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Driven to a frenzy

By Dave Grove

Dave Grove consults with tiger fish expert, Malcolm Meintjes, in order to tackle the ferocious tiger fish of the Zambezi including attaching Tyger wire to the hook, attaching the wire to the leader, and using The Squeaker, Tigerfish Deceiver, and Tigerfish Clouser Minnow

A 'transient' village on the Zambezi. This village will be flooded in the winter.
A 'transient' village on the Zambezi. This village will be flooded in the winter.

Tiger fishing. This is something I’ve always wanted to do, so when the opportunity arose I jumped at it. I knew what this mighty, toothy fish looked like, and had heard stories of the all round ferocity of its take and fight. A friend of mine described them as a sea trout with attitude! This, I was later to discover, was an understatement. What I didn’t know was how to go about catching them. Sure, I had a rough idea, but I needed to find out from the horse’s mouth, so to speak. One man came to mind: Malcolm Meintjes, an old friend and member of the South African Fly Fishing team.

Malcolm has caught hundreds of tiger fish and is the author of many books on the subject. He told me of a technique he is now uses which involves the use of 25lb mono – preferably Maxima green – instead of a wire trace! He uses a long-shank hook with a sharp point (this is essential). When the fish is hooked, he lets it run and gets it on to the reel. He now plays the tiger with the utmost care and is careful not to put the pressure on. This will stop it from jumping and so avoid those teeth severing the leader with violent shakes of the head. He did go on to say that for the novice tiger angler a wire trace should be used to gain confidence. He gave me a list of flies to tie and lines to take. I took all this on board, but in my experience of travelling, both as a member of an English team and a guide, I included items of my choice, too.

So, loaded with rods, lines and terminal tackle to cater for every eventuality, I set off with to the mighty Zambezi. Our destination – Impalila Lodge, which is situated way above Victoria Falls. From Johannesburg we transferred to Kasane. On flying in we crossed herds of elephant, the odd giraffe and other animals not so recognisable, then I saw it: a huge river, which looked like a massive snake cutting through the African bush flanked by lush growth on both banks: the Zambezi.

After touchdown we were driven to the lodge on Impalila Island. Our hosts were as enthusiastic as we all were on the subject of tiger fish. What followed from there on was a complete education on the fish, how to catch them, the seasons, bait fish, weather and lots more. By the end of our stay I had drained my guide of information.

The Zambezi is 2,600km long, rises in the east and flows west where she enters the Indian Ocean at the Pemba Channel. For the fly fisher, the serious fishing starts about 300km above Impalila, which is about half way along its length, and ends at Victoria Falls. This area is a massive flood plain covering some 700km. Below the Falls, tigers can be found all the way to the mouth. There is fly fishing here, but I think it’s fair to say that it’s predominantly trolling and bait fishing. Wherever the location, it will pay to research the seasons as they vary so much along the way. For the sake of this article I will concentrate on the flood-plain area, as this is of the most interest to the fly fisher.

In late December the water starts rising and by end of March-April it has reached a peak. The river then starts to drop and by the end of May it is draining the flood plains and forming a meandering river. It now continues to fall and by end of August-September, it reaches its lowest level. Then the rainy season begins again, and we are back to a rising river and flooding on a scale not seen in the UK!

We fly fishers need to be there during June, July and early August. This is because the baitfish start leaving the plains with the falling water level and congregate at the confluence of the run-outs and the points of land jutting into the river. This is the time when the tiger fish shoal up and smash into the fry on the surface, and can be caught on surface lines from intermediate to floaters fishing from a drifting or anchored boat. The guides call it ‘the frenzy’! This doesn’t mean that tigers can’t be caught at others times. They can, but it’s harder – some would call it ‘challenging’.

When the water is at its lowest, it is much warmer with less current. The baitfish spread out and hide on the down-current side of the drop-offs, around structure, and close to the banks where there is plenty of overhanging grass. During the frenzy the gulls and other birds give the game away, but now the angler must look for other clues as to the whereabouts of the tigers. Other animals come into play now. Look for a congregation of crocodiles, water monitors, fish eagles and egrets. All these will tell you that there are fish in the vicinity. Bee-eaters nest in the sandy banks. Look for the nests! Small fish feed on the droppings and where there are small fish then so will there be tigers. Drop-offs are obvious. They can be huge: from 6in, down to 25ft in a matter of yards.

Then there are the hippos. They stir the river bed, releasing all sorts of tasty morsels for the baitfish to feed on. It’s a brave guide and angler who ventures too close as these are the most dangerous of animals and are very aggressive.

In these conditions fishing is done entirely in a drifting boat to cover as much water as possible. It’s important to use lines that will get you down fast with weighted flies, or you will be over them and the chance is lost. Cast across the current, let it all sink and retrieve quickly – the quicker the better – creating an upward swing. This induces the take. The same goes for fishing the margins. They are deep and fast. Don’t be afraid to get the line right under the grass or bank. Tiger fish ambush from here in the same fashion as pike. This is where bream (nembwe) will be, too. They’re not as exciting as tiger fish, but they do put up a scrap that will test the tackle. They take hard and head from where they came! Lock up and heave them out and away from the structure. Then they can be played in safety. (Bream, incidentally, are one of the nicest fish to eat.)

The rising to peak height doesn’t lend itself to fly fishing, but is more suited to using live bait. I never got the chance to do it but I’m told it’s fun.

Apart from picking the best time of year, the best conditions to look out for are a new moon – windless with stable pressure and clear water. The worst conditions are heavy wind (it affects the tigers’ visibility). It also badly affects the drift of the boat. A sudden drop or rise in pressure can also put them off. Luckily, the weather in this region is quite stable but I would definitely look out for the new moon.

I undertook this trip in September, we hooked up with several ‘doubles’ daily and this was considered to be hard fishing! What must it be like during the frenzy?

Tackling up for toothsome tigers
What set-up should we employ? For the frenzy I would use a 9ft-9ft 6in 9-weight with tropical lines to match; the saltwater ones are ideal. All other times, go up a weight to a 10 to handle the fast sinkers (the faster the better). The leader doesn’t need to be long, about 4-6ft of 15-25lb tough mono and then I would advise a short length of 30lb wire – piano is good, but I found Tyger to be the best. By short I mean about 3-4in. Whatever you do, don’t put a swivel on. Whilst playing a fish, another will attack it and bite through the mono! To the piano wire a fly is attached using a twist of some sort or a knot of your choice when using Tyger. I found the Rapala knot really good for the latter. As for flies, they must be tied onto strong, sharp hooks. The guides use the Gamakatsu range size no. 1, 1/0, 2/0 and swear by them. Malcolm Meintjes likes the Kamasans. Both tend to use longish shanks. Favourite patterns are (for the frenzy) Deceivers and Polar Fibre Minnows, black & orange and yellow & white for the Deceiver and (green, blue, orange, brown, yellow) & white for the Minnow. Poppers can be fun when the fish are hitting on the surface. Tiger fish have a formidable set of teeth. When hooked, let it run and get it on the reel. Play the fish carefully and don’t put the pressure on. This will stop it from jumping and so avoid those teeth severing the leader with the violent shakes of the head.

During low water the diet consists of baby catfish and tigers. The flies to match are Clousers in all black with red tail for the ‘cats’ and a weighted Deceiver or Clouser for the baby tiger. There seems to be many patterns for this, but it was agreed by all that there has to be orange and red in it somewhere. This is because the tigers have a beautiful orange, red and black tail. My best pattern was a Clouser with heavy eyes. It has a white belly with orange and black over-wing. I put some flash in it too in the form of a silver Mylar body. A word of warning: have plenty of them, they don’t last long … take a look at the teeth! Even the baby Tigers have a formidable set. Take plenty of wire and mono with you, too, as this tends to get damaged on a regular basis.

* Download the pdf file to view the complete article including Dave's flies.


The knot for attaching Tyger wire to the hook – A
This is ideal for any situation using heavy leaders where as much movement in the fly is needed as possible. It’s particularly good for tarpon, snook and jacks, too, when using 50-100lb mono leaders.
Stage 1: Tie an overhand knot in the wire loosely and thread the end through the eye of the hook.
Stage 2: Push the tag end of the wire through the overhand knot and then slide the knot to the required distance from the hook by pulling on the loose end. Gripping the knot between thumb and forefinger, pull it tight by pulling on the leader end. Now tie a half hitch with the loose end on the leader and pull it tight.
Stage 3: Gripping the hook with pliers or hooking it over scissors etc, pull the whole leader as tight as you can. As it locks, a little click may sometimes be heard, depending on materials.

Attaching the wire to the leader – B
Remember, this is for Tyger wire but I’m sure it will work on other soft wires too. It is very easy and quick to tie and has never let me down.
Stage 1: Tie an overhand knot in the wire, but don’t pull it tight at this point.
Stage 2: Thread the chosen leader material through the overhand knot from the opposite direction. Pull the wire almost tight and then tie a simple grinner knot on the wire just above the overhand knot. Pull the grinner almost tight and slide it close to the overhand knot. Now holding both ends, pull the whole lot together and lock into place. If happy, trim off both loose ends. Some people put a drop of Superglue on the join, but I haven’t found it necessary.

This is a useful knot for all fly fishers who need to have the protection of wire bite leaders near the fly, as it creates a smooth junction from leader to wire. Not only tiger fly fishers, but also pike, snook and jack fly fishermen will find this a useful knot to add to their repertoire.

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