by Jay Buchner
One of Africa's great rivers, the Zambezi river drains the south-central portion of Africa in its 2200 mile journey from its source in Zambia to the Indian ocean. It is a large river, with an annual average discharge into the Indian ocean of 250,700 cubic feet per second. Most of the years the river runs clear. Its character varies from wide and slow to narrow and turbulent. In places it is more than 4000 feet across and nearly choked with sandbars. In other places it hurries through narrow gorges and is more than 30 feet deep. It may be best known for its spectacular tumble over Victoria Falls. For 450 miles of its length, it forms the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe. One-hundred-seventy-five miles of that is Lake Kariba, a huge impoundment behind the Kariba hydroelectric dam. The area between Lake Kariba and the Mozambique border--more than 100 miles of river--has been providing excellent tigerfishing.
Tigerfish, (Hydrocyon sp. the scientific name means stripped water dog and includes five species)are found in most of the major river systems and lakes of Southern Africa, including the Zambezi and its tributaries. Their silvery sides are accented with black, longitudinal markings. The powerful, sickle-shaped tail and the fins are set off with striking reddish-orange and black highlights. And then there are the teeth. They almost look artificial--the revenge of the mad orthodontist--sharp, pointy, dangerous. Indeed, these fish are related to piranhas (family Characidae), but unlike their South American cousins, tigerfish have not been known to attack man.
Tigerfish are awesome predators. As their name suggests, they are efficient hunters and survivors in a demanding environment. They travel in schools of like sized fish with the smaller fish found in large schools in shallower water and the large fish in small groups in deep water, 6ft. to 8ft. Larger fish feed almost exclusively on other fish including small tigerfish, while insects are an important food source for the smaller fish that school in shallower water.
Tigerfish will readily take baitfish, lures, and plugs, so, as you might imagine, streamers are the flies of choice for the fly angler. The fish are attracted to most any minnow-shaped and colored flies, and I experimented with a wide range of colors and styles. Flies like Lefty's Deceivers worked well, but when tied with traditional materials of saddle hackles and bucktail, they did not survive the sharp teeth of the tigerfish very long. Therefore, I tied most flies with synthetic materials such as FisHair, Sea Hair, Ultra Hair, with ample additions of Flashabou and Krystal Flash. I also used 10 to 20 pound mono to reinforce areas where thread wraps that might be cut by sharp teeth. A FisHair Clouser Minnow in sizes #2 to 5/0 proved very effective. Chartreuse/white, yellow/white, and silvery blue/white with lots of flash were colors that seemed most irresistible to a hungry tigerfish. Ten to twelve inches of wire leader was necessary to keep the flies from being snipped off by hungry tigerfish.
Tigerfish were very difficult to land as the first eight hard ripping strikes and the quick long distance releases that followed proved. Hard, bony plates covered with a soft, almost felt-like (tear-away) membrane on the top and bottom of the mouth made hooking and holding the tigerfish very difficult. The landing to hooking ratio, warned our Zimbabwean professional guide, Dennis Candy, would only be about one in six or seven. I experimented and found that an upturned hook was more successful than downturned. Therefore, I added lead, bead, or brass eyes to all my flies to get the hook point to ride upright. Landing success improved dramatically, to about one in four.
A majority of the fishing is done from boats, drifting by and casting into bank cover or pools beneath riffle areas, although some casting is done from shore. The aggressiveness of the tigerfish is very interesting. On first locating a school the strikes are powerful, and with wild abandon on almost any size fly. However, after a few of these wild strikes and a couple of landed fish, the school seems to become wary and shy and will then only follow and bump the flies. Then the school moves slowly away. I used a Bottomline Fishing Buddy II on the Zambezi, and found that the side-finding feature of the unit was very helpful in locating groups of fish.
Although these fish can weigh up to 30 pounds, most fish that I landed on a fly rod were between two and six pounds, much larger fish were hooked but not landed. Fly rods of eight or nine weight provide the strength necessary to land a big fish and, at the same time, provide a fun tussle with fish in the two to four pound range. Reels capable of holding a #8 or #9 weight line and 150-200 yards of backing are essential for big tigerfish in the Zambezi river. When a tigerfish strikes, it’s with power and speed, once hooked, he does not take kindly to being hindered in his primal purpose, and will jump, thrash, charge, and run until he escapes or is landed. There are times in trout fishing that you wonder why you need all that backing, but it takes a large tigerfish only a few seconds to show you all the reasons why. Some fish were hooked that just powered away and you'd decide just to break off the fish, as you dare not risk losing your fly line. There were no corner fly shops in Zimbabwe!
Many of the larger fish are found in six to eight feet of water. To reach these depths, I found that a Teeny 300 line worked very well, although any sinking fly line that can get to those depths quickly would work for dredging out the larger tigerfish. Good fish can be taken using floating or intermediate lines for fishing streamers around rocks and logs where these predators lie in ambush.
Not all the action needs to be with big rods and sinking lines, however. I had great fun with smaller tigerfish, found in shallower water near the shore, using a 2-weight rod, floating line, and large nymphs (sizes #6 and #8) The powerful acrobatics of the 10- to 16-inch fish were exciting on this ultralight tackle. Great angling fun can be had with normal trout equipment, too. Rod sizes from #5 to #7 with floating or sink-tip lines will work just fine for medium to small tigerfish.
Many other species of fish are found in the Zambezi river. Some can be taken on a fly and some are rarely encountered. Vundu are giant catfish (up to 100 pounds) and can be caught with bait. All vundu should be released, as the population is decreasing and they are the primary diet of the crocodile. There are two varieties of squeakers (smaller catfish) that average ½ pound. Tilapia (known locally as bream) are an excellent eating fish. Numerous species feed mainly on vegetation but also on small insects, and can be caught on small nymphs. They range from one to four pounds. Nkupe and Chessa are two species, with deep, compressed bodies and small mouths. They are strong fighters, and could be taken with bait or dead drift nymph techniques. The Cornish jack can reach 20 pounds, but are sluggish fighters that ambush their prey from deep, rocky swirls. In addition, many of the area farm ponds have been stocked with bass, and side excursions can be arranged to try for this more familiar fish if the African "natives" lose their appeal. The Eastern Highlands of Zimbabwe are approximately 6000 ft. in elevation and have had trout introduced. Seasons open in October for most streams. Some lakes in the Nyanga National Park are open year round. Fly fishing only is the norm for the rainbow and brown trout of the eastern highlands.
The best fly fishing for tigerfish on the Zambezi river occurs in September and October, which is early summer in Zimbabwe, and just before the rainy season begins. Temperatures range from 60 degrees F. in the mornings and evenings to near 100 degrees F. in the middle of the day. As the tigerfish seem most active in the low light of morning and evening, it is most productive to launch an early morning assault on the river, have a leisurely lunch and tea, and hit the river again at dusk.
But of course, it is not just the fishing that makes a tigerfishing expedition--it is the entire African experience that makes this adventure so worthwhile. Even if you never land a fish, hook a fish, have a single strike, nor pick up a fly rod, the experience is wonderful. The grunts, chuckles, and swooshes of hippos, the violent swirl of the crocodile sliding into the river, the incessant calling of the turtledoves, and the trumpeting of elephants make you vow to return.
Game viewing is a natural sideline of a tigerfishing trip to the Zambezi river. Cape buffalo, zebra, lions, leopards, and innumerable species of African antelope inhabit the bush of the Zambezi Valley and can be seen from camp. Birds too numerous to mention, color the sky with their iridescence. Raucous baboons quarrel among themselves. Skittish impala dazzle you with their acrobatic cavorting. Spectacular sunsets and sunrises occur daily. As night falls, crickets and frogs begin their chorus, leopards grunt, lions cough--night sounds unlike anything you'll ever hear stateside!
And the flora is every bit as spectacular and fascinating as the fauna. Giant baobab trees humble you with their antiquity (some are 4000 years old). Legends and folk tales about these great trees are shared around campfires. Numerous species of acacias dominate the bush, providing food and shelter for animals and man. In what seems to be a dry, dusty landscape, beautiful flowers surprise you.
Mana Pools National Park, is the only Park in Zimbabwe that allows visitors to walk in the bush (at your own risk, of course). Most other parks require that visitors stay in vehicles or designated (fenced and protected) game viewing areas at all times.
Zambezi river camps are usually permanent, with either 4-person wall tents set on concrete pads, or thatched roof chalets. Flush toilets, hot and cold running water, and solar-powered electric lights make this "camping" unlike any camping we've done in the states. Even laundry is done daily. I have never felt quite so "pampered" as I did in the African bush. Evening cocktails, called "sundowners," are served with hot hors d'oeuvres and reasonable amounts of locally made beer and wine.
Meals are served in covered, open-air dining/lounge areas, usually family style. "Cholesterol" has not become an issue yet in Zimbabwe, and meals tend to be a little heavy, at least to my taste. Breakfast usually includes bacon, eggs, and two kinds of sausage, as well as toast, porridge, and fruit. Suppers consist of meat and locally grown vegetables such as squash, potatoes, and tomatoes. Beef, lamb, pork and, occasionally, gamemeat are served. We were treated to impala and warthog, which were both wonderful.
The wait staff are well-trained, polite and "British"-proper, reflecting the European influence in Zimbabwe. Table settings in the African bush included more flatware than I have seen in many "fine" restaurants! Tea-time is in the traditional British manner also, beginning with a freshly brewed pot delivered to your chalet at sunrise, or the time of your choosing. Afternoon tea and "biscuits" (cookies) are ritualistic.
A trip to Africa is a real adventure. An opportunity to visit Zimbabwe and experience the variety of activities from fishing in the Zambezi River and watching wildlife and birds in and around the river to visiting several national parks and watching plains game that you only thought you'd see on TV. This is a trip that is worth doing.