FLY FISHING WITH ELEPHANTS:
Forty yards astern of us the calm surface of the broad river suddenly exploded into a cascade of spray, as the crimson tinged fish erupted into the sky, violently shaking its head with an audible rattle. Even at this range and given such a brief sighting the fishes formidable array of dentistry were clearly visibly, as momentarily it seemed to hang in the air, before crashing back into the water.
Simultaneously one of the rods was all but torn free from its holder in the transom, the reel clutch screaming loudly as yard after yard of line was ripped off the spool. Grabbing the rod I had half expecting everything to suddenly go slack as yet another fish threw the lure back at us in disgust, though this time the line stayed tight and after the fishes second, third and then forth jump I actually felt I was in with a chance of landing this one.
For the better part of ten minutes that fish fought like, well it fought like a tiger, continually switching tactics from long, deep line stripping runs, to the most spectacular imaginable aerial displays. Eventually I had her circling almost alongside the boat, yet just out of reach of the landing net and again it launched itself skywards.
This time I felt sure this time it would throw the lure but it didn’t and seconds later, it was successfully scooped into the net. Yet still that fish didn’t know when it was beaten, and as it thrashed and tore angrily at the tough nylon mesh within which it was now entangled. Tearing at the net with those fearsome teeth it somehow almost managed to chew its way to freedom, and actually snapped the head of the net of its shaft.
I could easily have been fishing the inter-tidal backwaters or estuaries of a dozen or more similar places I’ve fished around the world, the rich papyrus fringed river banks and acres of adjacent wet lands were so typical of the classic esturine environment. The fish I was occasionally catching, tigerfish, are every bit as powerful and ferocious as any of the many different saltwater predators I’ve caught, yet here I was fishing several thousand miles from the nearest saltwater. I was fishing on Africa’s forth largest river; the mighty Zambezi.
I was based at Impalila Island Lodge, which is located at the extreme eastern limit of the Caprivi Strip. Caprivi is a shining example of how Africa’s colonial settlers have engineered country borders to suit their own needs. It’s that narrow peninsula of land which belongs to Namibia, serving as a buffer zone between Botswana in the south, Angola and Zambia in the north, and, Zimbabwe, joining in the east, its the only place in the world where four countries come together to share a common border.
Impalila Island is positioned on the Zambezi not far upriver from Victoria Falls, at the border between Zambia and Namibia. A short run through the nearby Kasai Channel connects to the River Chobe, the border between Namibia and Botswana and until you start to get your bearings it all gets kind of complicated, suffice to say its worthwhile carrying your passport in you fishing bag, and the fishing on offer in this remote part of central Africa is truly outstanding!
On my first days fishing at the lodge it was suggested that we motored some 30 miles up the Zambezi to fish a remote and little fished area. Simon Parker, Impalila’s head fishing guide, had joined me that first day and over breakfast he had explained the drill. “If you want to catch a really big tigerfish Dave, then trolling is certainly the way to go, it ensures your lures cover the most water as quite often groups of the bigger fish can be concentrated in a small area of the river.” A big tigerfish in the Zambezi is 10lb plus and, yes, I most certainly did want to catch one!
We set off at dawn and headed upriver. Dawn in Africa is a dramatic affair, the sun all but exploding over the horizon in a dazzling display of rich colours. Dawn is also the time of day when Africa’s rich and varied wildlife is at its most active, and the forty minute run to the area we would be fishing passed in a blur with always an elephant, hippo, a basking crocodile or a new species of bird to draw the eye.
Tiger fish can be caught on just about any sort of lure, though as is so often the case when trying to sort out the better quality fish, large lures tend to be the most consistent. Fishing a rod each we both started off using jointed 13cm Rapala’s, and we hadn’t trolled a hundred yards when we had our first strike. One minute the tip of my rod was gently ‘thrumming’ in confirmation of the lures fish exciting vibrating action, then suddenly it was bent in half as line was ripped from the reel; then nothing. I reeled in to check the lure, which was now bearing a series of deep, puncture wounds. Proof of a tigerfish attack.
Simon’s rod was next to score, and this time the fish was briefly hooked before throwing the lure high in the air during a series of spectacular jumps. I’d fished for and caught tiger fish before so I knew to expect that a high percentage of hooked fish were always lost, but you never get over the frustration of losing fish you have travelled halfway around the world to catch.
Under such circumstances my initial reaction was to tighten the reel clutch and strike and fight each fish as hard as practical, but Simon advised a totally different approach. With many years and thousands of fish beneath to his credit, Simon has found that when trolling, by far the highest strike:landed fish ratio is achieved by fishing a really ‘light’ clutch. When a fish strikes a lure it is allowed to peel off many yards of line, while the boat kept running ahead. The theory is that when the fish is jumping, which is invariably immediately after hook up, a tight clutch is more likely to assist the fish throwing the lure. The mouth of a tiger fish is incredibly bony, there are only a few places in which a hook can penetrate and take hold, and obviously the longer the hooks stay in the fishes mouth the more chance of at least one of these obtaining a firm hold.
At best during that first day we were landing one fish to every four strikes, though at times these odds swung dramatically in favour of the fish. The average size of those tigers we were catching was between 2-6lb, but we did lose a few large fish ,which were comfortably in excess of 10lb. One big fish in particular had been hooked for almost five minutes, until it had actually chewed the back end off a Rapala; hooks, split rings, anchoring wire and all!
In addition to tiger fish, the Zambezi pays host to a wide variety of other fish species, many of which fall readily to lure fishing techniques. We caught several exquisitely coloured robustous bream, locally called nembwe. These were caught either trolling or casting short stubby lures to within a few yards of the steep over hanging banks.. Lure will also take a species of catfish that is known locally as barbel, but which hit a lure and fight with more ferocity than I’d ever previously given any species of catfish credit for. One such barbel, a chunky fish about 4lb in weight, was actually attacked by a huge tiger as I played it towards the boat!
By late afternoon I had almost but not quite broken the elusive 10lb barrier. Despite Simon’s unremitting confidence, my hopes of doing so were starting to fall with the setting sun.
For perhaps half an hour we had been working a particularly deep looking pool, just us, the ever present kingfishers, and a delightful pair of rare African spotted-otters. We’d had had a few hits, caught a fish or two, then Simon suggested a change of lures. These were soon set to work and Simon positioned the skiff for another pass through the length of the pool. About halfway through, almost precisely at a spot which earlier Simon had predicted to be the optimum fish holding spot, my big fish struck. When it was finally landed and weighed that fish weighed just better than 15lb!
For the rest of my trip to Impalila Island I concentrated fly fishing, along with game viewing in the adjacent Chobe National Park in Botswana, where I had the unique experience of fly fishing with herds of elephant, buffalo, antelope and even lions keeping me company on the adjacent banks.
Truly tigerfish are a classic species to take with the fly rod, and there is excellent fly water throughout much of the Zambezi and Chobe Rivers, as well as the more sedate flowing Kasai Channel that interconnects the two and is noted as being a big fish area. Some of the very best fly water I found most conveniently located right next to the lodge, The Mambova rapids.
Were you fishing for salmon in Scotland you would declare the Mambova rapids, which run for a mile or more through dense jungle to join the main river, to be near perfect salmon water, this entire piece of water could have been purpose built with the fly fisher in mind. It consists of a complex system of interconnected delicious looking pools of deep, translucent water that tumble invitingly one to the next through short throats of white water. Everywhere there are pockets of slack and tempting looking back eddies and swifter flowing riffles of fast water, all demanding attention with the fly. Often there are conveniently placed boulders and slabs of bed rock, which provide perfect casting platforms from which to cover each pool.
Beyond the rivers any association with a salmon river river ends abruptly. The Mambova rapids are Africa, running through jungle thickets and dense woodland that echo’s constantly to the cacophony of sound which is the African bush. On one magical evening I had been fishing one particular pool for perhaps ten minutes, when suddenly my eye was drawn to movement on the bank perhaps 20 yards to my left. There I saw a pair of elephant quietly browsing the foliage of a fruiting tree, obviously they had been aware of me long before I became aware of them, and after a brief moment of concern I relaxed and went back to my fishing. When next I looked they were gone, disappearing into the dense bush without sound.
There is also one other big difference from all too many salmon rivers; the Mambova rapids are full of fish. To fly or lure fish the rapids you forego the high speed fishing boats based at the lodge, and take a huge step back in time to a River Zambezi that Livingston would have been familiar with, and board, very precariously at first, a native ‘mokoro’ or dugout canoe.
For the first ten minutes or so that I first at in a mokoro I nervously clutched my bag of precious camera’s on my lap, convinced that at any moment we were going to tip over and that I would have to swim for the nearest bank. But gradually I realised that this was not so, and in no time at all the cameras were set aside forgotten for the moment, and I concentrated on casting my fly at each and every inviting pocket of water we passed.
Victor, my guide, slowly poled me along the papyrus lined edge of the channel, and I became totally absorbed in the fishing and the wildlife. Eventually we reached the head of the rapids where Victor beached the mokoro on a rock. I stepped out and found a comfortable position, and started casting the bright orange fly across and down the pool in the classic way. Two or three fish followed the fly on the first three casts, yet each time they veered away without taking right at the last moment. “Strip faster,” Victor quietly advised, so as the fly swung to the dangle on the next cast I ripped it back as fast as I could.
Once again I soon saw the tell tail flashes of fish shadowing the fly, only this time suddenly everything went solid as the fly was stopped dead in its tracks. To say that a tiger fish ‘takes’ a fly would be something of an under statement. Salmon ‘takes’ a fly, a trout may ‘sip’ or ‘inhale’ a fly; tiger fish maul, nail, attack and savage a fly, spinner, plug or any other possible food source with such a burst of unleashed ferocity, it is you unlikely you will ever come to terms with the experience.
My first fly caught tiger was a baby of about a 2lb, but what a fighter! Soon afterwards I hooked and lost after a few minutes a fish which was clearly well over 10lb, which left me physically shaking for the better part of ten minutes after we parted company. Throughout the remaining days of my trip I caught plenty more tigers on the fly, gradually becoming more and more engrossed with fly fishing for tiger fish.
Undoubtedly tigerfish are one of the greatest game fish in the world, and if this alone isn’t sufficient to tempt you to try for them then please take it from me, casting a fly, spinner plug or any other type of lure while elephant casually browse the river margins and fish eagles cry mournfully overhead is one hell of an experience!