Fly Fishing for Zambezi Tiger Fish

A helluva fish to take on a fly

In the Pacific Northwest the killer game fish to catch on a fly is the legendary Steelhead, but in southern Africa the bad boy on the block in the Tiger Fish, a game fish par excellence, and one hell of a fish to catch on a fly. Tiger have been sought after as a game fish in the region for many years, probably since the fist baited hook was dropped into the Zambezi. As a sport fishing quarry, my memory of tiger fishing was that it tended to be caught on a specific, two-tone spoon that was white or silver on the outside and red on the inside, presenting an orange/silver flash as it was retrieved. The idea of catching tiger on a fly has always been there, but it has been the development of improved equipment and techniques that has allowed the the sport to flourish on the Zambezi, and elsewhere in the region where the fish occur, to the point where significant fish are quite frequently taken these days on a fly. And needless to say the sport has become commercialized, with the result that quite a number of opportunities to get onto the river at different points are available, as well as other opportunities further north in Tanzania and DRC, and further south in South Africa.

Tiger Fish: Hydrocynus – there are five species of fish within this genus, all known as African Tigerfish. The largest, most aggressive and most sought after member of the genus is the Goliath Tigerfish, reaching at times to weights of 50kg, it is found mainly found in the Congo River Basin, Lualaba River as well as Lake Upemba, and Lake Tanganyika. Probably the best known is the Hydrocynus vittatus, or simply Tiger Fish, which is the species found in the Zambezi, Lake Kariba in Zambia, Zimbabwe, Cabora Bassa in Mozambique, and  in the Jozini dam in South Africa.

Catching tiger fish on a fly is actually the easy part

Tiger are known as highly aggressive and dominant predators, which means that they are not shy about attacking. So the sport does lack some of the finer technicalities that would, for example, be required to catch even a nine inch cutthroat in any of the smaller rivers in the Northwest, and certainly nothing like the kind of patience, perseverance and skill necessary to catch a winter steelhead on a fly. The main factor of hooking a sizable tigerfish on the relatively light tackle that is used is the skill necessary to land what in effect is a turbocharged torpedo on rocket fuel tearing up the water in a ferment of power and fury. The recommended minimum to contain a heavy tiger run is 200 meters of backing, and burning out reels is not uncommon with a really decent sized fish. A tiger easily has the drive to snap the best fly line, and rods for that matter, so a high level of control is necessary, steely calm and a great deal of composure under pressure if you hope to bring the fish in.

Rods, reels and lines appropriate for catching Tiger Fish on a fly

Most outfitters will laugh at you if you show up with anything lighter than a 10 wt rod with appropriate line and tackle. The objective here is not the delicacy of a cast, since the placement and presentation of the fly is of secondary importance to gaining distance, so a sinking line with a nice weigh forward grade will add the extra meters necessary to cover a wide area of water. I personally would recommend a rod with fairly limited flex since it will be the handling of runs, and not close in combat, which will ultimately determine the success of the fight. Tiger are extremely aggressive and will tend to rely on brute force to shake the hook rather than the aerial gymnastic you can expect form a lively steelhead or a big trout. This then also tends to confirm that a high quality reel that can handle the abuse that it is likely to get is also key to success. To burn out a reel during a hard tiger fight and lose a fish is a real heart breaker.

The basic recommended set-up is an eight to ten weight fast action road with an appropriate reel and a fast sinking line. The point that needs to be remembered is that tiger fish are armed with oversized interlocking jaws with bear-trap type teeth that will severe a nylon leader in seconds. This then requires a wire tippet, usually a 40lb test piano wire type, attached to the line by at least a 25lb mono-filament nylon leader. Tiger, unlike trout, do not spook easily, and are not in the least leader shy. Don’t try fishing without a steel trace. This will simply leave a fish in the water with a hook in its mouth.

Fly selections for a tiger

A huge part of the lore and practice of fly fishing is in the selection of the fly. Everybody knows that trout are extremely specific about what they will take and what they will not, and the matter of what, where and how often occupies an enormous amount of debate and experimentation. With tiger fish, however, the matter is a lot more simple. Tiger feed off bait fish, and are not particularly selective, so they will strike at a variety of patterns. They do occasionally show preference for different color patterns so it is worth experimenting if you are having no luck at all. The most successful tiger spoon has always been that which approximates tiger fry, so it makes sense that a dark orange and white pattern with a few silver flashes will get their attention. However salmon flies, salt water flies and heavy trout flies all work. The pros usually recommend deceivers and clousers, and bring a selection, they are not easy to come by in the field. Clouser minnows in grey, black and olive with touches of red, yellow or orange are known to be effective.Hook sizes between 1/0 and 3/0 are recommended

Leader set up

Everybody has their own preference, so there are no hard and fast rules here, but the pros will usually recommend a 3ft to 4ft 20 – 25lb mono leader line attached to fly line using nail knot or an Albright knot followed by a 15 – 20cm 30 – 40lb piano wire tippet tied to the 20 -25lb leader line, also using an Albright knot, with lastly the fly joined by  3 long wraps and 4 tight turns.

Top five Tiger Fish Destinations

  1. Congo River and Tributaries (DRC)
  2. Zambezi River and tributaries, and Lakes Kariba and Caborra Bassa (Zambia/Zimbabwe/Mozambique)
  3. Lake Tanganyika (Tanzania/DRC/Zambia)
  4. Okavango (Botswana)
  5. Lake Jozini (South Africa)