Catching Tigerfish at the Zambezi
Tigerfish hold a similar significance for Africans as bass do for Americans or carps do for Europeans. These three fish species effectively represent the human populations on their respective continents. Personally, tigers are my favorite among them, as they possess a remarkable blend of agility, strength, and elegance. No other freshwater fish in the world can match the mid-sized Tigerfish when it comes to effortlessly leaping out of the water. This can be either for capture of flying swallows or to free themselves from a hook. You can watch a video showcasing their incredible ability to catch birds in flight here.
Currently, Africa is home to five officially recognized species of Tigerfish (Hydrocynus), as indicated in this link. The genus name “Hydrocynus” is derived from Latin words meaning “Water dog.”
Among these species, two are particularly prevalent. The first is the common Tigerfish (Hydrocynus vittatus), which inhabits the Zambezi river system. It is widely regarded as one of the world’s premier gamefish, as stated in Britannica. The second species is the Goliath Tigerfish (Hydrocynus goliath), found in the Congo river system and Lake Tanganyika. It’s important to note that all the pictures and statements in this article pertain specifically to the Hydrocynus vittatus species.
Tigerfish are renowned as the fastest freshwater fish globally, displaying impressive speed and agility. They are also known for their ferocious predatory nature. When they are young, Tigerfish often hunt in groups, while older individuals tend to hunt independently. Notably, their prominent teeth are firmly embedded in bony sockets. When broken, they are replaced by new teeth growing from beneath. Attached are some photos showcasing these features.
For more comprehensive information and general descriptions of Tigerfish, you can find numerous resources on the internet. See also the following link.
In mid-October, we embarked on a fishing expedition targeting Tigerfish at three distinct locations. All of which were connected to the Zambezi river system.
Our first fishing spot was the Kavango River, located below Popa Falls near Divundu. The Kavango River stretched approximately 100 meters wide and boasted a pristine, untouched environment, abundant with hippos.
Moving on, we arrived at the Kwando River (known as Linyanti in Botswana) near the Gudumu Game Reserve. The Kwando River was relatively narrow, measuring only about 30 meters across. It featured swift-flowing sections and occasional widening into expansive pools, attracting a significant population of hippos.
Our final fishing destination was a secluded area on the Zambezi River, far east of Katima Mulilo. This particular location could only be accessed by boat. The Zambezi River here exhibited a formidable, medium-fast flow, maintaining its natural state and thriving with sizable crocodiles.
Fishing methods for Tigerfish in the Zambezi river system
When targeting Tigerfish in the Zambezi river system, it is recommended to use specific gear that can handle the strength and agility of these fish. Here are some guidelines for the preferred rods, reels, and lines.
Short and stout rods with a stiff action are preferred for Tigerfish fishing. A rod length of approximately 1.6 meters (5.2 feet) is recommended. This type of rod provides the necessary power and control when battling with these strong fish.
Reels in the size range of 2000 to 3000 are suitable for Tigerfish fishing. The spinning reel’s brake system should be set to a tight setting, allowing the line to be pulled off only with considerable force from the angler.
Braided lines are commonly used for Tigerfish fishing due to their strength and reduced stretch. They allow for longer and more accurate casts. However, some anglers also use monofilament lines. If given a choice, it is generally preferable to opt for braided lines to minimize line stretch when Tigerfish jump. It’s important to regularly inspect the knotted area between the braided running line and the swivel for signs of abrasion or damage.
To prevent potential weaknesses at the connection between the braided line and the swivel, a shock leader can be used. This is typically a 4-meter (13 feet) long section of monofilament line between the swivel and the braided running line. This helps protect the line from abrasion and provides added strength. It is also recommended to use a well-tied Bimini twist knot to reduce friction.
Artificial baits for spinning
When using artificial baits, a common practice is to attach the bait directly to a 30 cm (12 inches) long wire and a swivel connected to the running line. It’s important to note that the swivel should not have a shiny or glossy appearance, as this could potentially attract the Tigerfish to bite into the swivel itself. Consequently, clip-in carabiners or other shiny metal attachments are not used for quick lure changes to avoid the Tigerfish mistaking them for prey and biting into them. The focus is on using a simple and inconspicuous setup to entice the Tigerfish to strike at the artificial bait.
A popular and effective artificial lure for Tigerfish is a spoon with two blades. These blades are connected to both ends of the spoon using rings, creating a setup that produces rattling sounds and attracts fish. Single-blade spoons weighing between 24 to 30 grams (0.85 to 1 oz.) are also commonly used and have shown similar success. When it comes to color preference, silver and copper are popular choices for spoons. Additionally, spoons with silver or gold finishes and a red stripe on the top have also proven to be effective in enticing Tigerfish strikes.
Due to the bony nature of both the upper and lower jaws of Tigerfish, it is recommended to use spoons with a single hook. These hooks should have a long shank to facilitate deeper hooking in the fish’s mouth. Additionally, it is advisable for the hooks to have only a small barb to minimize potential injuries of the fish during hook extraction.
Indeed, spoons are not the only artificial baits utilized for Tigerfish fishing. Anglers also employ a range of other lures such as spinners, wobblers, plugs, and even spinnerbaits commonly used for bass fishing. When it comes to hooks, opting for larger single hooks is often preferred over treble hooks. The choice of lure color for Tigerfish can be unpredictable, and the most effective colors for specific conditions may require some experimentation and trial and error.
Fishing, drilling, landing & releasing Tigerfish
Spinning for Tigerfish is typically done in deep pools or fast-flowing stretches of the river. When casting the lure, it is important to keep the rod tip low to the water surface.
When a bite is detected, it is crucial to set the hook sideways and against the direction from which the fish was coming, while keeping the rod tip near the water surface. This is because hooked Tigerfish often jump about 1 meter above the water surface in an attempt to shake off the hook. By keeping the rod tip low, the line is shortened, helping to maintain tension and control over the fish. Conversely, a higher rod tip position could result in the tension of the line being released.
It is vital to maintain continuous tension and pull on the line throughout the fight. Tigerfish swim at high speeds and often jump in the direction of the pulling line, attempting to shake off the hook by vigorous head movements. Approximately 50% of the time, they are successful in their escape attempts through these actions. It is worth noting that fish in the 3-4 kg (6-8 lb.) range tend to jump more frequently than those weighing 5 kg (10 lb.) and above.
Bites can occur at any time while the lure is in the water. There have been instances where bites have occurred when the lure was just 1 meter away from the fishing platform, resulting in lost opportunities if not handled promptly.
Additional influences to be aware of
Hippos in the water can be advantageous fishing spots for Tigerfish. These animals tend to spend most of the daytime in deep pools, and when they defecate in the water, it attracts smaller fish that serve as prey for Tigerfish.
It is important to be cautious of crocodiles when spinning from water edges or wading in the water. One person should always keep an eye out for signs of crocodiles in the surrounding water body. It is advisable to change fishing locations at regular intervals, moving at least 5 meters every 5 seconds. This helps prevent crocodiles from orienting themselves accurately towards the water’s edge, as they require time to position themselves precisely before launching an attack on their prey.
Trolling for Tigerfish is a fishing technique commonly employed by fishing guide operators as it allows them to cover a larger area compared to wading and spinning. It is also a method that helps avoid the potential dangers associated with crocodiles. The equipment used for trolling is similar to that used for spinning, and the technique itself does not require extensive skills or specialized knowledge.
When trolling for Tigerfish, preferred baits include large and deep-running wobblers with a length of approximately 12 cm (5 inches). These wobblers come in a variety of colors to attract the attention of Tigerfish. It is important to use large-sized treble hooks on these baits to increase the chances of hooking the fish effectively.
Live baiting is considered one of the most productive methods for catching Tigerfish. This technique is typically employed in the evening when it is already dark. However, it is important to note that live baiting can be a dangerous method for the fisherman due to the increased activity of crocodiles during this time.
To mitigate the risks associated with live baiting, it is recommended to fish from a platform positioned well above the water surface. This helps minimize the chances of crocodiles approaching from below. Additionally, it is advisable to change fishing positions regularly to avoid giving crocodiles an opportunity to approach unnoticed.
When engaging in live baiting, it is ideal to fish in the deepest and fastest flowing parts of the river whenever possible. Tigerfish tend to be more active in these areas, increasing the likelihood of successful catches.
Figure left: © P. Mertens, see here; Figure right: Wikipedia, Free license
Bait fish used for live baiting Tigerfish primarily consist of small Breams and ‘Bulldogs’. Small Breams from any of the Tilapia species can be caught using a hook and line in the area. Bulldogs, on the other hand, can include various species of snoutfishes such as stonebashers, bulldogs, bottlenose, or churchill species. These species are hardy and can be captured using fish traps or slip baskets in flood plains.
A typical rig for live baiting Tigerfish can be seen in the accompanying picture. This rig is designed to present the live bait effectively and attractively to the Tigerfish, increasing the chances of a successful strike.
Fly fishing for Tigerfish is becoming increasingly popular, particularly in South Africa where these fish are found in rivers such as the Pongola and the Komati.
For fly fishing, a versatile rod choice is a 9′ 8wt rod, which provides the appropriate power and flexibility needed to handle Tigerfish. Pairing it with a quality reel equipped with a good drag system is crucial for effectively battling these strong fish. Spooling the reel with intermediate fly line allows for proper hook setting and the ability to control the fish’s powerful runs towards structures.
Classic streamer patterns such as “Clouser Deep Minnows” and “Lefty’s Deceivers” are known to work well for Tigerfish and are available in a variety of colors. The key factor for success is ensuring that the hooks on the flies are razor sharp, as Tigerfish have bony mouths that require a solid hookset.
Illegal catching of Tigerfish
In my personal opinion, it is important to consider the local population and their livelihoods when managing fishing access on rivers. Many of these individuals may be economically disadvantaged and depend on fishing as a means of food and additional income. This holds particularly true on the Angolan and Zambian sides of the rivers. Providing the local population with the opportunity to fish using legal methods, will support their basic needs. However, on the Namibian side the standard of living is comparatively higher. Here, stricter monitoring could be implemented to ensure the sustainability of fish populations.
Fish poaching at the Kavango
Fishing should be conducted in a sustainable and legal manner, adhering to the regulations established by the authorities. Unfortunately, we witnessed an incident of real poaching on the Kavango River.
Our chalet was situated right by the riverbank. In the middle of the night, at 1 am, we were awakened by the sight of two Mokoros (dugout canoes) on the river. People with headlamps were busy setting up a circular net with a diameter of approximately 50 meters. The net had a very fine mesh, shimmering like a mirror in the darkness. The legal mesh size should have been 10 x 10 cm (4″ x 4″). The poachers showed little concern for being discreet, as we could hear them talking. The following morning, we reported the incident to the lodge owner, who was not surprised. It seems that poaching is a regular occurrence, even on the Namibian side. The lodge owner explained that the lodge security will not witness anything, as they are residing in the same village as the poachers do.
Fishing pressure and unsuitable tackle at the Zambezi
During our time on the Zambezi River, we observed that a significant number of Tigerfish we caught were carrying remnants of old fishing gear, indicating previous fishing activity. Some fish had hooks, with or without lines, hanging from their mouths, while others were entangled in net meshes. Often, the lines or nets were too thin, and the knots used were poorly executed. It is highly unlikely that recreational fishermen or fishing guides would employ such unsuitable tackle. When we came across these situations, we removed the remnants from the fish and release them back into the water. However, the issue of over-fishing, coupled with inadequate government control, remains a concern.
On our way back to Rundu, we encountered individuals selling fish by the roadside. As we released all Tigerfish we caught, I purchased a dead Tigerfish from one of the fishermen to taste it for dinner. In hindsight, I realize that this only contributes to the promotion of fishing for economic gain using any means necessary, which is problematic.
Lessons learned from catching Tigerfish:
- There are two primary species of Tigerfish in Africa: the common Tigerfish, which inhabits the Zambezi river system, and the Goliath Tigerfish, found in the Congo river system.
- Tigerfish in the Zambezi river system are highly prized as some of the world’s most sought-after freshwater gamefish.
- When hooked, Tigerfish tend to jump about 1 meter into the air and vigorously attempt to shake off the hook.
- Due to their bony jaws, Tigerfish are successful in approximately 50% of cases in freeing themselves from the hook.
- Other methods of catching Tigerfish include trolling, live baiting, and fly fishing.