Mother Nature often understates some of her most imposing creations. Imagine you had never seen a hippo before—plump, pink, prone to sunburn, and often portrayed in ballerina tutus with a comical and cuddly demeanor. This endearing image, of course, could not be further from reality. Catch a hippopotamus by surprise in a boat or canoe, or get between a mother with a calf, and you will soon realize why hippos account for almost 500 lost lives in Africa each year. With the tigerfish, however—and its mouthful of neat, pearly white conical dog-like teeth that interlock with the mechanical precision of a well-engineered gin trap—nature offers a deadly accurate presentation.
Many predatory fish have tidy, serrated teeth for slicing and dicing—like wahoo and piranha. Tigerfish, on the other hand, dishevel and disembowel. Their modus operandi is to charge prey, shredding or stunning it in the process, then turning back to pick up their dead or bewildered quarry.
Attempting to catch tigerfish has always been a serious endeavour. Their combination of lightning speed, maw of dangerous teeth, and rock-hard palate make landing one a challenge.. Traditionally, tackle for tigers was stout spinning rods and reels with heavy metal spoons and spinners lashed to a length of wire. But as tackle and techniques evolved with time, it was inevitable that someone would try to tame a tiger on a fly rod.
Sporadic literature and a few grainy photos replete with bad haircuts and sideburns are testament to some of the limited success of the 70s and early 80s. In the early 90s, I ran a lodge in the Okavango Delta. Using my sloppy Diawa Osprey six-weight rod, Leeda Rimfly reel and double-taper sinking line, I threw some home-tied flies that wouldn’t have looked out of place on The Muppet Show and managed to land tigers up to eight pounds. Today, pursuing tigers on the fly is no longer an oddity. In fact, during prime time on the Zambezi or Okavango one will typically see more “fluff chuckers” than conventional anglers on the water.
Chief among the reasons why fly fishing for tigerfish has become so popular is the fact that fly anglers often clean up when compared to their conventional angler counterparts. Not only do today’s baitfish-impersonating brush flies look far more delectable than a big shiny brass spoon, hook up rates are also typically better on flies than on hardware. Tigerfish are notoriously hard to hook. Stats suggest you’re doing well to land one in 10 strikes on conventional gear. When using heavy fiberglass lures or metal spoons, if the tiger is not hooked on the first hit, chances are it will not come back again after encountering a mouthful of hard metal. But fly anglers typically fare better and get more opportunities at securing a hook set. If a stripped brush fly is hit by a tigerfish but the hook doesn’t stick, one can keep stripping, speeding up or otherwise varying the retrieve. The enraged tiger will often come around again and again, attempting to disable its prey and giving the angler more opportunities to connect.
Prime time for tigerfish on the fly on the middle Zambezi River is during the winter months (May through September). This may seem strange for such a quintessential warm water predator, but it’s water level rather than water temperature that makes for such favourable conditions.
Floodwaters from the Angolan highlands move down the river system like a wave, causing the river to burst its banks and spread out for miles onto the surrounding floodplains. The shallow, warm water, nutrient-enriched by dung from plains game, elephant, buffalo and the local tribe’s cattle, makes an ideal nursery for resident fish. This encourages prolific breeding and, ultimately, enormous numbers of juvenile fish. Eventually, the floodwaters recede, funnelling these juvenile fish back into the main channel. Birds gather to mark the ensuing carnage where tigerfish mercilessly smash the baitfish re-entering the system.
My favourite way to fish the Zambezi is using a colonial-style houseboat or a strategically, well-appointed lodge that can access a variety of water within a relatively short run in smaller boats. The bait and predator concentrations move quickly. On one outing, you might be fishing the main Zambezi, drifting a long, white sandbank, getting hits on the drop off. The next session, the Chobe rapids can be firing, where tucking the boat in behind big rocks and swinging flies through swift white water is the recipe for success. The next river run might call for a visit to the Kasai Channel, a man made channel linking the main Zambezi and the Chobe River which, though appearing featureless, can offer explosive action to anglers who know its nuances and put in time drifting baitfish patterns into its undercuts.
Fly fishing for tigers is no leisurely day out. Anglers are up at first light, down a quick cup of coffee, and race upstream to the day’s hunting grounds. Once the sun is up, things quickly warm, as does the challenge. Anglers are perched on the front of a drifting boat and tasked with casting eight- and nine-weight rods armed with heavy Clousers lashed to sinking lines. They strip furiously to imitate a small baitfish fleeing the jaws of death.
Despite the frantic pace, there can be long periods of no action when chasing tigerfish. And then, just as your attention wanders—perhaps while admiring an 18-foot croc sunbathing on the sandbar you’re drifting past—it happens: a hit so ferocious that it rips the line from your stripping hand, the friction of the line burning so deeply that you whimper. Whipped back to reality in an instant, you recast in the same direction, and your first strip is met with a solid stop and the sensation that tigerfish anglers often describe as an electric shock passing through the fly line. You remind yourself, don’t trout set—as the rod will do exactly what it’s designed to do, bend, flex, act as a shock absorber, softening the hook set and virtually guaranteeing a missed fish. You keep the rod horizontal and strip set into the take, driving the hook into the tiger’s tough jaws.
Purchase made. All Hell breaks loose.
Line disappears at a rate that weakens your knees. But just as quickly as the fish heads off, it turns and dashes directly back at you. You strip line faster than you realized you were able, lift the rod, and before you know it, the fish is under the boat and out the other side, your line darting in one direction and the fish jumping and somersaulting in another. Your rod doubles, testing the fortitude of your investment. Eventually, the blistering runs, thudding headshakes and explosive jumps subside. You’re miraculously still attached to your prize and the opportunity finally comes to still slip the net under her.
A quick weigh in reveals that she tips 10 pounds. Carefully, using heavy duty pliers, the hook is removed, a quick photo is snapped, and the tiger is revived and released. You slump on the bow of the boat—sunburnt, shoulders aching, knuckles cramped—as the adrenalin leaves your veins. Your skipper hands you Africa’s soothing tonic for the soul, cold amber nectar from a brown beer bottle. A hippo grunts and a fish eagle cries, saluting the passing day.
You ask yourself, could I put myself through this again tomorrow? Maybe, just maybe …