Vicious Encounters

It wasn’t clear what woke me. Was it the melodic sound of the Lozi Tribe’s women humming as they prepared fresh coffee in the pre-dawn hour, or the peaceful gurgling of the Zambezi River as it glided not more than three-feet from the door of my safari tent? In any case…I was awake. Opening the door, I grabbed the flask of coffee that had been quietly placed on my tent veranda a few minutes earlier. As the sun crept over the dense jungle, tendrils of steam swirled on the water’s surface. I sipped my coffee—enjoying the solitude and time it offered me to reflect on the day ahead. It was the kind of calmness and tranquillity that I knew would be torn to shards at the first savage strike of an infamous tigerfish.


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Photo: Keith Clover

Circling Victoria Falls the afternoon prior, I was pleased to notice what looked like a healthy drop in water level. Gauging by a mark left on the submerged tree stump outside my tent, my aerial observations were affirmed. From a nearby palm, the unmistakable call of a Huguenots robin brought me back to the present. I rose from my veranda chair and made my way toward the client’s tents. As is most often the case on high-end fly-fishing trips, my clients were up and ready, eager to test their skills on the mighty Zambezi.

By tying flies that accurately imitate the baitfish washed off the plains, fly fishermen commonly out fish lure fishermen 10:1.

Hydrocynus vittatus, directly translated “Striped Water Dig,” and commonly known as the tigerfish is arguably one of the world’s strongest and most savage fly-fishing targets. During the months of June through November, those in the know make their way to the Zambezi and Okavango Rivers in southern Africa to target these fish, along with a host of other species that call this unique watershed home.

After a quick bite to eat, we boarded our motorized boats. We would be fishing a stretch of productive water 30-minutes upstream from our secluded island camp. From June through August (the dry winter months), the warmer waters of the upper Zambezi flood plains recede and flow back into the main Zambezi channel, taking vast quantities of recently spawned baitfish from the relative safety of their nurseries. Tigerfish and numerous predatory bream are aware of this phenomenon and feed aggressively during these months.

By tying flies that accurately imitate the baitfish washed off the plains, fly fishermen commonly out fish lure fishermen 10:1. As with most baitfish imitations, size, color and profile are the key factors in design. Variations of Clousers, Rabbit Zonker baitfish patterns and Whistlers are common. Most flies are tied on #2 stinger hooks. Effective patterns are black, black over grey, black over red, grey over yellow and fire tiger. Sparsely tied flies with minimal or no flash are the order of the day here.

Rounding a bend in the river, I caught a glimpse of the grassy bank filled with egrets feeding on helpless baitfish. Giving the birds a wide berth, I cut the motor 200-yards upstream from the activity. With my clients taking up their positions on the stern, we began our drift into the srike zone. Fast-sinking fly lines are standard, as getting a fly deeper in the water column is imperative when targeting trophy tigers on the Zambezi. Casts are made up and across towards the banks or productive looking structure. My heart began to race as we neared the stretch of feeding birds. The telltale swirl and occasional ruby flash of tigerfish tails were a clear indication of the feeding frenzy taking place below the surface. I waited for the unmistakable shrieks of an angler being smashed by a savage strike.

Turning briefly to check our drift, I heard a muffled grunt indicative of a fly angler having just connected with a solid fish. Spinning around towards the sound, I glimpsed shear panic in John’s eyes. Shouting instructions to keep his rod tip pointed to the fish, I watched as the line jumped and popped off the deck looking for a reel or appendage to wrap on. As the line cleared the deck and the reel’s drag engaged, the bloodthirsty tiger cleared the water in a typical head-shaking attempt to rid itself of the fly.

The following couple of hours provided some of the finest fly-fishing action I have had the privilege to guide in. Both clients landed a handful of trophy fish, but many more were lost. The frustration felt by the anglers clearly showed at times. With a hookup to landing ratio of roughly 5:1, tigerfish can put a severe dent in one’s angling ego. Having your fly repeatedly spat back at you by trophy tigers, in some cases even landing back in the boat, is an extremely humbling experience.

The Smoke Settles
With frayed nerves, burnt stripping gloves and hungry stomachs, we enjoyed lunch on a nearby sand bank. We decided to give the tigers a break that afternoon and target nembwe—an aggressive bream species found on the upper Zambezi and Okavango Rivers. They are ambush predators, preferring structure from which to attack their prey. The combination of technical fishing, the nembwe’s bullish tendencies, and their glorious emerald coloring place it high on the Zambezi want-to-catch list.

The following four days were spent in much the same fashion. Tigerfish were given the majority of our attention, with nembwe and the lesser-known species of thin-faced largemouth and African pike throwing some variation into the mix. No visit to Africa would be complete without taking time away from the fishing to enjoy the rich assortment of game and bird life. We spent a day viewing game in the world-renowned Chobe National Park in neighbouring Botswana, a 45-minute boat trip from the lodge. The Chobe National Park, covering an area of 10,566 square kilometres, has one of the greatest concentrations of big game found on the African continent.

There was no doubt as to what awoke me on the last day of our safari. It was the unmistakable sound of heavy line being ripped off the water as John battled to roll-cast a heavy Clouser into the channel flowing outside his tent. Watching silently through my tent window, I wondered whether I should offer any advice since there was a more accessible spot just 20-meters downstream. Not wanting to wake the other guests, I decided to leave it for a couple of minutes and observe. It wasn’t long before he had a strike. The loose line was forcefully yanked through his fingers and his body contorted as he hopped around clearing the line at his feet. A big loop of line shot up and wrapped around his rod butt. I have been a character in this scenario many times, and waited for the painful ending. The sickening sound of parted leader put an end to the chaos.

For some, it’s a curse that results in countless restless nights and unproductive days in the office, while for others it’s a disease where seeking the cure brings exotic adventures, new friendships and wonderful places. Welcome to the Zambezi.

Where to Toss the Bags

The easiest way to fish the upper Zambezi is to fly into Johannesburg, South Africa. There are daily regional flights from Johannesburg on both British Airways and Nationwide Airlines to Livingstone Airport in Zambia. As the gateway to the upper Zambezi, it is advisable to spend a day and night in Livingstone to experience the multitude of activities this small town has to offer. The Royal Livingstone Hotel is a favorite and a mere stones throw from the Falls. Other first class options include the Tongabezi and The River Club.

There are two options to fish the upper Zambezi, either land based (generally on small islands below the flood plains) within luxury lodges, or aboard water-based houseboats. These options are open year-round, so it is advisable to book through a reputable operator to ensure you visit and fish the area during peak season.

Other Notes of Interest About Zambia

  • Zambia’s Capital is Lusaka
  • Covers an area of 752,624 square km
  • Population roughly 12 million
  • Summer rainfall (November – April) and dry winters (June – September)
  • Official language is English, but there are 70 tribal dialects making Zambia one of the most multilingual nations in the world.

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Keith Clover