Text & Photos Marita van Rooyen
“The tigerfish is Africa’s premier freshwater game fish. With its large razor-sharp teeth and torpedo-shaped body, there is nothing quite like it out there. It is the ultimate high-speed killing machine. It’s a fierce and wily creature that demands respect from all forms of life that happen across its path.”
Haydn Willans of Tiger Fish Frenzy
A day on the river
For hours on end, you find yourself bobbing softly with the motion of the Zambezi or Okavango, throwing in your line and slowly pulling it behind the moving boat. After some time you take a swig of beer, pull in the line and see that the bulldog has been nibbled to shreds. You know it was one of them from the way the rest of the lure looks at you with a sorry eye. But you persevere, because you know the adrenalin kick is bound to hit you sooner or later, and you throw in your line again with a fresh piece of bait.
The process repeats itself. Sometimes you’re lucky with the bait, other times there’s not even a floppy piece of skin left on the hook. You open another cold one, watch a loaded mokoro drift by, follow a kingfisher with your eyes, and settle into your chair for another round of waiting, waiting and patiently waiting.
Then suddenly, just as you’re about to drift off into a midday wonderland, you feel a pull on the line. Then a stronger one, and you know he’s hooked. But you have to be careful because with too hard a pull, he might just as easily hook himself out again.
By now you’ve jumped on top of your chair, and even though you try to remain calm – like the guide told you to – you feel your heart pumping faster and your palms sweating as you forget every single tip and tale you’ve heard about how to pull in the king of all river fish. And then, suddenly, you spot a shiny movement on the surface of the water! Your heart jumps into your throat, you heave him onto the boat, and there he is, flapping around his muscular body and showing off his razor-sharp teeth! You’ve landed the tiger of the Zambezi, the fiercest fish of them all!
The tiger rush
Anyone who’s ever sat on a boat waiting for the tiger, will attest that it’s one of those unique experiences you write home about. Of course, in the technological age, you’d rather send an SMS, or better still, MMS a picture of your big one straight to your mom’s phone.
The Internet doesn’t list the tigerfish as one of the ten most diabolical fish on earth for nothing. Comments from the fishermen – and the fisherwomen – provide proof of the pudding: “It was insane!” yelps Sean van der Vyver, who’s pulled out a 1.5 kg. “First time out, what a rush!” ejaculates Mark Gouws, who’s pulled out a 6.1 kg. And “Tough, but worth it,” exclaims Ruan Jooste, after pulling out a monster 8 kg.
Haydn adds, “There’s one simple thing that brings people back time and time again to catch such a beautiful monster: the tigerfish is really hard to capture, and catching one – especially a large specimen – is a serious challenge and a major achievement. Due to their supreme speed, aerobatic capabilities and steel-like jaws, keeping a tigerfish attached to the end of your line is very difficult. Many more tigers are hooked and lost than are ever boated, and most anglers are drawn back to their hunting grounds to try and catch the one that got away. There is most definitely an attraction to its prehistoric appearance. Its silver-striped body and contrasting bright-red and -yellow fins and tail are similar to something you’d expect to find in a child’s colouring book, not in the wilds of our African waterways.”
Tigerfish mostly inhabit the warmer, well-oxygenated fresh waters of Southern Africa. The largest populations are found in the Zambezi, Okavango and Pongolo river systems, making northern Namibia a key location for pursuing the big ones. Those found in the fast-flowing waters of the upper Zambezi easily reach 10 kg in weight, and it’s obvious why most adrenaline junkies head in this direction when needing an injection of proper sports fishing. Annual competitions, furthermore, draw the crowds, rods and all.
Tigers of the river move and hunt together in schools of like-sized fish. The bigger variety are usually found living on their own, mainly because a bigger monster might snap at its younger sibling and swallow it whole in the process. Known for its aggressive temperament, a tiger won’t hesitate to snap at you either, another reason why it’s not recommended to go swimming in the Zambezi or Okavango rivers.
All in all, the experience of pulling in a tiger is one that will stay with you and draw you back until you’ve finally fought with and boated the ultimate 10 kilogrammer.
Your bait has to be shiny and moving. This is why sardines, bulldogs and artificial bait are recommended. The best place to catch a big one is where there is fast-moving water. If you catch a tiger, you have to be an expert to pull it out; that’s where the trick comes in. Once the hook is in its mouth, it will fight and jump out of the water. Don’t pull it out immediately. Let it run until it tires, and then pull it out.
Tips and advice from the local guides
Eric Sapalo from Mayana Village in Kavango (associated with N’kwasi Lodge)
“Around here you need a strong line, a good hook, and a sunny day to catch the biggest fish. This is the number-one predator in our rivers (apart from the crocs), so you have to be extremely careful with it. Don’t let it splash around the boat once you’ve pulled it in. There are many stories of fishermen being bitten by their catch.”
Krispin Marungu (with Rainbow River Lodge)
“You throw in your line three times, and then, by the fourth time, the fish will bite. I use a spanner, rapala (hook that looks like a fish), or small fish as bait. It’s best to go upstream and keep the boat moving as you pull the line behind you. When hitting a strong current is a good time to start throwing in your line. These fish usually take the bait quickly and if you let your line hang loose, it will break, so always keep it tight. If you go upstream, use a rapala; downstream a spanner is best. But a tigerfish is not for you to eat, only for the local people. It has too many bones; you will not like it.”
Thadius Thebuho (with Impalila Island Lodge)
“The fish will nibble on your bait, so be sure to always keep your line tight and your rod pointing downwards. When the water is nice and warm, the tigers come out to play. But there’s no magic trick for catching a tiger; the main thing is being patient. Sometimes there’ll be no fish; other times you’ll have 10 in 10 minutes. And don’t think that if you caught a big one in a certain spot yesterday that you’ll get another of that size again today. The fish are constantly moving around in their hunt for prey.”
Charles Libetwa (with Ntwala Island Lodge)
“It depends on your water level. If the water is high, use small fish such as bulldogs for lure, and fish in the sandbanks and shallower spots. This is where you’ll find the big schools of tiger. But when the water is low, use rapala as lure and stick to the banks of the river, because that’s where the tiger feeds. When the fish bites, be patient. Don’t panic or you might loose that big one. When the fish starts fighting, don’t pull it in immediately; rather keep your line tight and let it run. Once it stops fighting, start reeling it in, but take it easy. Don’t let your excitement get the better of you. If the fish swims towards you, swing your rod in the opposite direction and keep the line tight so the fish doesn’t have a chance to unhook itself. Use a landing net to get the fish on the boat, and be sure to take your picture as soon as possible, because tigers are caught on a catch-and-release basis. We don’t want your prize to die on the boat.”
Curt Sagell (with Caprivi Houseboat Safari Lodge)
“Try, try and try again! You need to know what works for the specific time of year. And keep a tight hand on the line to stop the fish from slipping out of the hook – tigers have very bony mouths.”
Lovemore Mwiya (with Impalila Island Lodge)
“Here at Impalila Island we have a lot of tiger fish. Everyone that tries their luck, catches something. Keep watching the water; you’re bound to get lucky.”
Robert Muyoba (with Impalila Island Lodge)
“It’s an unpredictable experience, but your best chances are at the sandbanks that have drop-offs. Cast close to the reeds while you’re drifting with the stream, and you might just nab the big one.”
Martin Nchindo (with Ntwala Island Lodge)
“Take the boat upriver and look for sandbanks. Then cast in at the drop-off. The dirty water running from the floodplains is good, because small fish move with this water and the tigers feed on them.”
Nicholas Semu (with Impalila Ilsand Lodge)
“I’ve got my secret spots. The Kasai Channel is always good for something, while the upper and lower Zambezi also offer good possibilities. Down the rapids there is plenty of life, but it can be dangerous to fish there and you need to know the river and what you’re doing.”
Travel News Namibia Winter 2012