the Top-of-the-Falls campsite was something else. Big, wide, bank-to-bank Grade 5 and 6 rapids for as far upstream as I could see. How the hell was I going fish this. I suddenly felt incredibly underprepared and was rather worried about what I was going to find below the falls. How the hell did that much water fit through a 6m cleft?
We had already lost half a day’s worth of fishing time thanks to a bugger up with the boat fuel and I was champing to get down to below the falls. We only had a day and half to try and work it all out!
The Top-of-the-Falls camp is proper African camping. No fences, no gates and we barely saw the local Askari (guard) whose hut was at Falls parking lot. Hippos graze the banks of Nile, a 100m away, and elephant and other big game (yes, even lions) are found in the park. You don’t just go wondering around on your own and never sure who might arrive to inspect your tent pitching ability!
Once camp was set up, we headed down to the falls. Rich and I were in fishing mode and skipped the viewpoints at the top of the falls and headed straight for Baker’s Rock in the Gorge. It’s a steep and well kept, albeit exposed, path to the bottom of the falls and even the trot down brought on an few beads of sweat. Coming out was going to be tough!
If the Nile above the falls have given me a start of nerves, the river below Murchison Falls straight up scared the daylights out of me! How on earth was I going to fish this water with a flyrod??? Imagine 350 cubic meters of water per second (the Orange River flows being 80 and 100 and the Vaal between 10 and 20) being compressed through that 6m gap. To clarify a bit, 1 cubic meter weighs approximately 1 ton, that’s a 1000kg. So we’re talking 350 tons of water per sec. You do the Maths! That’s a lot of energy! Now imagine what happens at the bottom of those falls…
It was louder, rougher, deeper, faster and far angrier than I could have ever imagined. I look at photos now and am bitterly disappointed at how impossible it is to capture the ridiculousness of the scene!
But we were here to fish. So hiding in shade of the trees below Baker’s Rock, we strung up the fly rods, climbed into a suit a faus confidence and started to thrash the water. To fish an eddy is to fish the main current of any other big river. There is even a backwards rapid created in the Devil’s Cauldron eddy. It’s nuts!
We fished the bank for a good couple of hours before jumping on the boat to try change angles and get the fly into better water. By the end of that afternoon, with the equatorial evening quickly fading, we made our way back to camp empty handed and, personally, a little shell shocked. Suddenly all those nah-sayers didn’t seem so far off point. But I’d had time to rethink and was quietly confident that the next day would be different. I wanted to change a couple of things in my approach, but it was coming!
In the dimness of the evening, Rich and I snuck down for a quick rinse off in the Nile and we wanted to check a potential yellowfish spot we had been told about. A ridge of rocks caused a cracking and relatively sedate back-eddy pool that looked perfect for a cast and a quick dip. This plan however was quickly put to bed as a large Hippo reared out the water in a territorial display that showed his displeasure at our presence. Needless to say we never got a fly into the pool and that hippo put paid to my Yellowfish hopes. As we scouted a swim spot downstream in the faster water I told myself I wasn’t really here for Yellows and didn’t need to be distracted by them. I think I convinced myself.
That night was spent telling stories about game drive sightings, the craziness of the falls, the hippo encounter while braaiing good beef fillets on a bed of coals to the taste of cold beer under a starry African night. Life was good. It was also spent trying not scratch Tsetse fly bites and making sure that the mozzies were kept at bay – Africa is full things that bite, both large and tiny.
The next morning was full of your typical camp fire breakfast activities. It was to be a day at the falls and we all headed down with lunch, hammocks and books (well, the non-fishermen did anyway). We were back in force with support team and ready rumble. I had changed lines on the reels and now had sinkers ready – I felt like I needed to get as deep as possible. The crazy currents made even the Di5 seem like an intermediate. Next time I’ll take some serious lead-core lines!
Rich and I slowly made our way to the Devil’s Cauldron, right at the base of the Falls themselves. It’s quite an interesting undertaking in itself. Steep cliff sides, waves breaking from the melee and lots of slippery sections. We put flies into hole and eddy after hole and eddy. I got to the Cauldron while Rich fished below a natural weir called the Ledge. I had what I thought was a knock but couldn’t be sure – there was no shortage of debris in the Cauldron, including the carcass of something quite big that had obviously got swept down the falls (a clear reminder of the power of this river).
When I saw Rich walk around the corner – shoulders slumped and without rod in hand – a million questions ran around my head. The answer soon discovered; he’d lost a good one. Almost at his feet. Despite sharing the disappointment painted on his face and the brokenness of his slumped shoulders, a little part of me jumped for joy – WE CAN HOOK THEM HERE, it screamed!
We fished on in the Cauldron, a reputed spot for big Perch, and one of the places I felt confident that we could land a big one on fly tackle. Nothing. So we started fishing back towards Bakers. Rich and I took turns casting into the mayhem below Ledge. We’d let the fly sink and try and get some depth before the current took full grip and swung the fly towards structure.
A half hour or so later Rich decided it was time for him to head back to Bakers, the boat and food. Gregg had been throwing big lures into the Bakers’ eddy and had put a Waka out as a livie and Rich was keen to join him see if he had any success. Gregg was unlucky this trip. He missed another good fish that evening on a live bait, it picked him up, had a run but when he tightened up on the fish, the big circle just didn’t bite. I was so bummed for him.
I decided to stay on for awhile, swinging my fly across the current below the Ledge. It seemed fishy and I was happy with the depth I was getting my big Grey Baitfish Imitation down to.
I was mindlessly watching Rich slowly negotiate his way back along the steep section of the bank, just after a big mend. The slack from the half roll cast had just tightened up when everything went tight. We’d hit the bricks on the ledges next to the deep holes a few times and for a split section I thought I had caught Africa again. But a deep headshake sent my heart rate skyrocketing!
I kicked into fight mode, checked the loose line around my feet and after a couple hard pulls to set the hook, gave the fish enough head to clear up the slack. At the same time I bellowed at Rich who, as Murphy had made sure, had just negotiated the most treacherous section of bank. He made it back across that section record time – although it cost him a fingernail and at one point it took a wave to push back up onto the bank as he slipped in. For a second I found myself faced with choosing between rescuing Rich or landing this fish… I glad the river saved him and I didn’t need to choose!
At this point I leaning into the fish. The #12 had a deep bend in it as the fish ran through the slack of the eddy towards the main current. At this point it jumped, Tarpon style, and saw a heavy silver body leave a big hole in the slack water before continuing its quest for the main current. And if it made that current…
Well, I don’t know. I’m used being able to chase big fish down. I like to a run after them when on land or the flats. It simply wasn’t possible there. If the fish had made that current, well, I may just have lost my mind and bailed in after it. I figured I’d be able to stick close enough to the shore and find a spot to get out again. But luckily I didn’t need to test the theory and I turned it three times just before it reached the current.
Here the big eddy played in my favour. Once turned the current was on my side I could use it to bring the fish quite close by. The circular nature of the eddy meant that the fish came very close to me a couple of times before using the current to head for the main current again. It was only on the fourth round trip that I managed to get it to surface.
It was over now – barring the problem that landing from where I stood was near impossible – and although I knew it was by no means a record fish, it was a decent slab of silver.
Rich had made it back now and was standing under the trees below the small cliff I stood on. Thanks the fairies he was there – landing this fish on my own, although doable, is not something I would have relished. We had to negotiate the overhanging trees but eventually Rich took the beaut in hand.
The relief of seeing a big fish safely taken up in the hands of a friend is quite a unique thing. You haven’t quite held it yourself yet and there’s a slight jealously that someone else – even a good friend – is getting to hold it first (or at all) but you’re also so damn stoked to see safely landed. And as the adrenaline subsides, high fives, whoops and fist pumps are order of the day (once I’d climbed down the damn cliff).
Photos were difficult in the massively contrasted light conditions under the trees. The fish was poked and the waves and slippery rocks made things even more difficult. But that all fades to gray and becomes unimportant when I think back on the moment. Rich’s smile, my silly grin. And knowing had what only a few others had before.
We measured it on my flyrod and later checked it; at 97cm I’m super chuffed. The tables estimate it at around 15kg.
The potential to catch a really big Perch on fly under the falls is high. But it will not be a stroll. If you’ve never stood under the raging might of Murchison Falls you’ll never quite understand the gargantuan proportions of this section of river. And it’s most prized piscatorial denizen follows suit – big and powerful.
That evening, as we drank GandTs view a view of the Falls and African sunset, we started hatching plans for a return visit. Even without the lure of big fish, this is a very special part of the world and I look forward to future exploration here. Rich, be ready 😀