Tigerfish of Tanzania: The Day It Happened
January 12, 2015
One of the things fly fishers are always looking for are moments of sublime greatness when it all comes together. "You should have been here yesterday" and "last week was off the charts" are all too common refrains. But perfect days do happen; Green Drakes pouring off in the evening light with the biggest and most wary trout poking up their noses to gorge themselves; early mornings in the tropics when the flats are so calm, you can't tell where the water ends and the horizon begins until that black sickle tail knifes through the horizon; that roll of chrome bright steelhead into the pool where you happen to be swinging flies. No matter how many times you hear "yesterday was on fire," or "last week was the best I have ever seen," if you spend enough time on the water you will eventually encounter those incredible days that feed your memories and forge the stories you tell around campfires for years to come.
Tanzania gifted me one of those days. I spent a week slinging 300-grain sinking tips for tigerfish in the Mnyera and Ruhudji rivers, and since it had already been a stellar week, I anticipated taking it easy on the last day. But the guides from Tourette Fishing offered Jeff Currier and me the rare opportunity to fish a stretch of water that had seen fly fishers only once before in the history of the camp. The catch was that we had to abandon the safety of the boats, and explore the river on foot. It was high risk, with the possibility of high reward, and that made it too tempting to refuse.
The plan was to boat up the river as far as we could, then hike farther upriver fishing the best pools while trying to avoid the crocs and hippos. It turned out to be a great plan.
Beyond the impassable rapids, the fishing was on fire. Jeff Currier stepped up to the first pool and banged out four or five tigerfish up to 16 pounds. I hit the next pool and came up empty, but found them stacked in the following spot. Tigerfish are strange like that — they often hunt in packs so you can catch multiple trophy fish in the same run, and the next beautiful stretch of water can be barren.
You hook a lot more tigerfish than you land. Their mouths have gnarly, protruding, interlocking teeth that appear to have been surgically sharpened. The teeth are set in a hard bony mouth, so getting a hook to penetrate is like nailing concrete. They get airborne the instant they feel steel, ferociously thrashing and twisting at the surface, so we're talking about a big, powerful fish that often spits the hook on the first jump.
If you're lucky enough to examine a tigerfish closely you'll marvel at its construction — shoulders like a linebacker, faint namesake stripes, a remarkable forked red tail, and a fluorescent blue adipose fin. They are truly beautiful if you can ignore the angry, dangerous mouth and surly attitude.
Tigerfish are basically killing machines. They'll eat anything they can fit in their mouths, or else just bite off a mouthful to disable their prey. Fly choice for us wasn't critical, but we had the best success on an array of Puglisi minnows. The black and purple Peanut Butter version proved durable, and showed a great profile in the water, so I stuck with it.
Guides Andrew Danckwerts from Zambia and Sven Verwiel of Nairobi were stellar. They were wise beyond their years, and they kept a lookout for crocs, hippos, and other hazards as we hopscotched up the river, cherry-picking the pools we hoped would have the monster 20-pound fish we were looking for. We didn't break the ceiling of 20 pounds, but Jeff and I each pulled out fish that were the largest of the week, and tipped the scale at 19 pounds.
The music paused at the upper falls where the water was too high to safely wade. If we wanted to continue, we were going to have swim for it, and we all spied a mature crocodile floating in the slow water down below the rapids. Andrew went ahead to scout the water and returned with a plan. He felt we could cross at the top of the rapids, as crocs never hang out in fast water. Cross quickly and move along, he counseled.
As I watched him jump into the rapid and come out the other side, my adrenaline was on full throttle. Jeff Currier went next, and I swam the rapids right on his tail, fending off worries that Jeff and Andrew had made enough splashing and commotion to draw the croc's attention. I looked back to catch Sven close at my heels. Now I understand why baitfish travel in schools.
The tigerfish kept coming, and in the process of hitting only the best spots, I noticed a pronounced ledge and deep drop-off in some slower water. I threw my fly along the edge of the drop-off and burned it downstream toward me. A hole opened up in the river where my fly had been, I pulled the hook tight with my line hand, and the water exploded just like tarpon fishing in the Florida Keys.
My thoughts went from world record tigerfish to crocodile, and then the guide yelled "VUNDU!"
Vundu are the largest freshwater fish in southern Africa — they are predatory catfish that have been accused of taking babies off riverbanks and drowning hand-lining fishermen who end up caught in their own lines. I first heard of vundu from Jeremy Wade of River Monsters, and from that show I knew they are famously hard to land even on conventional tackle.
This fish dwarfed the vundu I saw on Wade's show, and I knew my fly tackle was at its limit as the 9-weight rod bent inside the cork.
The vundu peeled off 200 yards of backing as it went straight upstream through the fastest part of the river. Had it used its powerful tail and massive adipose to propel itself in the other direction, the fish would have spooled me, but the strong current and steady pressure allowed me to work the fish back downriver and eventually get the fly line back around my spool.
As I pulled the great black-and-white whiskered head of the fish into an eddy, Andrew threw himself onto the back of the fish — a diving tackle that surely would have impressed his rugby coach. Wrapping his hand in a towel to protect it from the raspy mouth, he controlled the largest fly-caught vundu they had ever seen or heard of. It took all three of us to handle the fish for a photo, and we guessed it weighed north of 80 pounds.
On days when the river turns muddy, or the wind howls on the flats, or the steelhead fail to appear, I still remember that day when it was my turn, and I heard the wa-hu shouts of baboons sharing my excitement while I cradled a giant catfish in my arms.