Tigerfish by Malcolm Meintjes


When William Blake penned his famous poem The Tiger, little did he know that the 'fearful symmetry' of which he wrote would resonate almost 200 years later with anglers pursuing tigerfish. Of all Africa's freshwater fish, this is one that stimulates the imagination for it has a well-deserved reputation for aggression and its electrifying runs and leaps, upon being hooked, are legendary.

A tigerfish is not only, arguably, our hardest-fighting freshwater fish but it is also renowned for its escape tactics and the landing rates are invariably described as being low. It used to be said that, for every 10 takes, an angler could count on hooking one fish and for every 10 tigers hooked, only one was landed. That is an overstatement these days but one can never count one's chickens, so to speak.

Fly fishing for tigers is exhilarating. It encompasses an air of anticipation, not only because of the thrill of subduing a hard-fighting 'striped water dog' (perhaps even an outsize one) but also because of the superb natural surroundings in which one invariably finds oneself. There is, as well, an unpredictability to savour, for who knows what adventure each new day will bring?


Known as African tetras this endemic African family includes the tigerfishes.


Hydrocynus vittatus



The tigerfishes are so named because of the characteristically striped body, the sharp protruding teeth and their fiercely predaceous habits. They are endemic to Africa and belong to the genus Hydrocynus, which comprises five species. Hydrocynus vittatus is the second largest species and is exceeded in size only by the goliath tigerfish, H. goliath, in the Congo River system (Ref: www. fishbase.org). It extends southward into southern Africa where it is found in the catchments of the Zambezi, Okavango, Limpopo, Nkomati and Phongolo Rivers, as well as in Lakes Kariba and Cahora Bassa on the Zambezi, and Jozini Dam in South Africa. There is no confusing H. vittatus with the many other species sharing its waters. The tigerfish is a magnificent predator, endowed with a handsome, silver body with black stripes, orange-red fins, a forked tail built for speed and unmistakable, pointed teeth. Small tigers, fin-perfect and with every scale in place, are wonderful examples of how wild fish should look. As tigers put on weight and grow larger, the outline becomes more formidable, some of the older fish acquiring an almost prehistoric appearance. The gaps between the teeth are more evident even though the teeth may be replaced periodically during the fish's lifetime.

Tigerfish prefer warm, well-oxygenated water, where, as Paul Skelton points out in A Complete Guide to Freshwater Fishes of Southern Africa, they feed on the most abundant baitfish, even taking prey as much as 40 percent of their own body length. Excitement is in the offing when angling for tigers, as they are not solitary fish. Catch one and more are invariably around for they move in packs – shoals being perhaps an exaggeration. These packs usually comprise fish of similar size; the bigger the fish, the smaller the number in the group. Their aggression does not hold them back from mauling their own and smaller tigers intruding into the feeding area of their bigger brethren will get short shrift. A hooked fish, exhibiting distress, is commonly targeted by others, the latter having no compunction in attacking. Missing scales are a common result, but severe lacerations can also result.

According to Skelton, it is the female tiger in which anglers should be most interested, for the larger fish are invariably females., males seldom growing beyond 50 centimetres. Fortunately for the regeneration of the species, a single large female of 65 to 70 centimetres is able to produce hundreds of thousands of ova. Males, on the other hand, are said to mature at 2 to 3 years when they would measure between 30 and 40 centimetres.

Growth rates are given as 20 centimetres in the first year; up to 30 centimetres by the end of the second year and a specimen above 60 centimetres could be 8 to 9 years old. The weight that a tiger can reach is also a significant attraction for anglers. While fish of 1 to 3 kilograms provide the bulk of sport on fly, there is a very good chance of a 'ten pounder' (4.5 kilograms) and some fortunate fly fishers will tangle with fish close to double that weight each year. Anglers using lures and bait have caught tigerfish of 15 kilos.


Reading the Water

The life and soul of any river is its current or, should we say currents, for as you follow its course, you will notice that there are many subtleties in current flow and direction. Yet this is a good starting point, for currents bring oxygen, they break up the surface providing some protection, they carry along or attract food and they mould much of the structure one finds in a river. Follow a current line and you will see all of these things and, like a jigsaw puzzle, hopefully it will fit together.

What is important is that tigers prefer oxygenated water as opposed to stagnant backwaters. This is not to say that they will never be found patrolling the calmer zones, but they will not be found too far away from a current line. Fortunately, a current is clearly evident by its surface swirls as well as debris or foam bubbles being carried along downriver. Thus one can track its course, sometimes to dissipate in a pool, often to hug along an inviting bank or just splitting to form multiple currents. In addition, keep an eye out for the presence of reverse currents as well. This is where a flow turns back on itself, reversing direction.

Tigerfish will not fight a strong current all the time but will find some refuge nearby, sometimes holding just off the lip of a drop-off or moving into a more amenable reverse current to conserve energy.

The main current also, over time, helps carve out various features on a river, which we can use to good effect. For example, you will notice that the inside bends on the river are shallower, sometimes comprising weedy areas or sand banks. On the inside bend, the flow is slower and sand will be deposited there, eventually creating a sand bank. This is a favoured position from which to fish the deeper channel. The outside bends always receive the full force of the water and will provide deeper channels and undercut banks.

Equally sought-after as prime positions are confluences or convergences on the river, which form a point. This is where two currents come together, such as where a strong-flowing tributary joins the main river. Where they merge, the flow is invariably strong, heading into deeper water, though with a quieter inverted V at the point itself. However, a productive "point" may also be a junction with a slower flowing side-channel or a calm backwater. Such areas, which include any seams between the two currents, are worth fishing because of the disparity in flow. In the same way, an island also provides a "point" at the lower end where the current, having split at the head of the island, meets up again. Actually, if the island is close to the main bank, the faster current may have carved out a deeper channel which one can fish down before taking up station at the point below.

On a trip upriver, one will invariably see a number of these features along the way and some will be hot spots.

Interestingly enough, where a side-channel etc. joins the main river there are two positions for consideration. While the head of the point is the more conventional choice as it is easily fished, the tail, situated on the lower bank, is frequently overlooked i.e. the bottom end of the convergence. Consider fishing it from time to time. It is rather like fishing upstream and so requires a fast strip as soon as the fly hits the surface. Also keep an eye out for useful reverse currents here.

As with most river fishing, be especially mindful of the potential provided by the riverbank itself. It has not only been hewed out and undercut, allowing myriads of small fish to find refuge within, but often it is deep as well, with ridges extending down and discovered only as the level of the river drops. Along the entire length of the river there can also be a wide variety of marginal or overhanging structure including trees, reeds, papyrus, or the verges can be packed with bands of floating grass and so on. Along the edges are a plethora of submerged obstacles like rocks which all provide good cover for prey and predator alike. Past experience often gives preferential treatment to some stretches where success occurred but, each year, one invariably learns something new. This is not surprising, since a river is such a dynamic environment.

However, presuming a stretch of bank has been selected, observe how the flow bounces off it and veers away from the side. In so doing, it creates a series of mini-currents all the way down that stretch, often with inviting eddies. All can be fished systematically, especially if one is in a drifting boat.

No matter where you are, always keep an eye out for some additional clue such as bird activity – a few egrets jumping up and down can be enough to invite closer attention. Bird agitation on the side always stirs anticipation because it may herald a concentration of baitfish, for example where many small fish species make their way back from the floodplains to avoid being trapped when the river level starts dropping. The birds seemingly find them first, but tigers home in on these dribbles and feed heavily in quite remarkable frenzies at times.

Another example of bird activity is where catfish have collected in the margins. When one finds the catfish flopping around near the edge, the birds are the give-away and the tigers become very excited by the commotion.

Also worth fishing are the intermittent areas of rapids where, at the right time of the year, river levels allow access. Divide the fast water up into a more conventional notion of pools, runs and glides with multiple current lines swaying around channels and islands. If you do fish from the rocks or off a bank at any time, do be aware of the risk posed by crocodiles and hippos.

When fishing for tigerfish on stillwaters, the size of the water can be overwhelming. On big dams and lakes, local knowledge (or a good guide) is invaluable but, if going it alone for the first time, one should try and break down the particular area you intend to fish into smaller, more manageable divisions like inlets or river mouths (moving water is always a big plus factor), bays, promontories, gorges and so on. The next step is to identify the various elements of structure within the divisions, such as weedbeds, submerged trees, rocky outcrops and islands. On some of the tigerfish lakes, very common features are half-submerged trees. These not only entice tigers intent on feeding on the baitfish that take refuge there, but they may offer another important clue. An outer cluster of trees can give an indication as to the presence of a drop-off into deep water and these, no matter where one finds them, are well worth investigating. You can anchor off the edge and progressively fish along the deep-water line. In similar vein, if you have a fish finder use it to build up an underwater picture of the contours of the bottom, such as submerged outcrops and islands.


Much of fly fishing for tigers takes place from boats. These vary from manoeuvrable bass-type boats, and moderate-sized aluminium boats, to larger craft that provide a stable platform from which to cast, and greater safety when hippos are present.

The three main ways one can fish from a boat are by mooring at the bank, anchoring and drifting.

Tying up at the bank allows you more scope in deciding where you want to fish from and the area you want to cover. This is best accomplished with smaller boats that can sidle in quietly without disturbing the surrounding water. Thus one would select a stretch of promising bank, move in at the top position and then be able to fish along it bit by bit. Once an area has been fished, it's easy enough to release from one's mooring and move down to the next spot, perhaps 30 metres along, until the chosen stretch has been fished. It also is an ideal way to fish those favoured "points" at confluences. Being stationary and stable, meaning the boat is not swinging in the current, allows you to get the fly down more precisely to the required depth.

An alternative is to fish at anchor, which provides more flexibility, since one can drop anchor away from the bank and open up fishable water on either side of the boat. Just as tying up allows one to move systematically down a bank, so anchoring can be similarly used such as along a submerged sandbank. Additionally, you can position the boat a few metres away from a drop-off to fish into deep water.

Drifting is a very common approach, but sometimes it is more complex than it looks, when more than one current is involved. However, you can cover much more water in a relatively short space of time. It can be very enjoyable when conditions are right. This usually means a day with no upstream wind, because a choppy breeze can upset speed and direction and somebody's in for some hard work to keep the drift right. While there are occasions when it produces in open water, normally as a result of a rocky bottom or deep sandy gullies, the usual approach is to drift within casting range of the bank (or structure).

When drifting along a bank, look out for indentations, inviting eddies or in fact any kind of structure and target them. Place the fly as close as to these features as possible because a few centimetres can determine success or failure. In a slower, consistent current one can simply cast and retrieve but there will be times when one is faced with conflicting currents and varying current speeds. Keep an eye on whether the line is being carried away from you or coming back towards the boat, and vary the speed of the retrieve accordingly to maintain contact with the fly.

In turning to general thoughts on technique, one of the most important considerations is to use the current lines to good effect. The main concern is how one combats the amazing power of the current to get one's fly down, for even a moderate current on a big river can surprise one with its wilfulness. Certainly, many visitors will not have encountered rivers as big as the upper Zambezi in June.

Achieving depth involves using a combination of factors. First, the extra-fast sinking line is non-negotiable. Second, one must consider the leader and its length; the stronger the current, the shorter the leader – even as short as 1 metre. The reason for this is that the short leader will help the fly to be pulled down deeper. On a longer leader, the fly line might be getting down, but the fly is still swimming somewhat higher up, buoyed by the current and thus negating your intention. Third, one might consider weighting the fly, as with the dumbbell eyes used on the Clouser and, fourth, the casting approach.

For simplicity, let us assume you have chosen to tie up at the bank with the current flowing past the boat on one side. Casting straight down the strong current and waiting for the line to sink will not be effective in getting the fly to the required depth. Instead, start off with a shortish cast at right angles (or more) to the boat's position. Then quickly pull a few metres of line from the reel. By casting sideways, one avoids covering any fish in front but, essentially, this allows more time for the fly to sink unhindered before the line straightens in the current.

The next few casts, still thrown at an angle, should be progressively longer and each time, one can pay out a few more metres of line from the reel. Indeed, you can have just about your entire fly line out. Thus you can achieve more depth as well as cover new water further away from the boat.

After casting, once the line has swung behind the boat, allow a few seconds for the current to swim the fly. Not many takes occur while the fly is sinking but tigers do follow on the swing and often hit the fly after it straightens – sometimes several seconds afterwards. More fish than you would believe are caught in this fashion. Anglers unravelling knots after a cast not infrequently end up frantically trying to control a tiger that has taken the fly.

After retrieving, it's also worthwhile, before re-casting, to skate the fly to the surface and establish if any fish have been behind it. That lift at the end of the retrieve provides an opportunity to induce a possible take. While small tigers often pluck…pluck…pluck close to the boat, bigger tigers can sometimes surprise one. I have taken some very nice fish at the very end of a retrieve but I was once taught a lesson by a substantial tiger that made up its mind at the very last moment. Be aware, for a good-sized tiger that is hooked at such short range will take off at astonishing speed. When this happens, there will be a lot of loose line at your feet (or in a line tray, if you use one) and some of the extra-fast sinking lines are springy. There is a very real danger of the line flying up and wrapping around your rod, reel handle or any other impediment.

Hunting tigerfish on the Zambezi

This angle-casting technique to get the fly down works well, whether one is fishing at anchor or drifting – especially over very deep water. On a drift, the boat is moving at approximately the same speed as the current and this also helps to sink the fly.

The traditional retrieve for tiger fish has been a fast strip. This is logical since the tiger has such an aggressive demeanour but, that aside, it's a good idea to think about varying the retrieve, especially if you have a current to help you work the fly. Thus, when fishing from a fixed position such as the bank or at anchor, use everything from a mere twitch to a few quick strips at a time; even let the current do most of the work. Slip your fly into the water, see how the current plays with it and what retrieve makes it look most alluring. Try to simulate the movements of the minnows in the water around you, for they tend to hold station and then dart forward a few inches. Another ploy is to retrieve the fly a few metres, then let it drift back, before giving another twitch.

Remember the faster retrieves will pull the line up off the bottom so, if you want to keep the fly down, think about slowing the retrieve. Smaller flies also react better to slower retrieves.

How long does one stay in a spot? I usually don't linger too long if nothing is happening. If there is no sign of action after 15 to 20 minutes and you are happy you have covered that area properly, it's time to think about moving on – or down. If you have identified a promising stretch of bank, work down it.

However, there may be a very good reason to exercise patience and stay put, even though action has dropped off. One example is when fishing an active floodplain 'dribble': this is the place where receding floodplain waters spill baitfish into the main river. This influx is usually intermittent and though action may cease for a while, such an area will continue to attract tigers that are patrolling the banks. Consider giving the spot time to settle down – even refraining from casting for a few minutes – and take a break. If undisturbed, the fish often come back into range and sport can continue, albeit sporadically. I recall an occasion when we were fishing a promising convergence of the main current with a side-channel. Small fish coming off the floodplains were insistently making their way along the channel to the main river and, every now and again, a pack of tigers would ambush them. While fishing was excellent, it was episodic, yet we spent the whole morning in that one spot.

Why is it said that the number of takes relative to hooked fish is so low? Tigers can hit a fly with real meaning; sometimes so hard that one can hardly believe that the thunderous impact has not resulted in a securely hooked fish. Is this because the tiger has a hard bony mouth? That is undoubtedly a contributing factor. Or is it because hooks are not as sharp as they should be? That too is a possibility but, these days, we have exceptionally sharp, thin hooks that penetrate more effectively than the hooks used in the past. Nevertheless, even though many hooks are chemically sharpened, they still endure a fair amount of abuse from being snagged up during the day. One should always just check that the point has not been damaged.

Often, however, the initial take is intended to only stun or maim the prey rather than to eat it. However, the tiger, believing its quarry to now be disabled, will continue the assault in more determined fashion. Thus, if one can resist reacting to the strike and pulling the fly out of the fishing zone (which, admittedly, is hard to do at times), it's a fair bet that a continued retrieve will tease the tiger to have a second or third go at it, resulting in a secure hooking. This double take is certainly a common occurrence on a river when one is tied up, or at anchor, and where one can slow the retrieve down. Nevertheless, I have had similar experiences on the drift with a faster retrieve (though bigger tigers confident of their abilities may dispense with such niceties).

If, therefore, you find you are missing fish, allow the tiger sufficient opportunity to complete the sequence. You can then induce it to commit properly and hook itself. When it is hooked, it will run in no uncertain terms. I don't strike, since it is presumably securely attached (though some like to strip-strike). Whatever your view, if it is disappearing at high speed away from you, rather focus on ensuring that the fly line gets through the rod guides without incident. Many fish have been lost when the line has knotted or caught around some obstruction. Other fish may come loose through being lightly foul-hooked.

Once the line has cleared, the fish is on the reel and testing your drag setting, apply sideways pressure and keep the rod low to the water. Try to dissuade the fish from jumping – usually triggered by excessive pressure – as many fish are lost at this moment. While it's inspiring watching a tiger go aerial, each leap gives it a good chance of escaping.

As the tiger is reeled closer, keep an eye on the angle of the line. If you see the line rising in the water, drift the rod fractionally towards the fish just before it breaks water and, should it jump, at least this will provide some cushion.

When the fish is close to the boat, raise the rod – especially if you're using a short leader – to avoid inadvertently playing it on a very short line. Try to net the fish from the middle of the boat rather than at the stern, where it is often difficult to reach, or where it can foul the line on the propeller.

With a combination of skill, practise and good fortune, the hooked-to-landed ratio can be significantly improved.

While utilising the currents in rivers is a strong theme in fishing moving water, exploring stillwater (presuming one cannot find an inflow from the main river or tributary) is about isolating and fishing the different forms of structure like weedy areas, half-submerged trees, islands and rocky outcrops. Although tigers occasionally swim close to the surface where you can fish for them with floating or intermediate lines, I almost invariably end up with the full sinking line, especially when fishing the deeper structures, such as drop-offs. However, the fast-sinking sink-tip (or shooting head) line can give some degree of protection, especially when fishing over rocky bottoms or snag-infested, submerged-tree areas. In these places, the forward section can still present the fly at depth, but the floating or intermediate back section is less likely to get caught up. As one doesn't have the luxury of a current to help move the fly, the retrieve is usually more active although, once again, experiment with a variety of retrieves.


A 7- to 9-weight rod is ideal for most circumstances. Lighter outfits can be used in smaller rivers and lagoons but a 5/6-weight rod will be severely tested by a tiger of good size. Once, on the Zambezi, my 8-weight rod suffered a misfortune and, for the session, I was reliant on a 6-weight if I wanted to join in the fun. It was then I truly appreciated how inadequate this rod was under the circumstances and how strong tigers of 2 to 4 kilograms are.

The reel should hold 100 to 150 metres of 9- to 14-kilogram backing, have a good line recovery rate and a competent and reliable drag system. Since even medium-sized fish can melt away metres of line in a matter of seconds, the backing is undoubtedly going to be utilised and big fish will invariably be played on the reel.

Having ample backing is practical but, in a river, the further away a big tiger gets, the more drag the current will exert on the line. A fish 70 metres away in mid-river will feel this pressure and be spurred to jump, often popping the fly and signalling the end of the tussle. If you are tied up or anchored, one remedy is to follow the fish rather than to play it from where it was hooked.

If there is space, carry a range of fly lines – floating, intermediate and sinking. However, while all may have applications, depending on the water you are fishing and the prevailing conditions, on the big rivers an extra-fast sinking line that sinks at around 12 to 18 centimetres per second is invaluable. The Okavango and Zambezi Rivers are deceptive. While they may look relatively untroubled, both have powerful currents, especially during the high-water months. All it takes is a cast into the swirling river to appreciate just how strong that current can be and how it can toy with your line. Tactically, it can be extremely important to be able to manoeuvre one's fly deep down. Even when the river has dropped appreciably, these extra-fast sinkers still play a vital role.

There are two types of extra-fast sinking lines, and each is useful in various circumstances. The first is the conventional full line, which sinks throughout its entire length and allows the fly to be retrieved close to the bottom much of the time. The second type is the sink-tip or shooting-head fly line. This has a heavier tip section that sinks rapidly and behind this tip is a floating (or intermediate) running line. Some of these fly lines are also constructed as distance-casting lines and can be thrown a long way in the right hands. However, it is not only for distance that they are used. For example, once a cast has been made into mid-stream, one can allow the heavier forward tip to sink unhindered further out by mending the floating section. This prevents the tip section from being dragged around prematurely in the current. One can achieve good depth this way and cover targets further out in the current. The retrieve, however, will tend to pull the fly at an upwards angle rather than along the bottom. It's a case of horses for courses.

Intermediate lines can be used to explore rapids later on in the season, when the river has dropped, as well as the shallows in stillwater. Floating lines can also provide a tactical advantage, especially when poppers and surface patterns come into consideration.

There are a number of variations in construction when it comes to setting up leaders, though this need not be too complicated. A common approach is to fashion a loop at the end of the fly line. Some fly lines can be bought complete with braided or welded loops and it is simple to attach the leader with a loop-to-loop connection. The loops on the leader can be perfection loops, double-overhand loops or Bimini twists.

Another method is to tie a section of monofilament directly to the fly line, using a needle knot. This can become the entire leader or, if it is shorter, one can tie a loop at the end. A tippet of desired length can then be looped to that. This can be easily replaced when needed. Others splice a loop in the fly line or expose the core of the fly line and tie a loop in that.

The length of the leader varies, depending on the water one is fishing and the application. A departure from the norm of using a leader of conventional length of around 2.7 metres, is when one wishes to counter heavy river currents. As previously explained, to help get your fly deeper, a general rule is that the stronger the flow, the shorter the leader. I vary the length accordingly and often use a much shorter leader when the flow is strong. Commercial flies often come with a wire trace/bite tippet already attached; a loop at the other end makes it easy to connect the leader. Some anglers, who construct their own traces, may use a small swivel or tie an Albright knot to connect the trace to the tippet. There are differing views on how long the trace should be. The length usually advocated is 10 centimetres, but some prefer it to be slightly longer.

The wireless technique, which has been used by many others and myself over the last decade and more, uses a matt or dulled, highly abrasion-resistant nylon leader such as 12- to 16-kilogram Maxima Ultragreen, which is rubbed down with a suitable abrasive compound until the shine is removed. One DIY way of doing this is with a mixture of fuller's earth and washing-up liquid or a scouring product. This system has landed tigers up to 8 kilos, but it is used in conjunction with many of the hooking and landing techniques described previously.

There will always be debate, but may I simply draw attention to one example of many, where a group of four anglers on the upper Zambezi (including one well-known fly fishing personality) landed 94 tigers, including three 'double-figure' fish (more than 4.5 kilos), over a period of a few days. The hooked-to-landed ratio was excellent and only four flies in total were lost due to being smashed up. Examples like these must raise some points about tigers simply biting through the abrasion-resistant nylon. Can landing so many tigers be luck? Surely not. Perhaps then, a moment for reflection?

Do losses occur? Certainly they do from time to time but they are minimal. Tigers can fray a leader but it is remarkable how much wear a good abrasion–resistant nylon can take. However, it should be standard practice to check the entire leader after getting a take, even the loop-to-loop knots at the top of the leader.

Nonetheless, anglers often mention losing fish, leader and wire trace, an occurrence I have seen happen on more than a few occasions as well. Although the explanation for this is often that the tiger must have swallowed the fly deeply , observation has shown that the damage is due to another tiger homing in on the antics of the hooked fish? Artificial lure anglers are adamant that a shiny swivel in their set-up is a handy target for other tigers when they hook a fish. In its struggles, the battling fish attracts attention from others that then target the swivel. What temptation then, is a shiny leader darting erratically through the water? This is why rubbing away that tell-tale shine and using a dulled leader is an essential. When tigerfish are in a feeding frenzy, another suggestion is not to hold and fight a tiger in the melee, but to let it run out of the commotion to be played away from the madding crowd.

The purpose of these few paragraphs is not to convince anybody one way or the other but, given the experiences of the Class of '94, one might ask that an open mind be kept. Whatever system is preferred will ultimately be a personal choice based on confidence and observation.

Fly patterns are being developed all the time, for there is no end to the creativity of fly tiers. Older favourites, like the Mickey Finn or Kasai Tiger, were mostly bucktail patterns, usually with gold or silver bodies. Later, saltwater patterns such as the ubiquitous Lefty's Deceiver, gained prominence, and currently, Whistlers and Flippers are favoured offerings.

Certainly, in the last few years, the Clouser Minnows, which swim hook point up, have been used extensively. This is not surprising because they have an extremely effective sink-and-draw action, they are pretty durable and immensely versatile in that so many variations can be tied easily and quickly. I prefer tying Clousers with small bead-chain eyes which have less weight yet still invert the fly. Rabbit-fur patterns (Zonkers) are also highly effective as they have great natural movement. Latterly, the production of excellent synthetic materials, which are extremely durable, have contributed to the tying of a more suggestive range of flies, such as the SF Minnow series.

Traditionally, tiger flies have been generous in size, ranging from #2 to 2/0 and larger, undoubtedly to invoke an aggressive reaction. To accentuate this, many flies incorporated hot colours such as red, orange and yellow into their livery, as well as a modicum of flash. Yellow eyes, especially on the upside-down patterns, are also good triggers.

The recent trend to simulate a wide variety of small fish, like the striped and silver robbers, dashtail barbs, kapenta and many others has expanded the colour range of tiger flies quite dramatically, leaving very little out. These creations introduce many more subdued hues such as olive, purple, grey, yellow and white or a combination thereof. Indeed, cooler colours – blue and chartreuse – can be included in that selection. Finally, one should also not forget black which I have found to be particularly effective; at times tigers even seem to have a preferential liking for it.

The notion that it is always big baitfish that tigers feed on is also being reviewed. Bigger flies will always excite aggression but many of the minnows being preyed upon are quite small, no more than 5 to 7 centimetres in length. Consequently, smaller patterns are starting to take up space in the fly box. I do carry some large flies but the majority are between #1 and #4, and some even smaller for particular occasions.

Do consider depressing the barb on your hooks. Whether it has affected landing rates to any degree is difficult to assess at this stage – I haven't noticed it – but it does make releasing fish a lot easier, and getting a fly out of a fellow angler is also less traumatic.

It goes without saying that a comfortable and practical hat, a good pair of polarised glasses and an effective sunscreen should also be part of the day's gear. Remember to drink enough water and take in sufficient electrolytes to avoid dehydration.


The warm waters in which tigerfish are found are also home to a variety of species that will take a fly. Some of them are caught incidentally while fishing for tigers; others require the angler to venture into non-tiger habitat such as backwaters. And then, there are species that are only caught sporadically, and much still has to be learnt about their habits.

While one is fishing for tigers, it goes without saying that some of these fishes will obviously be taken with heavier tackle like an 8-weight outfit, even though the angler is not targeting them specifically. An example would be the nembwe which, like the tigerfish, also enjoys lying just off a current line and ambushing its prey. Another, perhaps because it is so ubiquitous, is the sharptooth catfish. A third, apparently, is the vundu in the lower Zambezi, which frequents deep water. Other species sometimes hooked while expecting a tiger to take, would be thinface and humpback largemouths, pink happies and threespot tilapia. However, to have a better chance of catching the latter range of fish, one would need to consider alternative habitats.

Many of these species, while they are found in the same general area as tigers, are more likely to be found away from the strong currents, most of them favouring slower backwaters, lagoons and channels. Again, to find them, one needs to venture specifically into these more tranquil habitats.

The material documented below is derived in part from A Complete Guide to the Freshwater Fishes of Southern Africa by Paul Skelton (2001) and from www.fishbase.org and its various links on the Internet.

Here is a brief introduction to the better-known species listed by family in the sequence followed most widely by fish taxonomists.


Labeobarbus codringtonii

Upper Zambezi Yellowfish

The upper Zambezi yellowfish is found in the Zambezi above the Victoria Falls and in the Okavango. Bigger specimens have rubberlips and are more orange in colour and they are of interest to South African fly fishers who are keen to catch all the yellowfish species. Regrettably, there have been only occasional reports of it being caught in areas where there are rapids. However, one must presume that more experimentation is not far away, although not too many anglers are prepared to spend significant time on a trip to focus on L. codringtonii. Further details are provided in the yellowfish chapter.

Labeobarbus marequensis?

Largescale Yellowfish

This is a handsome and hard-fighting member of the yellowfish family – the colour ranging from pale olive to a more golden yellow. It is found in the middle and lower Zambezi, but for fly fishers in the safer sections of our Lowveld rivers, it is a common capture. It is described in detail in the yellowfish chapter.


Hepsetus odoe

African Pike

Another of Africa's toothy critters, the pike is distributed along the Kafue River as well as in the Zambezi and Okavango systems. Though it sports a ferocious visage, it is not unattractive. The body is a rich, dark, olive-brown with blotches along the flanks. They are effective predators and tend to roam in small groups, once again preferring stagnant water in the backwaters of lagoons. When found, one may catch a number of them, but all too often the bream in the vicinity have rapidly departed. While it has been caught up to 2 kilos, most of the pike in some of the regions are slim for their length and weigh less than 500 grams. Given their chosen habitat and, as the average weight is low, a light outfit, such as a 5/6-weight, is sufficient. The fly should be a minnow imitation as pike predate on the small fish species in the vicinity.


Clarias gariepinus

Sharptooth Catfish or barbel

The catfish is certainly the most widespread of our species and is found in all our tiger waters. Well-known for its 'runs' and 'congregations', it is not uncommonly caught while one is fishing for tigers. However, it is debatable how many anglers actually target them in these circumstances. One would assume that the 'runs' are great times to single them but, given the choice of a sizable tiger and a big catfish, the answer is usually in favour of the former.

However, there are many other opportunities to go specifically after catfish when tigers are not a distraction, especially in the 'breamy', weedy reaches of lagoons, channels and backwaters. One aspect that appeals is the size of the catfish that can be caught – hooking a specimen in excess of 10 kilograms is a distinct possibility. Getting them out when they head for cover or under floating grass is not easy and some anglers have even lost part of their fly line when a big Clarias has disappeared under the foliage.

Because one never knows the size of the catfish that may be caught, it is prudent to use an 8-weight outfit. I have found that a sink-tip line often proves to be productive, although a floating line with a longer leader can also be effective. Leaders are generally heavier and 8- to 12-kilogram tippets must be considered, depending on the situation. Catfish often show a preference for a bulky, dark (black or purple) fly, which can push water, allowing the 'cat' to home in on the vibration – the Half Chicken and a well-dressed Woolly Bugger typify this style.

Heterobranchus longifilis


If the size of catfish is of interest, then the vundu's ability to surpass the 50-kilo mark will certainly impress you. According to legend, the local women used blue soap to wash their clothes in the river, the vundu took a liking to the soap which then became a popular bait.

The vundu's colour, ranging from grey to brown, makes it marginally more handsome than the catfish. It is not found in the upper Zambezi, being restricted to below the Victoria Falls. Unlike the catfish, it has an adipose fin. Its habitat is more in the deeper sections of rivers or in the main streams, hence the overlap with tiger fish. It also feeds on small fish and so has the predatory instinct to take a fly. There have been reports from the upper reaches of Cahora Bassa of captures on fly.


A number of cichlid species are known in the vernacular as bream. There are, however, two main divisions:

  • The tilapiine tribe (known colloquially and collectively as tilapias) made up essentially of the genera Oreochromis, Tilapia and Saratherodon. For various reasons, any species in this group may previously have been classified under one of the other two genera.
  • The largemouth breams characterised by the genus Serranochromis.

Here are some of the bream species most commonly taken on fly.

Oreochromis andersonii

Threespot Tilapia

The threespot tilapia is caught in the upper Zambezi above the Victoria Falls, in the Okavango, and occasionally in the middle Zambezi. It is a popular target for a fly rodder because it can average 1.5 kilograms and reach 2.7 kilograms.

The threespot is a gunmetal grey colour with red edging the fins; it is clearly distinguished by three spots along the lateral line. It, too, mostly favours quieter backwaters, but is often found in shoals patrolling the deeper side-channels.

The body structure of the Kariba tilapia (O. mortimeri) is very similar to that of the Mozambique tilapia, except that the adult males develop a concave head. It is restricted to the middle Zambezi.

Oreochromis mossambicus

Mozambique Tilapia or Blue Kurper or Bloukurper

The Mozambique tilapia, a mouthbrooder, inhabits the lower Zambezi and our eastern rivers. It also prefers slower or standing water and has a greater tolerance for brackish water – sometimes being found close to the sea. It is rotund in shape and silvery grey in colour, with the breeding males turning almost black.

The Mozambique tilapia is often found in shoals, which love to laze sub-surface in weedy or lily-padded backwaters. Take care when casting for them, for they are skittish and a wayward cast can send the whole shoal into disarray.

Tilapia rendalli

Redbreast tilapia

Sporting a familiar rotund body, the redbreast also displays the familiar tilapia spot on its dorsal fin, faint vertical olive bars on the body and a pinkish tinge under its throat. It is found from the Zambezi and Okavango systems to the rivers along our eastern borders.

It prefers quieter, shallow backwaters and lagoons where it constructs its nest. These nests are often clearly visible and can be a metre or more in circumference. It does not attain the average weights of the threespot or Mozambique tilapia, but it does make up for this with its fighting ability. Most of the redbreast you catch will weigh between 450 and 600 grams.

The banded tilapia (T. sparrmanii) also takes a fly but, because of its diminutive size, only anglers wishing to add to their list of fly-caught species usually seek it.

Angling Notes on Tilapia
Given the more placid habitat frequented by members of the Tilapia and Oreochromis genera i.e. backwaters and lagoons, a 5/6-weight outfit and a floating, intermediate or slow-sinking line suffice. However, because of abundant weed and lily pads and the power that their portly bodies can generate upon being hooked, you should use 4- to 5-kilogram breaking strain tippets in these conditions. Peacock Zulus, Marabou And Coppers, and Rabbits in #6 to #8 are productive flies, but where conditions permit the use of lighter tippets, you can switch to #12 to 16 nymph or larva (bloodworm) patterns.

Sargochromis giardi

Pink Bream

Once known as a pink happy, this attractive bream species has a deep, light-grey body with yellow patches along the sides and a large head.

It is found throughout the upper Zambezi, Okavango, and Kafue River systems and in Lake Kariba. It prefers deeper channels and in the upper Zambezi it matures after 2 to 3 years and lives for up to 7 years. They have been caught up to 3 kilos but most are in the 1-kilo range.

In my fishing experience, the pink bream has something in common with the nembwe; while I have caught them near the inlet of lagoons, bigger specimens have been found around weedy or grassy areas or structure near to a current line, often not far away from rapids. They put up an excellent fight on an 8-weight rod and have taken Rabbits and smaller Clousers.

Serranochromis altus

Humpback largemouth bream

Serranochromis angusticeps

Thinface largemouth bream

These two species are found in the upper Zambezi, Okavango and Kafue systems.

For many years, these two members of the largemouth bream family were thought to be male and female counterparts. The thinface was originally also known as the speckle-cheeked bream because of its yellow-speckled head. The light-coloured head is often used to distinguish the two. It also has longitudinal bars along its flanks, while the humpback is darker and chequered.

Both favour backwaters and weedy channels, where they feed on small fish and a 2-kilo thinface is considered a good one.

Whereas some thinface and humpbacks are caught next to grass verges, while one is fishing for tigers, as with tilapia, it is more productive to spend time in still backwaters with a 5/6-weight outfit using floating and slow-sinking lines. Ideally, as they are predators and feed on small fish, one should use #6 minnow imitations such as Peacock Zulus and Marabou and Coppers.

Serranochromis robustus


The nembwe is surely one of the most beautiful of the largemouth bream and is also a doughty fighter. Some are a subtle shade of olive with dark blotches along the flanks; others have an attractive, bright-green body and yellow throat.

They are commonly taken in the upper Zambezi and Okavango River systems where they occur naturally, but they have also been widely stocked elsewhere, including Lake Kariba.

They are highly sought-after by anglers for, not only are they striking in appearance, but many reach 2.5 kilograms. A fish of 3 kilograms and more is cause for celebration. They are predators and feed on small minnows and squeakers.

Given its propensity for ambushing its prey, the nembwe is commonly found hiding beneath the undercuts of mud banks or vegetated margins close to a current – hence the fact that it is sometimes caught while one is fishing for tigers. From its lie, it rushes out to engulf any unwary prey, darting back immediately to the safety of cover. However, one can deliberately emulate their favoured prey species by systematically fishing mud banks, though one needs to retrieve the fly literally under the bank. They can also be caught while one is tied up or drifting slowly along well-vegetated margins and casting as close to structure, such as submerged reeds, as possible. More often than not, a take will feel as though your fly has been sucked into a hole (as opposed to the rush of the tiger). A second later, the fish will try and get back to its sanctuary under the bank. Then, it's a case of hold tight or lose.

Generally, because they can be targeted in tiger habitat, one would use an 8-weight rod and a strong leader. While the tackle selection is more determined by the water conditions, the stronger gear will help in keeping a big nembwe from entangling itself or getting back under the bank, where they are extremely difficult to dislodge. Since the nembwe is a predator with a relatively large mouth, it accepts many of the tiger patterns readily, especially if they have some bulk and profile, like Deceivers.

In the lagoons, where the average fish may be less than a kilo, a 5/6-weight outfit is recommended.

The three members of the Serranochromis genus above can be considered major angling species. Two others – the purpleface largemouth (S. macrocephalus) and the brownspot largemouth (S. thumbergi) – do take a fly but are a side-attraction because of their small average size.


South Africa forms the southern belt of Africa's 'tiger' region (Map 8). On the eastern side of the country, the lower reaches of rivers such as the Phongolo, Usutu and Nkomati, as well as those within the Kruger National Park, hold tigerfish. However, the rivers within or on the border of the Park are, to all intents and purposes, out of bounds to the visiting angler.

A closer destination for South African anglers is the Pongolapoort Dam. (Map 10) More commonly known as Lake Jozini, it lies on the border of northern KwaZulu-Natal and Swaziland and is fed by the Phongolo River. For a number of years it remained at very low levels but, after being filled by the infamous Cyclone Desmoina, it has provided anglers with increasing opportunities to enjoy some stillwater tigerfishing. While it has always supported a good population of smaller tigers, it is encouraging to see the capture of more large specimens over the last few years. The onset of the summer rains can, however, adversely affect the water clarity.

Further north and to the west flows the beautiful Okavango River (Map 8), which rises in the highlands of Angola. Upon reaching the Caprivi Strip, it turns south, rather than continuing eastwards, as do the other rivers in the region, and so never reaches the ocean. After entering Botswana, the river forms the Panhandle, and here its constant flow provides excellent fishing for tigers throughout its meandering length.

Aside from being a fascinating river, an intriguing feature of the Okavango is the presence of the many secret lagoons. Whereas some lagoons lie close to the mainstream, many are not readily accessible and require careful manoeuvring through tiny hippo trails before one breaks into them. They may be as large as 50 hectares and hold a variety of bream species, catfish and African pike. Where there is a reasonable flow at the inlet to any lagoon, tigerfish may also be present.

The best fly-fishing months in the Panhandle are from August through to November, with April and May being considered poor, because of the annual floods. However, within the good months, we must draw attention to the annual catfish (or barbel) run.

This is an amazing annual phenomenon, for which the Okavango is famous, and it attracts many anglers. Actually, it is more accurate to talk of runs as a number of these events occur, ranging in size from small (yet still able to attract tigers) to truly awesome spectacles that take quite some time to move past one. The runs can occur from late September onwards, though October and November are the more productive months. However, one of the biggest runs I ever witnessed occurred in December 2001, so the timing can change depending on the year in question. It was a truly remarkable occurrence that started off with a few catfish flopping around the junction of the Thaoge River and the Okavango and 3 days later had increased in size to a run that was a 100 metres or more in length. It was a privilege to watch this develop over the days.

However, even a reasonably sized catfish run makes for incredible viewing when masses of catfish advance upriver along the papyrus. When they do so, the entire Okavango comes to life – egrets, herons, cormorants, kingfishers, fish eagles and even crocodiles join in the excitement. Amazingly, when the catfish sense danger, they take time every now and again to cross over the river away from the hazard. Watch for the birds, listen for the clattering through the papyrus and reeds, for finding a run will herald a wonderful opportunity to take up cudgels (so to speak) with the many tigerfish that follow on the outskirts of the activity, mopping up the small fish that are displaced by the catfish. This is a time when frenzies can occur in and out of the boats.

After the Panhandle, the Okavango splinters and floods a huge area known as the Delta, renowned for its populations of wild animals and wonderful bird watching. However, while the perennial rivers still hold tigerfish and a variety of other species, the Delta's extensive flooded area diminishes in size with the onset of the dry winter. What was once a shallow lagoon holding thinface largemouths and redbreast tilapia, could well be fertile browsing grounds for lechwe antelope a month or so later.

There are a variety of local lodges that cater specifically for anglers and the catfish run. Both the Panhandle and Delta are accessed by flying into Maun (Botswana). From there, it is necessary to arrange a charter flight into the camp or to go by road.

To the immediate east of the Okavango is the Kwando River. In Namibia it is a smaller river, at times unnervingly clear, so much so that one can see every hippo on the bottom. However, it then becomes the more formidable Chobe River, forming the southern border of the Caprivi Strip with Botswana. It has a slower current than the Zambezi, but yields some sizeable tigerfish and bream.

In the vicinity of Kasane, some 70 to 80 kilometres from Victoria Falls, the banks of the Chobe are lined with lodges, most of which focus on the game viewing and birding in the area as the Chobe National Park is nearby. Some, however, do offer fishing in the vicinity of the Chobe rapids around Impalila Island. The Chobe then meets up with the Zambezi at the end of the Caprivi Strip near Kazungula.

The Zambezi River is an absolute gem and the most extensive tigerfish river in southern Africa (Map 8). It rises in north-western Zambia as a small, insignificant spring and ends up in the Indian Ocean a few thousand kilometres later. It flows through or borders six countries: Zambia, Angola, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Mozambique.

From its source, after a sojourn in Angola, the Zambezi flows southwards through Barotseland, over the Ngonye Falls near Sioma and down to Katima Mulilo. Unlike the Okavango, it then pushes eastwards as the northern border of the Caprivi Strip with Zambia and Namibia, through the Mambova Rapids at Impalila Island, to Kazungula, where it is joined by the Chobe. The Zambezi has a second link to the Chobe via the Kasai Channel opposite the town of Kasane. This 11-kilometre long channel also provides very good tiger fishing.

At Kazungula, the Zambezi loses some intimacy, as it is now swollen considerably in size by the Chobe's contribution and continues, after the Katambora Rapids, to the Victoria Falls. From the source to the Victoria Falls is termed the upper river. From Victoria Falls, the river surges through the zig-zag Batoka Gorge, eventually entering Lake Kariba. While there is some conjecture as to how the river should be divided up, from Victoria Falls to the Kariba Dam is often termed the middle river. Thereafter it negotiates the Kariba Gorge, flows through the Zambezi Valley and the Mupata Gorge and finally into Lake Cahora Bassa (lower river). Ultimately, it continues its journey to the ocean, spilling out south of Quelimane. Not only are the middle and lower sections of the river known for their fishing, but they are also renowned for game viewing, at places such as Matusadona, Mana Pools and the Lower Zambezi National Park.

Since 2007 there have been excellent floods with 2014 experiencing unusually high water and one can expect the fish to be in better-than-average condition during such a season. A tigerfish of 5 kilograms or more on fly is always a prize; in most instances, it is a lifetime capture for many visitors, so it says much for the resilience of the river that it is able to yield many fish of this quality, with each season seeing specimens over 8 kilos caught on fly. In 2009, there were reports of outsize fish exceeding 10 kilos and it would not be unexpected to see the same repeated in 2014/15.

This amazing river offers excellent fishing and facilities in many areas – from as high as the Barotse floodplains, through the Caprivi Strip down to Lake Cahora Bassa. The floodplains-fishing and catfish congregations on the upper river, as well as the tigers that occupy the inflow regions of Kariba and Cahora Bassa are no small part of its attraction. There are many productive and favoured venues and, in the last few years, fly fishers have had a wealth of wonderful opportunities offered by lodges, houseboats and guided operations from which to choose.

In the past, the tiger season was regarded as being only in the hotter months, but one can, in essence, fly fish somewhere for tigers throughout the year, as the cooler months have proved to be increasingly popular and productive. The poorest months are during the flood periods around March /April, while the impact of the rains towards the end of the year into January can also cloud the water and bring more debris down. Generally, the lakes are not so affected.

Thus, overall, June to November is the period constituting the popular season. However, it has become the norm on the upper river to single out June to August for special attention, while September onwards (until rains impact on the fishing) remains greatly favoured in the middle and lower sections. Nevertheless, the other months are well capable of holding their own. If visiting outside of the season, there is always the proviso that localised conditions must be reasonable i.e. no turbidity of the water through early-season floods or rain at the end of the year.

Because of fluctuations in timing affecting water levels throughout the length of the river, it is no bad idea to outline the particular situation you would like to experience and gauge prospects for that in the area you intend visiting. Enquire of the lodge or operation in question whether these will match up.

The upper Zambezi is easily reached by commercial flights into Livingstone (Zambia), Victoria Falls (Zimbabwe) or Kasane (Botswana). The middle reaches can be accessed through Livingstone and Victoria Falls. For the lower-river venues, one can fly to Lusaka (Zambia), Harare (Zimbabwe) or even Tete via Maputo, and then charter a flight to the venue.