Tigers Of The Zambezi

For those of you who are regular visitors to this site you may have read an article I wrote here last year about a fishing safari I undertook in April 2001 to the Lower Zambezi Valley. In it I described how on my first day fishing the river I encountered some double figure Tiger fish, a couple of which I managed to land, and several others that escaped, including one fish that nearly spooled me in around 20 seconds. This fish, I later found out from lodge manager Steve Maartens, was more likely to have been a Vundu catfish rather than a Tiger. If you have read my article you will know that the next few days fishing were rather spoiled due to two feet of flood water that came down the river from the might Kariba Dam bring with it large amounts of floating reeds, which made fishing the main river rather difficult. But I had seen enough of what the Zambezi could offer on that first day to make me want to have another go. This time in the prime season, October.

Our tour party assembled at Gatwick airport on the 2nd of October 2002 for our nine hour flight to Lusaka. I had booked this trip at the start of the year with Christine Slater from Tailor Made holidays, and I was more than pleased at the time when she told me that she would be leading the group to Zambia. I had travelled with Christine on a trip to Lake Victoria & Murchison Falls in Uganda to fish for Nile Perch back in March of 2000 and we had had a great time, both angling wise and socially along with John Wilson who was also on that expedition. John was on another trip to Canada this time. So our line up for this adventure was as follows: Christine & Dave, Gordon & Jane, Andy, Keith, Mark, Paul, Winston and myself.

After a good flight we touched down in Lusaka in the early evening, and after clearing immigration & customs we overnighted at a very comfortable lodge just outside the capital. Just a quick mention here regarding accommodation, for those of you who after reading this article would like to try and do a similar trip, I can reassure you that on all my fishing trips to Africa the accommodation/food has been good, and on this holiday it was excellent! Now back to the fishing - we left the hotel after an early breakfast to return to the airport, this time to catch a light aircraft to take us to our first destination, The Royal Zambize Lodge.

Our party was split into two groups for the 30 minute flight, and I was on the first plane to leave. As we approached the airstrip we flew over the river. I noticed how much lower the water level looked compared with my previous visit, and I wondered how much the river had changed since the last wet season. This stretch of the Zambezi has many sandbars, islands and drop-offs that shift and change when the river is in flood, and the local guides have to relocate these features each season as they are the main holding areas for Tigers.

 As our plane taxied to a halt, Garth, the fly fishing guide from the lodge drove his 4x4 over to meet us. The second aircraft arrived soon afterwards, and here we encountered a slight problem, during all the excitement of our arrival two of our bags where left on the aircraft, mine and Christine's, in mine I had nearly all of my fishing gear as well a most of my clothes. But it wasn't a big problem as with most anglers the rest of the party chipped in with various bits of tackle so I could fish that afternoon, and both Christine's and my bag reappeared later that evening after a round trip to Lusaka!

After we had settled into our two birth East African style tents, and had a very filling lunch it was time to go fishing! Gordon loaned me a rod, and Dave supplied me with hooks & traces. Luckily I had taken the three reels I was going to use on this trip out of my main bag and had put them in my backpack, so at least I had some of my own kit to fish with. As I have said earlier I have fished with Christine before, and I knew she was a very good angler (a little to good as it turned out for the rest of us!) So I was quite happy to fish with her and Jane on that first afternoon. All the guy's had bombed off in the three speedboats to various far-flung “Hot-Spots” along the river which left the girls and I to fish from the pontoon. Which was comfortable to fish from. But very slow in getting from A to B. There had been the usual banter before we set off about which boat would catch the best fish, and of course the girls and I were given little chance as we could only chug slowly around on the pontoon, how wrong they were!

Our fishing guide that afternoon was Luca who I had fished with the pervious year, this was lucky for us as he is one of the best guides at the lodge. Christine and I tackled up, but Jane said she did not want to fish straight away, she was quite happy to relax and enjoy the scenery for a while. I was fishing with Gordon's 12ft rod, and on my reel I had 250 meters of 14lb braid tied to a 28lb wire trace with a size 5/0 Owner hook at the business end, on this Luca put a fresh strip of Chessa fillet (this fish looks very much like our UK Bream) above the trace & swivel was a running 1/4oz drilled bullet just enough to take the bait to the bottom. We were going to drift along with the current with the baits running in front of the pontoon, there was just enough wind to hold the pontoon back and stop it overtaking the baits. Using this method you can cover quite some distance of river, but if the wind changes and conditions become more difficult it is better to anchor the boat above a drop-off and let the baits drift over it for about 60-70 meters.

My first cast produced a run within a couple of minutes, unfortunately the reel I was using was an old Ryobi Ledgermaster that does not have a bait-runner which makes this type of fishing more difficult. But on this occasion it was not a problem, as the line tightened I struck into the fish, and it was on, Luca reminded me to give it another hit just to make sure, as Tigers have quite bony mouths. The strike to land ratio for these fish is around four/five to one in favour of the Tiger. Another reason for this high loss rate is that once the fish is hooked it will try to blow the bait out of its mouth. If the fish is well hooked the bait alone will sometimes blow back up the trace and usually ends up by the swivel. What can happen then is that another Tiger will attack the fillet and bite through the line. But on this occasion none of the above happened and after a good scrap Luca slipped the net underneath it, and it was in the boat. Not a big fish, it weighed in at just around 7lbs but it is always good to get off the mark. Shortly afterwards I had another smaller Tiger of about 5lbs, and then it was Christine's turn to hook-up, this was a much better fish of 10.5lbs. We then persuaded Jane to tackle up, she said she had only fished once before, but within the hour she had boated the biggest Tiger I had seen! The fight lasted 6-7 minutes, and she coped really well for a novice angler. As the fish came up next to the boat we could all see that it was good double figure Tiger, with Christine and I shouting at Jane not to loose it (I think we were more excited than she was!) Luca netted it at the second attempt! What a specimen for your first Tiger, 15lbs! My best was only 11.5lbs Christine took some photos, and then Luca released the fish. The other guy's would have to go-some to beat that, but the best was still to come……

After the excitement of Jane's fish there was a bit of a lull in the action, I had a couple of runs that I missed, then about 45 minutes after Jane's Tiger I caught two in quick succession. The first fish was just over 9lbs the second a nice specimen of 10.5lbs, Christine also had another tiger in the 4-6lb range. By this time the sun was starting to go down, and Luca said we would try one last stretch of river a little down stream of the camp. This proved to be the ace move of the trip for Christine, she had a good run, and struck into a large fish, the Tiger jumped once and we could see that this was a special fish. After 10 minutes or so Christine had battled the Tiger to the boat, and Luca attempted to net it, the net was only just big enough for it, but after a couple of efforts Luca finally got it into the boat. Now to see what it weighed, and to take some photos, we could see that it was quite a bit larger than Jane's 15lb'er, but how much? The scales settled on a whisker over the 18lb mark, the next thing was to take some photos, twilight was fading fast, and I didn't have a flash on my camera, but luckily I was using 400 asa film and there was just enough light available for a reasonable result. When we arrived back at the moorings the others were waiting for us. They all had had some degree of success, but nothing compared to the fish that Christine and Jane had caught, or the total weight of our combined catch which was over 70lbs for 8 Tigers in the boat!

As things turned out Christine & Jane's fish were the best two Tigers of the whole trip, though there were many other double figure Tigers caught by the rest of the guys during the 10 day's nobody managed to beat the two that the girls caught on that first afternoon! My own record was a 13.5lb Tiger caught on the last morning of our holiday.

This was from a stretch of river downstream of Mwambashi lodge, the second camp we stayed at during this trip. This section of the river also produced some large Vundu catfish as well as some excellent Tiger fishing, as there were some deep holes where the Vundu prefer to lie-up out of the main current. If I remember, Dave had the best one a fine specimen of 60-70lbs from Mwambashi, and Andy & Paul both had fish around the 50lb mark from the “Royal” stretch. Mark, Keith, Winston and I all had Vundu around the 25lb-35lb mark. If you think that my brief summary of our Vundu catch is a bit strange I am afraid I am not a Catfish fan! I caught my 25lb'er by mistake while fishing for Tigers!

The other species we caught on this trip were Chessa the fillets from which we used as bait. The average size of these fish were roughly the same as our UK skimmer Bream, but we did catch a few larger specimens to around 2lbs along with their close relative the Nkupe, which grows slightly larger. I had one that was around 3lbs, and both species do run into double figures. The other fish we landed were several different species of the local Bream (Talapia). We used a simple ledger method for catching all these fish, a quiver tip rod or light spinning rod with 8-10 braid or mono on the reel, 1/4oz free running drilled bullet stopped around 2ft from a size 10-14 hook, the bait was worms.   


I also tried my hand a spinning for Tigers on a couple of occasions. After a few days bait fishing from the boats I fancied a change, and I also wanted to have a lie-in, as the boats went out early at around 6.30am. So after a light breakfast I took my spinning rod and an assortment of lures/spinners out to give it a try. I had asked Steve Maartens if it would be safe to fish from the bank, and he had said yes, provided I didn't go too far from the camp and kept my eyes open for Elephants and Buffalo coming down to drink. But I decided to start fishing in the camp first as I had seen some small Tiger swimming close to the overhanging Drinks Bar supports which were only a few feet out in the main stream. I was using a small profile red spinner that had been successful when I was fishing for Trout in Australia last year, and it worked. After a half a dozen cast I had caught two small Tigers. I then decided to try the long sand-island upstream of the camp. I had a another small fish straight away, and then a much larger fish jumped on just after my lure hit the water.

This Tiger ran with the current, and I ran with it as I was only using light tackle. After 30 meters I was running out of bank, but luckily I had got it under control by then, and soon had it on the shore. Though it only weighed in at 4.5lbs this fish gave me particular satisfaction as I had caught it on my light trout spinning gear.

There is one member of our party that I have yet to mention, that is Gordon our fly fisherman. He deserves special praise as he had a tough time early in the trip. Especially with Jane, his partner catching that 15lb'er on the first afternoon, he did take some stick for that! But he kept at it and with the advice from Garth, the fly fishing guide, he caught some good double figure Tigers. Well done, Gordon.

The other highlights of this expedition were the sunsets, which on some evenings were truly spectacular and of course the wildlife we encountered. We had numerous animals wandering through both camps including Elephant, Buffalo and Hippo, and at the Royal Zambezi we had Monkeys and Baboons living around the tents. I think that my favourite memory from my stay at Mwaambashi was the game drive we undertook a few days before we came home. On this drive we saw not only Hippo's, Elephant and Buffalo which had been quite common around the two lodges. But also big cats, Lion and Leopard this was the first time that I had seen these particular animals in the wild.

There were also Zebra, Impala and Bush Buck in abundance. One special moment was when two Hyena cubs came right up to the 4x4 and chewed on Ryan's boots!

I would just like to round off this piece by thanking Steve, Kerry and Garth at the Royal Zambezi and Ryan & Fie at Mwambashi, plus all the staff at both lodges for making this a trip to remember. 

I will make a plan to come again!

Article by Bryan Garnett - 2002