Botswana – 2011
Tackling a Toothy Tigerfish
By Greg Niemann
Through some Africa travel literature I learned of the Tigerfish, a fierce game predator that dwells in the Zambezi River. Zounds. That’s where I was headed – to the Zambezi, Africa’s fourth largest river system, with a planned photo safari and to visit Victoria Falls.
With little time allotted in the Zambezi area, I pondered my dilemma. After our plane touched down at the airport in Zimbabwe, a van bounced us to Botswana and our safari at Chobe National Park. I asked the local driver about fishing, and his eyes lit up. Even though wild game occasionally crossed the road in front of us, he kept turning around to talk to me. He said the fishing would be better on the Chobe River, one of the Zambezi’s main tributaries.
“The Zambezi’s too deep, and you have to travel way down canyon from the falls,” he said. “Plus, in Botswana, you’ll be staying right on the Chobe, and I know they catch Tigerfish there.” Whoa. Nuf said. I was elated because I had a free afternoon after a game drive and I knew where I was headed.
Through the Chobe Safari Hotel in Kasane, Botswana, I lined up a trip the next afternoon. It was a small dinghy with a sturdy outboard which would be fine for just me and my Namibian guide who called himself Liven. The Chobe there actually formed the border between Botswana and Namibia and we fished in the shade of the latter country’s trees.
Liven roared down river in the direction of the Zambezi, about an hour away. Behind us, upriver, was the national park and incredible numbers and varied species of wild game at river’s edge. It was November, the end of the dry season, and as watering holes dried up more animals came to the river.
The river setting was pristine save a few modest buildings of Kasane we occasionally espied through the trees. Even there, as we passed through town we could see elephants and warthogs roaming about without a care in the world.
Liven slowed as we approached a wide spot speckled with small brush-covered islands and rocky islets. He steered through a channel and pulled over to some trees where we would fish. About 50-60 feet away in a calm eddy was a pool where a few hippo ears turned to face us. Great! Hippos are very aggressive towards humans, whom they commonly attack whether in boats or on land with no apparent provocation. They are widely considered to be one of the most dangerous large animals in Africa. My guide Liven said he likes this spot and that usually the hippos stay over there, but I was still unnerved as we baited up. We used just a simple hook on a strong wire leader. No sinker. The bait? Chunks of Tigerfish! When food is scarce, Tigerfish have been known to resort to cannibalism, especially in the dry season. Equivalent to South American piranha, the Tigerfish are ferocious. They have razor-sharp interlocking teeth, along with streamlined, muscular bodies built for speed. Tigerfish are aggressive predators. A school can tackle animals of almost any size, including any land animals that stray too close to the water's edge. Even an individual fish can take down prey as large as itself. Tigerfish have also been known to attack humans.
I was more worried about the hippos when we cast out in their direction. By now there were about a dozen of the huge animals, all looking our way, 24 ears constantly wiggling, and occasionally one would raise its head up in an apparent display of machismo.
“This is a good spot,” Liven said. “Just throw it to that deep area about halfway to those hippos, and when the fish hits, you have to jerk it real hard and never, ever allow any slack. Keep it real tight and wind fast.”
Yeah, easier said than done, I thought. I’m left handed and the reels had right hand winds, but I’ve caught fish that way before so I figured no problem.
One of the hippos thought he’d intimidate us and started coming in our direction, closer and closer. Liven grabbed the rope out of the trees, saying, “These hippos can get mean. They’ve attacked villagers near here, so let’s go.”
Bam! Of course, that’s when my first Tigerfish hit. It was a real hard strike , probably the strongest of the day. But with one eye on the hippo who finally stopped about 20 feet from us, I lost concentration – and the fish.
We moved to a rocky area in the middle of the river, where the main channels were on either side of us. Liven jumped onto a rock to secure the boat and on the next rock was a medium-sized crocodile, who turned to look at the intrusion, and never took his prehistoric eyes off of us.
We left each other alone and I quickly got back into fishing; it too was a good spot. Liven caught a small Tigerfish. I lost two more by winding too slowly or too awkwardly.
The croc slipped into the water to surface on another, closer rock. Another crocodile climbed out of a pool on the other side of us. Even though the Nile crocodile is a deadly carnivorous ambush predator, and the hippos are herbivores, Liven says the hippos are more dangerous as they can, and do, attack without warning.
Free of the hippos and with the crocs to my back, I finally did it right and fought a feisty Tigerfish to the boat. While this species can grow up to 15 kilos, mine was only about 3 or 3˝ kilos (6-8 pounds), but he fought like a much larger fish.
Two hours after we first set off, I returned to the hotel sated and elated. There are a lot of exotic things in this part of Africa where four countries (Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Zambia) share borders. There’s the awesome Victoria Falls, all the lions and leopards, elephants and zebras, and so much more, yet I will always remember my uneasy day on the Chobe River and the feisty Tigerfish reward.