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Editor Note: We’ve published several reports on the tigerfishing that erupts in the Okavango River of Botswana every year when sharptooth catfish be¬gin to herd bait against the banks. The sounds . . . the sights are unbelievable. Subscriber William D. Turner filed the report. Enjoy!
If you want to catch a tigerfish in Africa, I highly recommend you hook up with a South African company called Tourette Fishing (www.tourettefishing.com). My wife and I fly-fished with Tourette in Botswana on the Okavango River this past September, upstream of the renowned Okavango Delta. The tiger¬fishing there peaks during the sharp¬tooth catfish run, which occurs as the floodwaters in the marshy areas along the vegetated banks of the Okavango River recede. Under such conditions, the sharptooth catfish ferociously (an understatement) herd baitfish along the papyrus and other vegetation on the river banks, and the fearsome tigers camp out among and near the catfish to terrorize the baitfish already traumatized by the huge schools of catfish. Simply put, it’s a “fish eat fish” world in the Okavango River, and the tigers are the top of the food chain, at least in the piscine realm.
While on the river fishing you may well see 12- to 15-foot African crocodiles, hippos, and other wildlife. Keep in mind that, contrary to popular conception, hippos are the most lethal animal to humans in Africa.
Tigerfish are terrific gamefish; they fight very hard and jump acrobatically. For a North American reference point, think of them as steelhead (minus the long runs well into your backing) or riverine smallmouth bass on steroids. A major difference is that these voracious predators’ fearsome teeth make them quite difficult to hook. Although we landed only four to eight tigers every day we fished, we hooked two to three times that many fish. Of the fish we hooked, we lost an additional subset due to the tigers’ impressive leaps and other evasive maneuvers. On the Okavango, 10 pounds and up is considered a trophy tiger; my very first fish was a nine-pounder, and my wife landed an eight-pounder. She lost another that same size or larger. A South African angler, in camp the same time we were, landed a 12-pound tiger. Sharptooth catfish are welcome bycatch on the Okavango; I caught a 15-pounder that took me well into my backing on a downstream run before our guide pulled the anchor and we followed it.
I fly-fish for muskies a lot with 10 wt. rods and 400-grain (and heavier) sink tips, so the physical demands of tigerfishing were no issue for me. However, some fly fishers who have not fished for larger gamefish with sink tips may find the physical demands challenging. We used 9 wt. rods with 300- to 350-grain sink tips of 30 feet (Scientific Anglers warm water Sonar lines). For tippet, I used 12 to 15 inches of 35-pound Knot 2 Kinky nickel titanium wire (www. aquateko.com; or www.wetieit.com), which I attached to the butt of the leader with an Invisaswivel (available on the same websites). Musky fly fishing maestro Bill Sherer of Boulder Junction, Wisconsin (www.wetieit.com), introduced me to this excellent tippet system and it worked very well
on tigers. Although I didn’t lose any ti¬gers due to the wire tippet, one did cut off the three-foot butt of my 40-pound fluorocarbon leader by making a slash¬ing turn shortly after being hooked. I purchased a box of tiger flies from Tourette and caught fish on several of their Clouser-style flies. I also landed several on a downsized version of Bill Sherer’s Figure 8 musky fly, which I tied myself.
A recurrent scenario on the Okavango during the catfish run is you will hear the chaos of huge schools of catfish herding baitfish on or very near the surface of the water, each catfish producing a loud “pop, pop, pop” as he slams the papyrus reeds and other vegetation with his tail. You will see the papyrus reeds literally swaying to and fro in the water from the impact of the catfish tails slapping them. In addition, you will often see large numbers of egrets and fish eagles diving into or landing amid the melee. Typically, your guide will anchor the boat 10 to 25 feet off the bank where the chaos is occurring, or just up- or downstream from it, depending on which direction the catfish run appears to be headed. Then, you make short, accurate casts as close as possible to the bank, following up each cast with two to three mends in your fly line to allow the sink tip to get down. The goal is to fish down and across, swinging all the way to straight downstream. Tiger strikes can happen at any point in the process, but often occur at the end of the swing or during the retrieve. Your retrieve needs to consist of sharp strips with short pauses. Often, tiger strikes occur at the end of the strip, contributing to many missed hookups. It pays to remain anchored even after the catfish chaos has passed you by, as tigers will linger in the area mopping up dazed and terrified bait¬fish.
Another technique, in addition to beating the banks, is to drift down¬stream, fishing both sides of the main river channel in the general vicinity of the catfish runs. This technique works when the baitfish have been herded out of the papyrus and into open water by the sharptooth catfish. One of our guides, Lionel Song, said this technique offers your best shot at a double-digit tiger on the Okavango. My nine-pounder, I should note, was not caught that way; it struck my fly the instant it hit the water very close to the bank. Tourette Fishing also offers tigerfishing in Tanzania and I have it on good authority that the tigers there run larger than they do in the Okavango River.
I can’t say enough about the hard¬working team of Tourette guides on the Okavango. In addition to Lionel Song, we fished with Stu Harley and Johann du Pree, all South Africans. These guides compared favorably with any I’ve fished with anywhere in the world. They also prepare a delicious shore lunch.
If you decide to take this trip, be sure you plan to spend some time viewing the astonishing wildlife of the Okavango Delta and nearby areas in Botswana. The Okavango Delta is the largest inland river delta in the world. Here are just some of the highlights of our stay at Wilderness Safari Camps (www.wilderness-safaris.com): seeing/hearing a dominant male lion roar continually at dusk for 10 minutes; watching a mother leopard defend her newborn cub from a highly poisonous puff adder snake; watching a honey badger spend 10 minutes digging a scorpion out of the sand for a tasty snack; watching a mother lioness nurse her cub; seeing the aforementioned alpha male lion mate with a lioness three times in a half-hour span; seeing rare white rhinos; and much more. I documented the wildlife and their behaviors with more than 2,000 photos. We ended our trip at Victoria Falls in Zambia, which was much diminished by a multiyear drought. All considered, we regard this trip as one of our finest, truly a once-in-a-lifetime adventure! — William D. Turner.
Postscript: Turner says he booked his trip through Frontiers Travel (www.frontierstravel.com).