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Tackling Tigers On Foot In Zambia

Being on shore and on foot offers an exciting new way to target the ever popular tigerfish on a fly rod. 

Catch and release, catch and release – the rhythmic action of catching tigerfish on fly-fishing tackle in the Zambezi River is nothing new.

Annually fly- (and conventional-tackle) anglers flock to the countless lodges on the lower and middle stretches of the mighty river to do battle with the brute of a freshwater predator known as the ‘striped river dog’. 

Tactics are well evolved and – due to the nature of the river sections – standard modus operandi involves fishing from boats with nine-weight fly rods loaded with sinking lines and heavy flies.  

The opportunity then to do something slightly different – to tussle with these predators from shore – was highly enticing. When the invite came from Wildman Fishing Co and The MissionFly Magazine, to explore and fish a fairly remote area of the Zambezi in Western Zambia, both myself and fishing buddy Ewan Naude jumped at it. 

The plan was to make a concerted, fly-fishing effort, on foot (from shore) in the side cataracts and rapids around the Ngonye Falls (also called Sioma) area to fish for the Hydrocynus vittatus (one of five known tigerfish species in Africa). 

The author with a small tigerfish

The author with a small tigerfish. Photo: Jazz Kuschke 

A river of difference 

The falls mark the transition point of the Zambezis flow through the Kalahari sand floodplain to basalt dyke. It’s an area populated by otters and fish eagles.

A place where netting is fortunately still under control thanks to Peace Parks, with local subsistence fishing by hand and line only.  

It’s not a ‘new’ fishing destination by any stretch, but fly- and spin-fishing efforts have been few (and very far) between over the years, with the trolling of big artificial lures behind boats through the deep gorges, being standard practice.  

It is these distinctive gorges and deep, fast channels which makes this an altogether different Zambezi experience to the reed-fringed, sand-barred character so well documented (and fished) on the middle and lower reaches.  

The Sioma area is a place full of potential. Potential of a double-figure (weighed in pounds) vittatus on fly, on foot and in close contact.  

One of Wildman Fishing Co's tin skiffs

One of Wildman Fishing Co’s tin skiffs. Photo: Jazz Kuschke 

Trial, trails and error  

Our launchpad was Wildmans spectacular tented fly camp (which they run out of their base at Mutemwa Lodge some 80km downriver) on a flat dune high above the river.

The camp features comfortable single tents with thick mattresses, communal flush toilets as well as wooden-decked showers complete with water warmed by a wood-fired donkey’, set back in the Mopane bush.   

The remoteness of the location, the views, and the special quality of a cold Mosi lager around the fire at sunset alone make the trip worthwhile. And indeed, right here it would be easy to paraphrase Charles Fox, “The angler forgets most of the fish he catches, but he does not forget the streams and lakes in which they are caught.”  

However, we were there with a mission and there was no doubt we were going to remember what was (and wasn’t) caught.  

It took us a few days to unlearn what we knew about fly-fishing for tigers in other parts of the Zambezi, but eventually a picture started to emerge. By day three we’d tied new flies and adjusted leader setups and approaches from conventional middle- and lower-Zambezi wisdom.  

We started fishing around Ngonye Falls (mainly from the casting deck of Wildman’s well-equipped aluminium boats) and rock hopping here-and-there. But we went fishless for a few sessions around the falls. 

Not for a lack of trying: We’d hiked, scrambled and dragged our way up, over and across sand dunes, steep, basalt-boulder strewn valleys and shady little woodland sections that screamed ‘mamba’. 

We’d traded casting turns on the points and along edges. Gone shot-for-shot on wind-effected back-casts and knocked out the dumbbell weights of our Clouser Minnow flies in the rocks. 

We’d snagged up our flies in depths too many times to count (you can say ‘at least we’re getting deep enough’ only so many times) and started running low on wire trace material (needed to protect the line from the tiger’s vicious set of teeth).  

Wildman Fishing Co guide Brett Manton and Ewan Naude cool off. Photo: Jazz Kuschke

Wildman Fishing Co guide Brett Manton and Ewan Naude cool off. Photo: Jazz Kuschke

Success 

Days blended into a mellow African routine: Up before the sun; strong coffee in the predawn around the fire; into the boats for the motor to the trail head; walk in; fish till 11 or so; back to camp for a big breakfast and a cold beer or two.

After a siesta and perhaps a quick fly-tying session it was once more back into the falls gorge to fish until dark.  

It was on one of these late afternoon sessions when everything clicked into place. Ewan took up station on a spot just below the main falls and promptly landed a fish of around five pounds, with its almost identical twin following not too many casts later.

I worked my way to about 100m down and, on the second cast into a deep eddy, hooked into the biggest fish of the trip for me.

We racked up a good tally in the days after that and hooked fish well over eight pounds. But that 10-pounder remained elusive..Still, it’s a great excuse to go back – not that we need one.  

The Zambezi is a completely different river up here than further east. Photo: Jazz Kuschke

The Zambezi is a completely different river up here than further east. Photo: Jazz Kuschke

The Essentials

When to go  

July to September, November to December  

Where to stay 

Wildman Fishing Co runs a five-night fishing safari combining two different camps (Mutemwa and Sioma) on two different parts of the Zambezi River.  

Food 

The trip is inclusive of all meals, deliciously prepared by the camp staff.  

Costs 

Costs are R18000 per person, which includes accommodation, all meals, teas and coffee, laundry, unlimited guided fishing with unlimited fuel as well as a selection of conventional (non fly-fishing) fishing tackle.

Rates exclude flights and road transfers, drinks and broken or lost fishing tackle. For more info, visit wildmanfishingco.com/siomabarotse-fishing-safari/ 

Need to know 

South African passport holders do not require a visa to enter Zambia. You need to take all your own fly-fishing tackle. It is a (albeit very low risk) Malaria area.  

Getting There 

SAA flies to Harry Mwanga Nkumbula International Airport in Livingstone, Zambia, daily. Wildman Fishing Co can assist with arranging all transfers. Book your tickets with SAA today!

Words by Jazz Kuschke

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