Lake Kariba and the first Tiger Fish

This entry is part 1 of 11 in the series Getting the Reels in Motion - Fly Fish Africa 2013

Arriving on lake Kariba on Christmas eve did not bode well for fishing. The party seemed to have started early. Neil Gordon, an old friend who was joining us on the lake, and who I had bumped into earlier in Harare, wandered unsteadily over to our lake side chalet fairly late in the afternoon. He and I had chatted in Harare a few days earlier over a few beers about the prospects of catching a decent sized tiger fish on a fly. He was, and is, a Kariba aficionado, and although he had heard or it done successfully on the Zambezi River, he had never heard of a fly being tried on the lake, which is, after all, simply a massive dammed reservoir on the Zambezi River. The idea had captured his interest, there seemed no reason why it should not succeed. A few days later he was still interested.

Peter!’ He said, in that gruff, short, heavily accented white Zimbabwean way. ‘Want catch some fish?’

I had always known Neil to be a wild character, and thirty or so years on from our youth not too much appeared to have changed. He was wearing his Christmas hat and had already been out on the lake during the course of the day. He had caught nothing of interest, but in the grand Kariba tradition he had sunk enough beer to put him in the festive mood.

Neil Gordon in festive mood

Neil Gordon in festive mood

Charara is a sprawling and rather ramshackle camp site set against a deep inlet of the lake. It also has very much of a white Zimbabwean flavor. In the old days Kariba was a favorite playground for the hard drinking, hard living and moneyed class of white Rhodesians who sported on the lake, gambled in the casinos and of course exploited to the maximum the fantastic potential for world-class sport fishing over the 5000 or so square kilometers of pristine habitat. I am not sure why more of the affluent black community of Zimbabwe, a fast growing and extremely wealthy social strata, do not make more active use of the lake, but it certainly was evident as the camp site filled up with boats and trailers and high end SUVs that the majority of revelers where white.

 Anyway, my intention here is not to explore the demographic peculiarities of Zimbabwe. The fishermen here are serious. The kit on display is expensive. Most family and casual groups are out to catch bream, or other ‘dopa dopa’ bait-caught fish of the tilapia type that proliferate on the lake, and make fantastic sport and superb eating.[1] Others move with more intent, congregating in secretive circles and moving out onto the lake with the first light of dawn, hunting that most famous lake predator, the catching of which marks the moment when a man, a woman or a child enters the major league of accomplished sport fishermen.

 The main tool of choice here is the Penn type coffee grinder reel, or bait casters, and occasionally a spin reel, all armed traditionally with an ugly red and silver spoon spinner, but lately with an assortment of commercial spoons and spinners, and of course also baited with tiger fillets or kapenta, which is a tiny white bait type school fish that occurs in huge numbers. There is a debate underway about the ethics of chumming tiger to the surface, which for tournament fishing is now quite a common practice. Is it cheating or is it not? The jury, of course, is still out, regardless of which it is frequently done and is usually successful.

A selection of likely fly patterns

A selection of likely fly patterns

 Personally I had no interest in chumming, but I kept it in the back of my mind as a contingency should I have no luck with the more orthodox methods. This was my first time, not only chasing tiger, but chasing it on a fly. I was filled with the type of beginners optimism that is usually premised on nothing but the expectation that God smiles on the amateur – beginners luck as they say. It was also the first use of the new kit I had acquired in the US for the journey –  the first cast on fresh line – so this inaugural trip out had an experimental flavor about it.

Neil Gordon had been fishing Kariba all of his life and he quite clearly knew his stuff. His initial strategy was to drift out close in on Chararra Camp where the dull, sediment laden water from the Chararra River met the clean lake water, and where the tiger would theoretically be waiting for the water level to rise sufficiently for them to enter the river channel on their breeding cycle. This sounded reasonable enough. He and I met outside his chalet and loaded up my 10wt rod and a couple of six packs before moving off down to the lake shore to launch his compact but sleek and powerful ski-boat. Beyond the mud banks the hippo languishing inshore and the lake stretched out to the far horizon placid and clean. The mid-afternoon wind had died down, the sun was low, reflecting mirror like on the water, blue, butter-yellow and extremely beautiful. To complete the atmospherics the cry of a fish eagle, that quintessential sound of Africa, echoed across the lake.

A fairly typical Kariba fishing location

A fairly typical Kariba fishing location

Neil and I put out on the water, drifted out of the harbor area and made towards the mouth of the Chararra River, and my long anticipated meeting with that fat tiger waiting just beneath the murky surface of the water. Neil, florid, merry, deeply embedded in the festivities – a man who had embraced life, many times, perhaps too many times – was embracing a little of it again. He was watching with interest as my heavy, 250 grain, weight-forward line spun out of the guides and snaked that little black and orange fly out across the water. It dropped in cleanly, exciting just the merest ripple on the surface of the water. I let it sink for ten or fifteen seconds and began the retrieve.

Tiger have a reputation for slamming the lure with muscular intent, leaving no doubt in the mind of the angler what is on the end of that line. Neil is a tournament grade angler. Under tournament conditions he tends to use a light leaders, sometimes as little as 5lb, meaning that even the lightest touch could potentially break the line. The skill required to bring in a seven kilo plus fish with those restrictions is quite hard to conceptualize. I was not going to take those types of chances. I was using a twenty five pound leader as per the recommendations of the fishing guides up river who, quite understandably, want to ensure that their clients catch.

First cast, second cast, and third. Nothing. I dropped the fly several times against a petrified mopani stump such as punctuate the shoreline in many of the shallower reaches.[2] Most tiger are caught in fifteen feet of water, so this would make twenty foot of depth ideal, and with the proximity of a submerged object – a tree stump in this case – the odds of catching an adult tiger were fair. But nothing happened. Several casts later I sat down, Neil handed me a beer, his smile broad, his sense of life’s worth complete. ‘This is life…’ he said, and he was right. It is life, the absolute and pure essence of living. This is what work is for, what the journeys of life arrive at, and what death ultimately makes worthwhile.

We set off again at a slow cruise with the line in the water, briefly forgotten about as those mysteries of life were pondered over one beer, and then another. Trawling with a fly breaks every rule, this is most certainly true, and yet I allowed the line to linger in the water, in fact I even fed a few meters out as the boat drifted on the current. We were in the sedimented water, moving into a wide bay, hippos yawning, crocodiles sliding malevolently under the surface and the fish eagles shrieking to one another across the evening water. This is the point at which men find easy communion, sensing in their own pulse the profundity of life and nature, the warmth of fellowship and the beauty of existence – lubricated, of course, by that great compost of philosophy, alcohol – and by the easing of the mind that the rhythm of the cast generates, and magnifies. These are the great moments of fishing that explain to us why we do what we do, thinking about this thing, this ritual, this feeling, this raw essence of life…!

A clear warning often not heeded

A clear warning often not heeded

And then, abruptly, the moment was shattered. There was a solid hit on the line – harder and more unexpected than anything that I have ever felt on the end of a fly rod. The drag, set loose, spun out with that manic and adrenalin surging buzz. My heart leaped. I struck to set the hook but it was gone almost as soon as it happened. Twice it returned, following the fly, one touch, and then another, but no definitive take. And then it was gone completely.

Such was my introduction to a tiger, and it was as I suspected. Nothing else could hit with such virility, with such a sense of purpose, with such disdain and singular lack of caution.

But sadly that was to be it for the night. Evening was upon us. We coursed the tide line, where the dirty and clean water meet, and where the tiger where supposed to be in their holding pattern, but no interest was shown in my offering. Could it be the presentation? With opportunity waning I quickly switched flies from an orange and white exciter to orange and black. Neil was, and remains convinced that orange and red is the color for tiger. Several times I cast in several different places, but no luck.

By then it was almost dark, and once again the warm glow of fellowship began to intrude on my desire to catch. Line was retrieved, and with fresh beers in hand, the sun almost lost beneath a rain-soaked and cloudy horizon, we began to yarn. I had not seen Neil for many years’. Then I was a snotty kid and he a fresh journeyman, one of those guys who had done their national service – hard drinking, hard partying lads with both verve and energy. I cannot say that I ever knew him well, but I knew that he was a man who lived his life to the full. ‘This is life’, he would say, and he said it often. His face revealed the fact. He was florid, and sunburned, a drinking man’s complexion, without apology. We chatted about tiger fish, of drunken boat accidents in the middle of the lake, of intemperate souls leaning into the water to wash away the fish slime and losing hands or fingers to crocs…

A beautiful place to fish

A beautiful place to fish

And then, dammit, my 120 dollar fly-line, unknowingly drifting out on the wind, wrapped itself around the prop. The engine stalled. Neil quickly lifted it out of the water and leaned over, inches from the surface, and unwrapped what he could. The crocodile’s famous instinct for a crisis immediately seemed to attract one or two of them into close patrol, and soon more of these loathsome creatures began to circle the boat. Neil had had a few drinks by then, and this is precisely where the danger lies. Drink and crocodiles, that formula which almost always works out in favor of the crocodile. He managed to unwind a few feet of line, but it was too risky to try to take more in, and it was abandoned. The line that remaining on the prop shaft seemed to have locked the engine in reverse, and Neil backed onto a mud bank. By then the crocs were even more  interested. The engine churned mud and water as we spun in a circle. By then the evening had deepened into twilight, and when we finally lifted off the bank there was some relief, and we headed back to shore in ignominiously in reverse, finishing off the beers, and happy…

*     *     *     *     *

Christmas morning, and the first trip out onto the lake boded ill. A cooler box and a the worm box. All the ladies were present and the signs were clear that no big fish were on the menu. Christmas is a family time after all, and one must contain oneself. I opted to take along a light rod armed with a floating line and a green, brass beaded microbugger. The plan was to fish among the weeds so a sinking line would only have resulted in constant snags. After dispensing with the formalities of Christmas morning – gifts, felicitations and all the rest – we finally powered out onto the lake just as heavy morning storm clouds broke over the lake and engulfed us all in a deluge of warm summer rain. The event broke the heat, thankfully, and of course also excited the fish. However nothing touched the baited hooks that were sunk to the shallow lake floor. My microbugger, on the other hand, skimming the surface, solicited an immediate hit. This was not a soft mouthed bream but something extremely hard and aggressive. The day-glo floating line shot down towards the green depths, followed by a solid and hard knock on my cheap fibreglass 4/5wt trout rod, tipped as it was with a 5lb filament leader that would never have stood up to the gnashing mill of even the smallest tiger’s jaws. And sure enough, as I retrieved my line and brought up the fly, all that remained was a few strands of brass wire and a bent hook.

Storm over Matusadona

Storm over Matusadona

Here in the shallows is the tiger fish nursery. If this is what a baby tiger can do to a solidly built woolly bugger then what damage can a ten or fifteen pounder do to anything else? I found myself beginning to appreciate that I might have underestimated this fish. I quickly added a piano wire trace and a larger steelhead fly to my floating line and tossed it out again. I tried the orange and white exciter that had attracted the first hit the day before, but nothing much happened, and after a few casts I switched to another exciter Zulu pattern exciter. Again an almost immediate strike sees the line shoot downward, but with a quick shake it is gone.

While frustrating, all of this was at least proving that these fish do take flies, and will take a fly. The conventional wisdom until then had been that tiger fish will attack any baitfish pattern on the river, but will rarely take a fly on the lake. And although I had yet to catch one, and without doubt the hits that I had felt up until then had not suggested any particularly big fish, I was beginning to suspect that any pattern with enough colour and energy in its construction and presentation will yield some sort of response from a feeding tiger.

Soon enough the rain, the cool wind and the general gloom of the lake begins to have the ladies hinting at an early return. This, when ignored, excites more strident pleas, that are difficult to ignore. Mince pies, Christmas cake, coffee and such like dominate the conversation, and the fact is, it was Christmas day, and so we spun the boat around and made our way back towards Chararra.

The heavy storms settle into a light but steady rain of the type that usually lingers for several days. A termite hatch suddenly erupted in various places around the campsites, releasing plumes of winged flying ants into the air. Suddenly from everywhere birds descended and a feeding frenzy began to roll out over the acres of mowed kikuyu grass. Out from the thickets and vleis toads appeared and begin to gorge. As the plume drifted on the wind, and washed slowly over the lake, bream began to rise on the placid, rain rippled surface. All of this suggested tremendous excitement under the surface as feeding begans in earnest. However, feeding also begans in earnest above the surface as the human species begins its ritual Christmas meal. Neal also suddenly began to lose interest as the party warmed up. A fatalistic feeling settled. That the fish that I was hunting would not be caught that day.

*     *     *     *     *

‘I am feeling pretty excited about this’ I said as I arrived at Neil’s chalet to find him working on his outboard motor to free up the gear jam.

‘Hell’s teeth! He replied. ‘I’m always excited when I get on the water.’

Neil was even more florid than usual in the aftermath of much food and drink. His hair was wet, his face streaming with sweat, a smile crooked – almost permanent –  a man happiest in the midst of a party, but happier still on the water. Christmas lunch had begun early, and spilled over into the afternoon.

A good sized bream

A good sized bream

The idea today was to visit a fish farm located a few miles offshore where compacted populations of bream in floating net cages apparently attract hordes of large tiger feeding on escaped fry and other fish attracted to the pellets used to feed the farmed fish. Neil was determined that I would land something on a fly. However, hunting around the bream pens was not only illegal, but it was quite definitely cheating – but Neil was one of those Zimbabwean guys for whom cheating had become so integral to the game that it was not really cheating at all, but just making a plan.

We hit the water. Neil was handling a sleek craft with a heavy engine, and when he powered it up we skidded across the swell like a couple of renegades – he simply enjoying another day on the water and I wondering if this was the day when Neil would finally join the long list of casualties of recklessness excess that littered the lake bottom of Kariba, bringing me along for the ride. However, we arrived safely at the Gachagacha bream farm.

Gachagacha is an incongruous industrial structure floating on the placid lake about ten kilometres from the southern shoreline. It consists of about ten or so circular pens anchored to the floor of the lake, each of which contains thousands of captive bream. On a crude pontoon structure stands a Nissan hut type dwelling, wherein a lonely black man lives for several days of utter tedium before a shift change passes that numbing responsibility on to another. The rules of fishing around the pens define a strict 100m exclusion zone for reasons perhaps of security, but none other it seemed to me. Getting in among the pens, however, was simply a matter of making a plan. In pursuit of this we drifted up to the pontoon and engaged the sentry in a general conversation about Christmas, the tedium of his lot in life and the fact that his Christmas might be improved by the gift of beer and money that would follow him turning a blind eye to us drifting among the pens. To this, with languid but obviously feigned reluctance, he agreed, warning us only that his boss, was a white man like us, and as a consequence could be extremely difficult. He however assured us that he would warn us should he see the boss launch from the shore.

Kariba Bream Farm, tricky to sneak into, but good fishing along the edges of the pens

Kariba Bream Farm, tricky to sneak into, but good fishing along the edges of the pens

Despite these omens there were no fish caught that day. I stood casting from the back of the boat, experimenting with a few different patterns – the orange and white that had yielded the only tangible result so far, but other exciter patterns of different color combinations too, none of which generated even the slightest interest. I would have suspected that my technique was to blame had Neil, armed with a braided line, a bait caster reel and a spinner sweetened with fillets of bream, achieved just as little. The sentry watched from a distance with bored apathy as we drifted among the pens assiduously working the edges, but to no effect at all.

We eventually abandoned the effort and settled in to enjoy the beer, the blue tooth speaker system and another singularly gorgeous Kariba sunset as we drifted back towards Chararra. Neil lamented our lack of luck, to which I replied something to the effect that it was a matter of destiny. My own path would soon collide with that of a fish swimming somewhere in that lake. He chuckled after a moment of considered thought. ‘Fuck you talk bullshit Baxter.’ He replied.

The following day we decamped from Chararra and made our way to Kariba village to board a houseboat for the second phase of the lake journey. The Kariba houseboat is a bit of a Zimbabwean institution, and the local marina is home to a hundred or so of these craft of various sizes, various standards of comfort and various ages. Their evolution has been experimental, with the first models emerging from general engineering shops throughout the country during the early 1970s, and in the main they remain crudely constructed from round and square steel bar, various sizes of angle iron and copious amounts of three millimetre sheet metal. They were originally, and for the most part still are, hugely over constructed, and still in general terms not particularly sophisticated as boat building goes. In recent years standards of comfort have improved, however, because most are corporate owned, and tend to be a corporate perk, although there some that are privately owned and are usually available during non-peak periods for general hire.

Our particular boat was the Hook, a Miekles Corporation craft, hardly luxurious by world standards, but a fine ship, air conditioned, crewed by a captain and three hands, and with several below deck cabins from which we could take our pick. An upper deck with a bar was the main entertainment area, and there we gathered in the close and humid mid-morning atmosphere to watch as the urban backdrop of Kariba slowly slipped away over the blue horizon.

The Hook, Meikles Limited House Boat

The Hook, Meikles Limited House Boat

The usual houseboat routine is to power across the lake to the north shore and the Matusadona Game Reserve which borders the lake. Here, amid the old petrified forests, all now over sixty years old, but still ubiquitous across the lake, and quietly browsing elephant and hippopotamus, we anchored. After drinks and a light lunch we boarded various tender craft and set off in search of fish.

The ladies set off with our host to bait fish for bream in the shallow inlets that line the shore. It is a very pleasant backdrop, characterised by the wide expanse of the lake itself, a grassy fringe leading to the densely wooded habitat of Matusadona, one of Zimbabwe’s premier wildlife reserves, with the high hills of the Matusadona range blue in the distance. The fishing is easy, with bream caught in large numbers on a worm, and the atmosphere in general relaxed and convivial.

Neil and I, however, were hunting a more elusive prey. Tiger are difficult to catch on Kariba for many reasons. They are a menacing predator, without a doubt, and in common with other primary predators in waters across the world, they can be both reckless and frustratingly cautious. They hunt partially by sight, but also by the sensory use of smell and the detection of movement and vibration. They are probably most easily caught with a hook baited either with tiger or bream fillet, clusters of kapenta or occasionally using a beetle like insect known as a banana roach. Chumming with fish detritus is not unusual, but frowned upon by the purists. Perhaps the chief difficulty, however, lies in the fact that the food chain in the lake is rich and varied – ranging from the ubiquitous, and probably over stocked bream, to kapenta, which also proliferates, to various other fish and opportunist insect hatches that occur at various times and places throughout the year. They are, therefore, in many ways spoilt for choice and can afford to be particular. They are fiercely armed, but in the main do not attack and maul a prey that is not consumable whole or in part, and will certainly not frenzy feed on a large animal in the way that a shark or a piranha school might. As a consequence they tend to take in an item, usually a small fish, which they first taste, and spit out if it is not to their liking, at which point it is amongst their huge teeth which makes a strike often times ineffective. In the case of a small fish – a kapenta, a bream or a small tiger – they will mill it with their teeth to descale it before swallowing.

Matusadona National Park occupies a large section of the Kariba shoreline

Matusadona National Park occupies a large section of the Kariba shoreline

There are many different schools of thought on the matter, but the most common method suggested is to let the fish run with the bait, allowing the hook to set only once an attempt has been made to swallow the bait. If bait is being used then this is a fairly safe method, but in the case of a spoon or a spinner, or indeed a fly, the opportunities to lose the fish are many. The hope is that a trout-like strike will take place where the fish hits the lure, presumably moving at speed, offering an opportunity to strike and set the hook before the fish has had time to realize that what it has ingested is inedible.

During the first afternoon Neil and I fished among the petrified forests at a depth of about four to five meters on the edge of a floating weed raft where small fish take refuge and where tiger can be expected to be coursing in search of opportunistic prey. Neil opted to use a large spoon type spinner with a red tint on its outer face and a sizable hook. To this he added a chunk of bream fillet. Casting among the stumps he used a slow retrieve, being rewarded with a solid strike within a few minutes that yielded a superb three kilo tiger which he expertly brought in on a five pound line.

This was a magnificent fish, not large by Kariba standards, but impressive nonetheless, and a beautiful creature that we admired briefly before returning to the green depths. This offered me an opportunity to observe the temper of the creature, the attitude as she was drawn in and the levels of power applied in her resistance to capture, all of which helped gauge the kind of technique that I would need to apply if I hoped to bring in the same sort of sized tiger on a fly rig.

It seemed to me that a hand retrieve might be asking for a severe case of line burn on my index finger, so for a while I adopted the tedium of stripping line off the reel and casting out before slowly retrieving using the crank. I had an idea that if I had a significant strike from a similar sized fish the key tool would be the drag, and bearing in mind the petrified forest, and the sheer opportunity for a fish to tangle up in the woodwork below water, that keeping a tight control would need a fairly heavy drag.

It was all academic at that point though, because nothing was showing any interest in what I had to offer. My selection of flies purchased in the US had been made based on limited information, premised on the understanding that anything that mimics a bait fish is likely to get some result. It is also a fact that tiger fish are known to respond to orange, reds and golds, and I chose accordingly. Tiger have a cannibalistic tendency, so mimicking their own color ranges also makes sense. In addition I chose a number of exciter patterns that I thought would be worth experimenting with. However nothing seemed to be really interesting them, and in fact after his first success of the trip, even Neil was getting no action at all.

The best that could be reported of that first day out on the north shore was an extremely hard strike while casting into a narrow inlet that revealed a quick aerial leap and a thrown fly, offering just a quick sense of the raw power of these fish. It also gave me the sense that what I had available in my fly box was in broad terms adequate, and so long as I did not hook an absolute monster too early in my education, I had an excellent chance of landing a big fish if I was lucky enough to catch one later on in the game.

As evening settled on the lake a buttery moon emerged into a blue velvet sky, with a rose colored wash marking a gently fading horizon. We packed up our kit and raided the cooler one more time before swinging the boat around to the west and powering back towards the faint lights of the house boat.

Mocked up fly that did not really work

Mocked up fly that did not really work

As I lay in my bunk that night it occurred to me that the solution might lie in mocking up a pattern fly to suit the situation. Neil was having success with his kapenta clusters, and with this in mind it seemed to me to make sense to replicate this tiny bait fish with a simple white pattern. With the first hint of dawn I hurried upstairs and introduced myself into the engine room. There I found a length of electrical flex and a handful of muslin dubbing. I stripped the wire and pulled out the cooper core, which I braided into a thin thread to wrap an orange foam earplug around the shank of the hook. Then I built the body with a combination of combed muslin threads and slivers of gold printed aluminum beer can, all beaded with a knot of copper wire. The result was clumsy, however, and when tested it rode awkwardly in the water. With a little bit of adjustment, and some weight re-distribution, a credible fly did eventually emerge.

Later, after breakfast, Neil and I headed out on the lake again, and we tethered against a dead mopane stump from where I sent this ersatz fly out in a dead cast, but it remained awkward, and eventually unworkable. Then, rummaging through Neil’s tackle box, I unearthed a couple of ancient lures, each with a gold and red pattern fly attached to hook at the base. Gold and red make orange, and orange is the tiger color. I immediately clipped one of these off its mount and attached it to a wire leader and sent it out. At first there was nothing to report, but Neil was catching nothing with either kapenta dopa dopa or a baited spin cast. There was simply nothing happening. The heat was oppressive and the water still. When the drinking started concentration began to wane. In due course a stiff breeze began to collapse my cast and a roll cast was failing to cut the air for any distance fore or aft. I did register a running take from a small tiger, but nothing much more than that.

Then, later that evening, Neil and I set off again. The hot weather had broken by then with a leaden sky hanging low over the lake, streaked by fingers of lightning and with several distant storms visible over the lake and over the Matusadona Hills. A high swell was moving obliquely against the land, but the breeze was low, the water dark and brooding and the omens fair. I began to work my improvised lure – the red and gold spinner tail – threading the swell with long casts, using a slow and steady retrieve, with Neil chatting as he passed over one cold can after another. He was whimsical and apparently lost in the pleasure of the moment.

A fly snipped from a spinner that caught both tiger

A fly snipped from a spinner that caught both tiger

Then suddenly the green line stiffened and sharply incised the water, followed by a monumental hit. A fish was on. The power of the strike was extraordinary. The flash of life a few feet below the surface revealing that this was not a big fish, perhaps a kilo, but it was the most energetic creature for its weight that I had ever felt. It did not strip any line though. The flex of the rod absorbed its energies, and using my index finger I let out two or three meters of line and let the fish work itself out. A minute or two later it was in the landing net and on the deck of the boat.

I could hardly have asked for a better result. The size of the fish, and the energy of his fight, put in perspective the probable effect on my line and rod of a much heavier strike. In some ways it dispelled the myth. This fish has limitations. Clearly the fire and fury of the first strike is quickly dissipated after which the fish becomes manageable fairly quickly. A point worth noting, though, is that if catch and release is required then a quick landing is necessary since a long fight often kills the fish. In general, though, it seems that with measured control even a big fish can be fairly easily exhausted, provided that no stumps or anchor ropes are allowed interfere with the free movement of the fish as it runs below the surface.

All of which was still conjecture, of course, because this fish would never impress a hardened tiger angler, but it was a start, and I was happy with it.

*     *     *     *     *

The big fish came a few days later, but before that I was fortunate to have the opportunity to get the feel of a two plus kilo fish caught on a large red backed spinner of indeterminate manufacture, sweetened with a large fillet cut from the flank of fish number one. There was no particular technique involved. The tackle was a Shimano six-bearing bait caster wound with five pound braided line and mounted on a 6ft 6in Shimano scimitar graphite rod of intermediate quality. It took several casts on a fast retrieve to yield a solid thump and a fast run with line peeling off the spool at quite a respectable rate. Again the fish tired fairly quickly, taking to the air several times, and notwithstanding sturdy resistance, it allowed itself to be brought in and landed after a few minutes.

An extremely nice fly caught tiger from Lake Kariba

An extremely nice fly caught tiger from Lake Kariba

This fish was a hen, heavy bellied with eggs, and it was a terrible shame to keep it, but the chances of it surviving at that point were slim, besides which there was always a never-ending appetite for fish meat on board,  and, of course, the need for fillets to bait the hooks of the rest of the group who were fishing with a combination of spinners and baited hooks.

Two points are worth noting here. Neither live bait nor fresh kapenta, both of which saw constant service on that day, caught anything at all. Johnny Sharples, my host, came closest to a major catch when he had a massive take on fillet and lost perhaps 100 meters of line before cranking up the drag to the point that the line snapped. That sort of performance only takes place with a fish of five to eight kilos in weight, and the energy of those screaming moments of action were quite breathtaking.

I suppose the lesson I learned from both incidences was that at three kilos or under a fish is controllable on the fly line using the index finger and flex of the rod. It is actually surprising how much the essentially delicate control of this method can exert with a large fish on the end of the line. The line itself, of course, a 12wt weight-forward sinking line, has quite a fair amount of flex in it, all of which absorbs the energy of those first few frantic moments of action extremely effectively. Above three kilos and my suspicion was that an unprotected index finger would receive a nasty line burn, and perhaps worse, for the second or two that it would take for the slack to be eaten up and the drag come into effect.[3]

At the end of the day, however, all of this was a learning experience. I had come to Kariba to test the potential for fly fishing here, and to graduate from the kindergarten of tiger fishing on a fly, so I was open to lessons, and certainly expected a few.

Last nice catch of the trip

Last nice catch of the trip

In general, though, the process was frustrating. I was missing out on a lot of fun fishing while the party hauled in nice catches of good sized bream and I flogged the water hour after hour searching for the elusive formula to hook that big fish. The flies that I had selected from my local tackle shop – steelhead flies in the main, but also a handful of salt water patterns – were yielding little or no results. Advice on the matter from various sources varied from anything that mimics a bait fish to anything that is orange or red, or absolutely anything that shines and moves. Possibly all of the above are true, there is simply not enough of a tradition of active fly fishing for tiger on Lake Kariba for there to be an established protocol and bedded traditions. As with every branch of the sport, everybody has their own opinion, and their own preferred techniques, and the fact that Kariba, and other lake habitat where tiger lurk, have not been challenged a great deal with a fly tends, at least at the time, to leave a bit of a knowledge vacuum of how best to proceed.

In the end it was the red and gold tail drawn for a tiger pattern spinner that yielded the second result of the trip. The character of the lake is quite varied, and at different times certain combinations of conditions excite the interest of tiger fishermen. River mouths and gorges leading off the lake – the Sanyati River Gorge, cutting through the Matusadona mountains has been a favorite for many years – are where many of the big catches have been recorded over the years, but during the rains, as now, the outflow is silt laden, murky and in general unproductive. Many fish are on the breeding cycle and moving up river, but as such are reluctant to take, and opacity of the water, of course, limits visibility quite a bit. At this time of the year – December/January – admittedly the worst time to be trying to achieve anything of consequence on the lake, the most productive areas are where the concentrations of prey fish are to be found, and these – bream and kapenta – occur in shallow, weed choked inlets and in deep water respectively.

I was limited somewhat by the fact that the majority of our party were chasing bream in a social context, so I was required to be flexible in the matter of monopolizing facilities, and of course Neil’s time, who was, after all, spending Christmas with his wife after a particularly traumatic year. I therefore found myself hunting the fringes of large weed banks where tiger would be lurking in pursuit of unwary bream and other prey of opportunity. There were also other groups of fishermen hunting the same sorts of locations, so I was reasonably certain that I had the best opportunities available anywhere on the lake at the time. The difficulty for me was trying to retrieve through meadows of Kariba weed where the others were recording excellent catches of bream and where I was getting snagged every few strokes.

This became a bit of a hit-and-miss-affair, and was certainly frustrating, but the reward of several solid takes confirmed the sense in persevering. I tried sweetening the offering with a thin sliver of tiger fillet, but abandoned this for reasons both of ethics and practicality. It interfered with the smooth release of line during casting, and of course hardly conforms to the correct methodology of fly casting.

A fiercely hot, rain washed evening found Neil and I tethered to a mopane stump about thirty foot off the edge of a weed bank. Neil scored a tremendous strike early on with a hook laden with fresh kapenta, but was unable to hold the fish as it wrapped itself around the stump and broke the leader. Looking at the flash of motion as it fought the hook it seemed like a possible three kilo specimen, but a flash was all we got.

My turn came an hour or so later. By then I had been burning up under the sun for days, streaming with sweat, truly feeling that the trench work had been done. Then, as suddenly as always, a major strike was registered on the line. Fortunately it came during a reel-in before moving which meant that there was no slack on the line, and immediately the drag was screaming and line was stripping off at a fantastic rate, reaching the backing within seconds. Thereafter it was a matter of a slow retrieve and a quick and fast dash against the drag, diminishing steadily before the fish meekly accepted the landing net and came in over the side of the boat.

This was possibly a two kilo catch, but there was no time for the formalities of confirming this. A gentle removal of the hook, a quick photo call against the sunset in rapidly fading light and she was returned to the deep from whence she had come. This was still not the fish that I was looking for, but she was something to brag about after my trip to Kariba, and certainly a respectable way to commence this journey. After that I had a sense that nothing more would be yielded from Kariba other than much thought in digesting what the method would be to master the craft on this great and beautiful African lake.


[1] Dopa Dopa means a sinker in local dialect, implying the hook and worm system that goes so well with drink and good conversation, and usually yields a good haul of bream.

[2] Petrified mopane forests line the edges of the lake in many places, a remnant of the flooding of the valley during the construction of the dam. Mopane is an extremely hard tree, and these signature forests have survived well for the sixty or more years that the lake has been in existence.

[3] I know, of course, that a sensible angle will protect his index finger with a sturdy application of band aid, or some such surgical tape, but usually I forgot, and gloves never really work for me, but lessons are usually learned in the field, and a short sharp lesson seemed imminent at some point.

Series Navigation

, ,