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Chasing tigers in Africa

BUCKET list fishing is a dangerous and expensive obsession and there’s no doubt that my time living and fishing in Australia fueled the desire to catch as many of the world’s amazing fish species as my wallet would allow.

I’ve been lucky enough to tangle with some of those iconic freshwater predators that were once just the stuff of Boy’s Own fishing tales, including the golden dorado of Argentina, the peacock bass of the Amazon and the toothy paraya of the mighty Orinoco river in Columbia. But there was always this one fish that kept on beckoning. A ferocious and powerful predator with a fearful set of gnashers and the ability to leap high out of the water. A fish that can take birds in flight and drag unwary mammals to a watery grave. The African tigerfish is all of this and more, and recently I set out with some friends to make its acquaintance.  

Now I value my life just a little too much to venture into the highly dangerous Congo river system or the other places in Central Africa where the giant goliath tigerfish, in excess of 100lbs, are still to be found. Fortunately it’s smaller cousin, the Hydrocynus vittatus is common in Southern Africa in far more convivial locations including Zambia, Botswana and Tanzania. Most highly recommended was the Lower Zambezi National Park where the tigers ran to double figures and 20lbs specimens were occasionally recorded. That would be more than enough for me – and for my wife Natalie who wanted to celebrate her 60th birthday by seeing elephants in the wild.

In my experience there are very few places in the world where destination anglers can be happily accompanied by their non-fishing wives or partners but the Baines River Camp is somewhere that ticks every box. Situated on the mighty Zambezi, just upstream of the national park, in an area famous for trophy sized tigerfish, it is an angling and wildlife paradise combining adventure with luxury in the heart of Africa. 

Here the river resembles a large, 3/4 mile delta flowing between sand and grass islands upon which can be found elephants, hippos and all manner of water birds. The lodge nestles into the bush alongside the river a few miles upstream of the entrance to the national park. The whole area benefits from conservation policies with only catch and release fishing allowed in the park itself and only indigenous fishing in the wider Game Management Area upstream. Hunting is forbidden in both areas and as a result the wildlife is simply abundant and never more so than in the dry season when the animals flock to the river to drink the water and graze on the remaining foliage. 

A perfect opportunity arose when I was invited to join a group led by my friend and angling guide Dave Lewis who is possibly Britain’s most well travelled fisherman. Dave now runs escorted trips with Spoilt for Choice Travel who organise expeditions to some of the world’s top angling destinations with impressive efficiency. 

The flight time into the Zambian capital of Lusaka takes around 13 hours from London (via Doha) and the same from Perth (via Jo’burg). We were met straight off our plane by a representative of Skytrails, who operate light aircraft journeys into the bush, and were soon enjoying the 25 minute flight over the mountains before a breathtaking view of the Zambezi opened up before us. We were given an early taste of African wildlife as our first landing on the jungle airstrip had to be aborted due to elephants on the runway! 

The Lodge

Natalie and I were part of Dave’s group of nine people who had come to fish and discover the wonderful wildlife in this area. We stayed eight nights at Baines and we all absolutely loved it. It is beautifully situated and nestles amongst the trees overlooking the river. The rooms are air conditioned and very comfortable and the staff can’t do enough for you with a choice of activities available every day. Basically, there was a guide and a boat available for each couple anytime you wanted it and you could chose from fishing, game drives, bush walks, canoeing or just enjoying the bar and pool back at the lodge for either a whole or half a day. 

The Fishing

We were primarily targeting hard fighting tigerfish weighing anything from two to twenty pounds on either cutbait or spinners. Double figure fish are an achievable target here with the chance of trophy size specimens of 15lbs and above. Tigers are legendary for their leaping and ability to throw the hook so we were prepared for losing as many as we hooked, particularly on spin gear. 

With a 15kgs luggage limit on the final flight tackle had to be selected carefully. Luckily the excellent daily laundry service meant that clothes required very little space in the cases. I opted to take a medium spin rod (20 to 50gm) and a heavier (50 to 100gm) version which I figured would double for bait fishing. As an afterthought I also packed a bait casting outfit. The reels were 4000 and 8000 Shimanos and a modest selection of spinners, spoons and a few favourite lures to complete the armoury. I also brought some 3/0 to 6/0 circle hooks for bait fishing which was done either at anchor or on the drift using just a couple of swan shot or a small drilled bullets to get the bait down.  

This all felt rather under gunned in comparison with most of my overseas trips but we were soon to discover that very little tackle was actually needed. The lodge had recently acquired some top quality Daiwa Megaforce bait fishing rods and baitrunner fixed spool reels for use by guests so there was no need for us to bring any of the heavier outfits.

Keith and I eagerly volunteered to fish on the first afternoon while our wives went on their first game drive. We quickly realised that most of the fishing would be with bait from a boat and tried to get used to drifting down with the current while avoiding tangling each others lines. The trick is to remain in touch with the bait with the bait runner on to ensure minimal resistance to the taking fish. Whether through tiredness or incompetence we didn’t quite get it right first time and returned with just a couple of dropped runs to show for our efforts. 

The next day saw us drifting along the Zimbabwe bank and after one missed run I finally connect with a decent sized tigerfish. Unfortunately, Keith’s line became wrapped around mine and the fish took advantage of the resulting slack line to make its escape. A while later I was into another before it leapt skywards and spat out the hook. Welcome to tigerfishing! 

Natalie joined us for a bush lunch and as we made our way back upstream to the lodge I was pleased get off the mark with a small but obliging tiger that made it all the way into the boat. It was now time to stop messing about and catch the trophy fish we came for. 

The next day I was due partner Dave and we started by spinning the edge just inside the park entrance. We were soon getting the odd hit on mepps and spoons with the inevitable jump offs. Luckily for me a nice fish of around five pounds decided to stay hooked along with a couple of smaller specimens. After a while we came to a fallen snag tree which provided a good deflection in the current. A perfect spot to fish at anchor. Swapping the spin rods for the lodge’s excellent bait fishing outfit I pitched a large lump of chessa into the the stream and paid out enough line to enable the bait to trundle round and settle of the edge of the flow. Now all we had to do was wait and hope. 

Some 20 minutes in I had a sharp tug and soon after the bait runner began to tick as a fish steady took line. As the rod loaded up I was determined to get this tiger to the boat. Playing it firmly but carefully with the rod kept low I managed to avoid any of those hook spitting jumps. Hardly surprising since the culprit turned out to be a rather unpleasant electric catfish! 

It was clearly time to take a break from fishing and enjoy a game drive. We saw some truly memorable wildlife on the game drives, both from land and water, with our friendly and highly knowledgeable guides. There was everything from elephants to egrets and, on one drive, Natalie counted more than 25 species of animals and birds including lions, leopard, zebra and the extremely rare African wild dogs. We even saw elephants, hippos, baboons and monkeys in the grounds of the lodge, right near to where we were eating and sleeping. Fortunately the guests were escorted back to our rooms by security staff once night fell just to ensure we were all tucked up safe and sound. 

A change of fortune

On day three my luck finally changed. By now several of the party had landed tigers into low double figures with all the biggest fish coming to bait rather than lures. Dave and I had organised a short afternoon session with our guide Jimmy and we again began by spinning the edge a mile of so below the Baines River Camp and close to Royal Zambezi Lodge. No hits were forthcoming and I had just rigged up the bait rod for a spot of drifting while Dave continued spinning. All of the sudden he was into a small tiger that inevitably fell off beside the boat. Jimmy steadied the boat enabling Dave to cast into the same area and immediately his rod crunched over as another lively tiger smashed into his mepps. For some reason I had this instinctive feeling that maybe a bigger fish might be lurking nearby, attracted by all the commotion. Tigerfish are, afterall, renowned cannibals. So I pitched my filet of chessa a couple of yards beyond Dave’s hooked fish and before I could engage the bail arm line starting peeling off the spool at a rate of knots. There’s never any need to strike with circle hooks so I just let the rod load up and it became clear immediately that we were into something special. A big tigerfish is an immensely powerful beast and this one was no exception. The initial fast runs became deep surging power dives but the tackle held firm and after a few anxious minutes we could see the shape of a very large tiger a few yards from the boat. Predictably it launched itself out the water in a final attempt to shake the hook but it was such a heavy, thickset fish that the jump lacked the aerobatics of its smaller cousins. It landed with a thump more reminiscent of a baby cow falling off a cliff that a leaping salmon! 

A couple more short runs and it was all over as Jimmy expertly scooped up sixteen and half pounds of Zambezi gold into the landing net and two very happy anglers began a slow ride back to the lodge grinning from ear to ear. Although we didn’t know it at the time we had just landed the fish of the week. 

By now the party was racking up an impressive haul of both tigers and vundu catfish. Everyone had doubles. I think our final total was over 20 doubles with plenty of back up fish, shared amongst eight anglers. Although there were quiet days for us all it was a week of stella fishing in anyone’s book. 

My final couple of sessions were eventful for different reasons. Dave and I opted to fish our last two short afternoon / evening sessions upstream of the lodge in the Game Management Area which has less angling pressure than the national park. The features up here were less in the way of bankside structure and more a case of drop-offs from sandbars and current confluences around the islands. Jimmy took us to a nice mid river drop-off and anchored us alarmingly close to a pod of hippos. Apparently the small fish feast on hippo poo and the tigers are eventually attracted to party. Anyway the theory worked as Dave was soon away and landed a decent sized tiger before my rod absolutely tore off and after a fierce fight I landed my one and only vundu. 

We returned to same spot on the final evening and after a while Dave had a run which failed to hook up. My turn came a while later and for the third time I found myself attached to a specimen tigerfish. All was going well and I got the fish close enough to the boat to see that this was at least 12 pounds if not more. As Jimmy prepared the net the fish gave one last, rather tired jump and promptly spat the hook. Frustrating as this was my perspective soon returned as we sped upstream watching the sun set over the valley and the elephants coming to drink at the water’s edge. 

The Lower Zambezi is indeed a very special place and Baines River Camp will give you the trip of a lifetime whether your passion is fishing or wildlife, or hopefully both. I shall be back there very soon. 

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