Tigers in Africa
When it comes to getting outside and adventuring, most of us agree that it’s more enjoyable with a solid group of friends. Our mate Phillip Hardy tells us of his latest adventure in the Zambezi Delta.
As the AVRO RJ85 airplane accelerated on the runway, to make its way back to Johannesburg, my fingers rubbed over the burn marks. "Unbelievable" I mumbled to myself as I sat in the cooled flying tin. But I wasn't alone. My buddy MB was in a similar situation. Our burns were quite simply going to be the best physical manifestation of a great memory we shared. We went fly fishing for Tigerfish in the Zambezi Delta. And the thrill still gives me a tingle in the core of my gut.
It all started eight days before.
MB and I flew into Zambia, on a quick hop from Johannesburg's International Airport. Our rather rural 'international' arrivals processing out of the way, we were on the road to our camp on the banks of the Zambezi Delta. It was July, but even though it was winter, the midday sun was hot. Eventually, at our campsite, it was a short, rushed excited unpacking, ripping open luggage to get our rods kitted up and grab a box of flies. A short jog to the launch area, with our guide waiting - having clearly been informed that we were two chaps in high-fever, and in serious need of the 'tug' drug!
When you see the Zambezi for the first time, you'd be forgiven for thinking it's one huge lake. It's immense, but it is a flowing river.
Sightseeing would have to wait though because our first spot was a short run away. A section of the main Zambezi river, being joined by a smaller side river. This created an ideal spot for Tigers to ambush prey.
Now, maybe you haven't read much about Tigerfish (Hydrocynus brevis - I think.) A quick introduction is in order. Tigerfish are probably Africa's most admired, and formidable predatory fish. Beautiful, vicious, insanely quick, whiley and clever. No easy task to land one on a fly. There are ratios bandied around by 'experts', something to the effect that 1 out of 10 hits will MIGHT amount to a fish in the boat. Tigers (short for tigerfish) are more Tiger than fish, in my humble, but accurate opinion. In truth, they should have been a saltwater species. It's extreme fly fishing in fresh water, no doubt. I'm guessing a close contender would be the Golden Dorado in South American rivers.
With our first spot in our sights, we rigged up. Essential was wire-trace. No monofilament leader would survive a strike by a Tiger. Unless you like donating flies to the Zambezi river gods. MB was the first one to get a cast into the convergence of the two rivers. Giving the fly line time to get down to a good depth before starting a rhythmic, almost hypnotic strip retrieve.
"Holy ****!" MB was into his first Tiger for the trip. Man was I jealous! Even with a sturdy 9WT G. loomis, the rod curved dangerously - fly line cutting through the water. Next the water exploded 20 yards away from the boat. A Tiger went aerial. This baby - like most other Tigers - moved so fast that the fly line was appearing to make a 90-degree curve. Another jump! Tensions were high. (It's when a Tiger goes jumping like this that you lose them.) MB was dead quiet. Focused on giving the Tiger as few chances as possible to come off. Although, you don't have much say in the fight. Tigers set the pace. You just had to hold on and avoid slack in your line. Frantic line stripping as the Tiger came launching at the boat. Then carefully giving line when it went on a run down the river.
It was a good start for MB. A healthy five pounder eventually ended in the net. A quick photoshoot and the Tiger was back to hunting poor little bulldogs - a little minnow they love to nibble on…
My turn came soon afterward. What a strike. One-minute calm with a relaxed setting sun at my back, the next moment my rod nearly gets yanked out of your hands! And you see this Tiger launch into the air nowhere near where you got the strike. The speed at which Tigers move is stunning.
My Tiger was not a big as MB's but with the tab opened - we felt happy after our first short session.
As the sun set over the Zambezi Delta, sounds began to emanate from the tall reeds surrounding us. Birds, bugs and …Hippos! The one animal you need a healthy dose of respect for. Even the crocodiles are less scary than these beasts. So, we didn't stick around too long. We quickly made our way back to camp watching the sunset through the reeds whizzing past us.
Back at the camp, the fire was already going, and our host was busy getting dinner going. In the end, the food and hospitality at our camp was first class - considering that we were in the middle of the Zambezi Delta!
With dinner out the way, MB and I set off to get ourselves properly setup for our early start the next day.
As morning started early only a glimmer of light started to appear. On the boat, you could see a thin veil of clouds lit up in an orange glow of the rising sun. A slight breeze… and cold! It was winter after all. So, wrapped up, MB and I settled in for a longer ride further up the Zambezi. Our new friend and trusted Zambian guide, "Gift" taking us there.
Although it was chilly, the birds were up and about. The birds are the clue. Because, like you find out in the sea, the birds quickly congregate when baitfish are around. Predator fish push the bait fish to the surface, and the birds come in to feed. So, we were keeping an eye on what the birds were doing - like hawks. As long as the wind stayed away, we had a good chance to take on some serious Tigers. That same week a visitor to the camp caught a 15 pounder. Our hopes were high!
An hour’s ride up the Zambezi, we arrived at what would be our first spot for the morning. But we had a problem. The wind was clearly picking up. And blowing in clouds. Although there is almost never rain this time of the year, wind and clouds are bad ingredients to Tiger hunting. Nonetheless, we were determined. Even as the gusts of wind grew stronger, MB and I picked up our rods and started making casts. This was going to be a hard day! The morning was a blank. Nothing. Not a bird in sight, not even a hint of a strike. Really disappointing.
We sat on the boat’s deck having a prepared first-class lunch (may I remind you - in the middle of the Zambezi Delta.) And we tried to stay upbeat. Things could change we told ourselves. The weather was known to flip-flop quickly. Maybe we'd be lucky. Maybe.
But, this wasn't the case. Our first full day was a zero on the scorecard. Would it get worse? Or would we fair better the next day? MB was depressed. I was depressed.
A Russian Mule was the only help we could think of to make us feel a bit better! (For the uninstructed, it's Lime, Vodka and Ginger beer - pick your proportions) What can I say? We needed a bit of feel-good medicine. Dinner was lovely, but quiet, and we slowly strolled to our nicely equipped tent. A bit sad, a bit worried – had we travelled all this way for nothing? We hoped not!
My alarm went off at 05:00. To get up or sleep a bit more? What's the weather looking like? Are we going to blank again today? MB was already up but he didn't appear to be in any hurry either. I suspect he was asking himself much the same. I started the coffee. MB opened the tent to make a quick meteorological study. Did I really want to know the findings? As I stepped onto our little porch, handing MB his coffee. "Things look promising," MB said in an almost whisper.
We did our morning run, this time even higher up the Zambezi than the day before. My eyes shut, most of the way. I could have been praying. As we started approaching our spot…. Birds! Wind?… Only a slight breeze. Could this be it? Knots - checked. Rods - checked. As we slowly approached… Birds were flocking onto the shore, pecking at the baitfish. Splashes.
"Stay calm!" I tell MB, in truth, talking to myself. Check the trace and knot one last time. And fire away a cast…I’m misjudged the distance - too short! MB's cast was on the money. WHAM!! MB's into a Tiger. My next cast lands right at the edge of the reeds. Strip, strip, strip, strips WHAM! I'M ON! Almost took my breath away. Howls of joy as MB and I scrambled around the boat, trying to keep lines from tangling.
The action started warming up. More birds, more splashing. That's when the burns set in.
There were splashes on my 9 o'clock. For some reason, I picked up my 7 Weight Rod – arguably too light an outfit for big tigers. Made a few quick false casts and put the fly down, just short of the turbulence in the water.
Next thing, an uncontrollable-line-flying-everywhere-frantically-trying-to-grab-hold-of-line strike by a Tiger. It's a MONSTER! I eventually get hold of the line. But it's coming off the reel in split seconds. The burning pain of fly line merging with your fingers… Burned into my mind!
The Tiger goes aerial. Shaking its head - and it's off! DAMN! Damn, damn! That was likely a personal best that just slipped through my now toasted fingers. I had to compose myself. There was still action around. But I had to move quickly. The fly I used now destroyed - bent open, trace mangled into a mess - somewhat akin to the London Underground. So, a quick fly change. Double check knot. And get back into the action. Our guide was doing a stellar job keeping us close to the action, but not so close as to scare the growing baitfish school and tigers away.
We drifted out of the strike zone, so we slowly circled back to dead-drift stealthy back past the action again. This gave me time to stop beating myself up. Lick my wounds, literally. And take a few deep breaths.
The cast was perfect. Strip, strip, strip - NAILED IT! Chaos again! This was another beeeg Tiger! But I held on. Burns or not! The jumping didn’t stop. Once, twice, three times. It was a true battle trying to keep the line tight and anticipate this monster’s next move. I could hear nothing other than the Tiger. I'm sure MB was shouting. I think it was encouragement. But I heard nothing of it. I had to land this Tiger.
It felt like an eternity. My skinny arms started feeling the strain. Partly because I still had the 7WT and I felt outgunned. But somehow, by some grace, I got this Tiger next to the boat and Gift (our guide) netted what looked like a giant! Shouts of delight! MB gave me a firm high five and life was GOOD!
Just shy of 14 pounds. What a beautiful Tiger.
Things went well for the remaining part of the trip. Some quiet times. Some really good times. Yet rest-assured, it was hard work. Tracking and targeting the tigers.
On our final day, things were quiet though.After such a good week, this was a bit of an anti-climax. MB and I zoomed from one stop to the next. The Tigers just weren't cooperative. "30 mins left guys" I heard Gift say. My heart sank to my stomach. MB groaned. It was silence on our boat as we dead drift through a part of the main river. MB made a cast, a long one. Stripping line off the reel and letting the line go deep. I made a few attempts. The afternoon noises began to slowly come out of the reeds.
It was really the end.
"WHOOHAAAA! *****, *****!" I look over my shoulder and saw MB is bent over. His rod taking strain. "I got him!" But I saw trouble. MB's slack line was also flapping all over the place as the tiger was making a serious run. MB was trying to untangle his hand while also holding onto the line attached to whatever the hell just ate his fly. Tangles avoided, MB was dead silent. Tiger acrobatics, "Oh my ***, Can something so big actually jump!?" I think to myself.
Everyone knew this was a monster Tiger.
As a true expert, MB handled things perfectly. The tiger eventually got close to the boat. But that's just when things can go badly wrong. And it nearly did. The leader and fly line had just gone through the first eye on the fly rod. If the tiger took off now, it could mean the end of the fight and a morbidly depressed MB!
I broke the silence and shouted to MB to check his rod tip. A quick reflex move, MB gave the line just enough slack to clear the rod tip. Luckily, no crazy moves from the Tiger and Gift quickly netted the biggest Tiger I've seen in real life.
Everyone jumps for joy! Even Gift. High Fives all-around! It was the perfect way to end a trip. When your best buddy lands a trophy Tiger, right at the end of a trip of a lifetime. And those burns? Totally worth it!
The flight back to South Africa, to head back home was a peaceful and satisfying one. Rest assured, we already started planning our return, to the Great Zambezi Delta for some serious Tiger Hunting!