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THE LURE OF THE TIGER

TEASER: Once you feel the fight of the tiger at the end of your line, your heart will be hooked forever

Warren Koch aka “Woz On Fly”, guest fishing host and Africa addict @ TigerFishingZambezi – www.tigerfishingzambezi.com

Whether it is your umpteenth tigerfishing trip or your first, arriving at a destination like the wild Zambezi – be it in Zimbabwe, Zambia, Mozambique or Namibia – is a gift straight from heaven. 

Leaving behind the hustle and bustle of everyday life for a venue with glowing red sunsets, 

a mighty and healthy river, rich cultures and the friendliest people on earth is a welcome reminder of what it means to have an African soul. And down there, lying in wait among the countless eddies and structure along the shoreline, is the fierce African tigerfish.

According to Wikipedia, the tigerfish (Hydrocynus vittatus) derives its name from associations with the tiger (Panthera tigris), a very fitting comparison. The tigerfish is known for its brutal strength and ferocious appetite, a single-minded killer with a take that compares to no other freshwater fish (and in my opinion, to no saltwater fish either). With a mouth as hard as concrete, setting the hook alone is a challenge.

In the game-fishing world, the tigerfish is often compared to the piranha. Like the piranha, individual tigerfish have interlocking, razor-sharp teeth, along with streamlined, muscular bodies; they are extremely aggressive and capable predators that often hunt in groups. No wonder then that the tigerfish is the first freshwater fish to have been recorded and confirmed to attack and catch birds in flight.

The mighty Zambezi River is home to this famous apex predator that is commonly found in the Okavango Delta and Chobe River, leading into the main Zambezi River system. It also occurs in the two biggest lakes along the Zambezi, namely Lake Kariba in Zimbabwe and Cahora Bassa in Mozambique. From the source of the Zambezi through the Barotse Plains to the biggest waterfall in the world, the Victoria Falls, we refer to this section as the Upper Zambezi. The section below the falls in the gorge up to Lake Kariba is known as the Middle Zambezi, while the part from the Kariba Dam wall to where it flows into the Indian Ocean is called the Lower Zambezi.

The Upper Zambezi consists of naturally flowing sections based on the draining floodplains where various baitfish and catfish move in tight groups (baitfish runs, barbel runs), while the lower section is more dependent on the Kariba engineers and the sluice gates.

A question I am often asked is: “When is the best time of year to fish?” Shackletons, one of our popular lodges on the Upper Zambezi, has developed this handy “fishing key”:

When targeting tigerfish, the techniques that can be used not only include the local trolling and baitfishing methods, but also fly fishing and spinning. 

For trolling, the all too familiar red-and-white magnum artificial lure seems to always deliver the goods. For bait fishing, the local guides on the river are always happy to source fresh bulldog baitfish.The middle section in the gorge is generally only fished in the “suicide months” of September to December on all fishing methods. Being a dam, Kariba is fishable all year round. An interesting characteristic of tigerfish residing in a dam system is the smaller mouth and shoulder profiles with bulging bellies, the result of little or no current and the abundance of small baitfish like kapenta.

Due to the ferocious take, you will be missing out on the feeling of casting out onto a national highway with a Triumph Rocket 2300 cc muscle bike hitting your lure – a hit that could result in an angler (not paying attention) being pulled into the water if his reel drag or fly line grip is too tight!

There is a certain magic in casting a line over the inviting, churning swells towards that red setting sun. Granted, sipping an ice-cold Mosi lager while drift baiting is the most rewarding way to spend a day on the river for some. I have done this many times and have landed some very big fish using this method.

Let’s take a moment to discuss tackle, starting with fly and then spinning (conventional). The points covered are applicable to the entire Zambezi system, including dams, but are biased towards the Upper and Middle Zambezi.

When fly fishing, a nine-weight fly rod with matching fast-sinking fly line is best.

As water clarity is not always optimal (and does not have to be), short 30 lb fluorocarbon leaders are best matched. This will enable the fly to turn over and provide an invisible attachment to your elasticised fly line. The most productive fishing when casting is to go out on a small speed boat (similar to a bass boat), using the drift of the river to target the structures. 

Hot deck temperatures are known to affect fly lines, so a useful tip is to use a stripping basket. I just use a wet a towel to strip line onto. This will often assist in managing line memory and reducing nesting when casting.

Both Brush and Clouser tiger flies work very well when using dark colours in the mornings and evenings and lighter Brush fly patterns for the middle of the day. My personal favourite is black/grey or black/yellow Clousers for the dark periods and light green with white Brush patterns for the lighter periods.

When spinning for tigers, a medium- to heavy-action 7 ft boat rod works best. This is vital as the take from the tiger is super-fast and super-strong. A solid rod that can handle the hit while setting the hook is the difference in increasing the common land-to-strike rate of 3 out of 10 tigerfish. I am a fan of Shimano (Nexave) and Berkley (Venom Tiger) rods as they have the backbone and tip action to transfer motion to my lures while still landing the fish. This rod needs to be paired with a strong but small spinning reel.

In the Shimano range, a 4 000-strength reel is the best paired. Lures follow the same logic as the fly patterns with Fire Tiger patterns throughout the year producing results; these are lures with chartreuse green, orange and yellow colours and black lines running throughout. These lures need to be able to dive to 4+ m to reach the intended strike zone. I would recommend a known brand of braid of at least 25 lb strength. This will ensure greater contact with the fish for striking and fighting. As with fly fishing, a short leader (this time monofilament) tied on with an FG knot acts like a shock absorber.

I have personally found spoons to be more productive on the Upper Zambezi and spinners likewise on the Middle Zambezi into Kariba. Please note that to further increase your landing rate, single hooks are imperative. I make a point of changing every treble hook for a single hook, especially for spinning spoons and spinners. Caution needs to be exercised when changing the hooks on artificial lures as they can affect the swimming action, so test them out first. I find that scorpion trebles are a good replacement on lures, allowing the original-design swimming action, while the elongated section acts like a single hook. I actively practise catch and release and would strongly encourage everyone to support this. Fishing single hooks are obviously more humane on the fish and provide a greater chance for its survival.

To better handle the tigerfish and to eliminate possible accidents with those razor-sharp teeth, a Boga-Grip is a key piece of equipment. It will also allow you to better release the tigerfish after having ensured that it is strong enough to kick away from you. A landing net should still be used to land the tiger onto the boat, whereafter the Boga-Grip can be used.

That unmistakable pull on the line will be imprinted on your mind, leaving behind a yearning that will only be quenched when you see her again – the mighty Zambezi River. Simply put, once you feel the fight of the tiger at the end of your line, your heart will be hooked forever.