One freshwater fish on the African continent reigns supreme for sheer fly-fishing excitement--the Tigerfish. A river system standing out as a great fishery for the species is the mighty Zambezi River and its tributaries and channels, notably the Chobe River. Countries that you can visit to fish these waterways are Zambia, Namibia, and Botswana, and if you make your base near where the countries meet, you have a fantastic amount of water to target Tigerfish. You can fly from the UK into Johannesburg in South Africa and take a flight from there to the areas you will be wanting to fish. Most anglers tend to stay at lodges such as the Sekoma Island Lodge in Zambia. The lodges may provide not only accommodation, but boats and experienced guides as well, vital for first-timers to get the best out of the area. Time of year is important for your visit, depending on the type of fishing you wish to pursue. May to the end of July sees the flood plains emptying their water into the main river, bringing with them bait fish that are targeted by the Tigers.
Rod & Reel
Flight times from the UK are long and with a fair amount of luggage to haul about, this is where the
Orvis Frequent Flyer rods come into their own--these seven-piece rods are so handy for travel. I would recommend the 9' 8-weight model. In addition to the convenience, I find this rod handles Tigerfish superbly, even large double-figure fish. As with any rod, make sure you check the joints are still secure every so often while fishing.
The take and initial run of any sized Tiger is awesome and it is difficult to judge the size of the fish at first as they all go like an express train. This is where a quality reel proves its worth,--those that say a fly reel is only there to hold the line and balance the rod have not fished for Tigers (try playing one of these by hand and you will have no fingers left)! My personal choice of reel is the Orvis Battenkill Large Arbor IV model, which has a fantastic drag system.
Line & Leader
On slower and less powerful sections of river, such as bays, the line I find works extremely well is the Depth Charge model in the appropriate line weight of 7, 8, or 9. This gives excellent line control, although for the main river channel you will find that a more conventional fast sinking line such as the WF Class V sinker model will get down to, and hold, the feeding depth better. My backing is Gel-spun which is extremely strong and allows more capacity to allow for those searing Tigerfish runs.
Forget about long leaders, as I have caught Tigers on leaders of less than two foot! Certainly a nine foot leader is all you will need. Super Strong Abrasion Resistant AR leaders provide good turnover for large flies and give a good safety factor. Take the AR tippet spools of the same material to compliment the leaders.
Tigers are sometimes fished for without a wire trace, but personally I have seen too many good fish lost to subscribe to this theory and use a wire trace. Retwistable Haywire Bite Guards are useful to have in your tackle bag.
For flies, try Clousers, Deceivers, and Rabbits. As is always the case, it pays to talk to your guides and listen to their advice! Needless to say the only hooks you should use are barbless, as catch and release is encouraged.
Landing Tigers is generally achieved with the assistance of a Bogagrip--a fish-friendly piece of kit that clamps around the lower jaw of the fish and incorporates a weighing scale. Landing nets are not widely used as it is thought the Bogagrip is better for the fish--although, with modern, knotless nets I feel this is not necessarily the case. An advantage of the Bogagrip is that you do not have to extract a Tiger from a net--the Tiger's teeth have an anticoagulant on them and a bite is to be avoided at all costs. You will find a good pair of forceps invaluable for hook removal, Power Jaw and Scissor Forceps are ideal for this.
Fishing is normally carried out from boats, often drifting but sometimes at anchor or tied to the bank.
Tactics are fairly simple--casting and letting the line swing around, across, and downstream, and then tweak the fly back towards you (as you would fish a team of North Country Spiders). Tigers have very bony mouths and you will lose a percentage of fish, so it is essential that you do not allow any slack line during the fight. Tigers are famed for their jumping ability and, unlike many styles of fishing where you need to keep the rod high to use the shock-absorbing characteristics of the rod blank, you need to get the rod low--often underwater--to cut out the jumps, as this is when the Tigers often throw the hook.
Other sporting fish that may be encountered on your trip are numerous. One is the Nembe, a type of Bream, and a really hard-fighting fish. They are found amongst the bankside vegetation and undercut banks. You will not need a wire trace, but strong tackle is required to get the fish out of the swims they tend to inhabit. Often, fishing from the bank is the best way to keep the fly in the target zone, but keep an eye open for the toothy wildlife ashore!
Clothing should be chosen with the climate in mind. This seems obvious, but May to July is actually the winter in this part of Africa. Shirts such as the Open-Air Casting Shirt and the Marquesas II are ideal for daytime use when it is warm, along with a waistcoat such as the Clearwater® Fly Vest if required, and suitable headgear. The early mornings and evenings are cool, setting off just after dawn and heading upriver at speed will have you freezing unless you are prepared with some warmer clothing that can be shed during the day. Waders are not recommended in the crocodile- and hippo-infested waters, but I found Wet Wading Shoes useful for messing about in the boats and the occasional (quick) dip in the river.
Safety is, of course, paramount in any fishing but slightly more important here than in a normal river or lake back in the UK. Of course, a hat and Polaroid glasses should be used automatically, but you will also need a strong mosquito repellant and anti-malaria tablets. The tablets do not stop you contracting malaria, but lessen the effect--prevention is always better than cure. You will also need inoculations against various diseases, and your doctor can recommend what you require before you leave. Don't forget your sun block and hand-cleaning gel.
Although you have to be prepared, Africa is an absolutely awe-inspiring continent with friendly people and the wildlife is simply fantastic. Take it from me--you will never forget the African Tigerfish experience.
Bob Milne on the Zambezi River at dawn