Taming Tigers in Botswana
By William Turner
If you want to catch a tiger fish in Africa, I highly recommend you hook up with Tourette Fishing, tourettefishing.com. My wife and I fly fished with Tourette in Botswana on the Okavango River, upstream of the renowned Okavango Delta, on September 14-16. The tiger fishing there peaks during the sharptooth 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 amongst and near the catfish, to terrorize the baitfish already traumatized by the huge schools of catfish. Simply put, it’s a View more...Taming Tigers in Botswana
By William Turner
If you want to catch a tiger fish in Africa, I highly recommend you hook up with Tourette Fishing, tourettefishing.com. My wife and I fly fished with Tourette in Botswana on the Okavango River, upstream of the renowned Okavango Delta, on September 14-16. The tiger fishing there peaks during the sharptooth 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 amongst 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 piscene realm. While on the river fishing you may well see 12-15 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.
Tiger fish are terrific game fish; they fight very hard and jump acrobatically. For a North American reference point, think of steelhead (minus the long runs well into your backing) or riverine smallmouth bass on steroids. These voracious predators’ fearsome teeth make them quite difficult to hook. Although we caught 4-8 tigers every day we fished, we only hooked perhaps a third of the tiger strikes we got. 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 9-pounder, and my wife also landed an 8-pounder. She lost another that size or larger. A member of a group from South Africa also fishing with Tourette during our visit 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-weight rods and 400 grain (and heavier) sink tips so the physical demands of tiger fishing were no issue for me. However, some fly fishers who have not fished for larger game fish with sink tips may find the physical demands challenging. We used 9-weight rods with 300-350 grain sink tips of 30 feet (Sci Anglers warmwater Sonar lines). For tippet, I used 12-15" of 35-pound Knot 2 Kinky nickel titanium wire (aquateko.com or wetieit.com), which I attached to the butt of the leader with an Invisaswivel (also available from aquateko.com or wetieit.com). Musky fly fishing maestro Bill Sherer of Boulder Jct., WI (wetieit.com) introduced me to this excellent tippet system and it worked very well on tigers. Although I didn’t lose any tigers due to the wire tippet, one did cut off the 3' butt of my 40-pound fluorocarbon leader by making a slashing 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 topwater, each producing a loud “pop, pop pop,” as the catfish tails slam the papyrus reeds and other vegetation. 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 often you will see large numbers of egrets and fish eagles diving into or landing amidst the melee. In the midst of this chaos, your guide anchors the boat 10-25 feet off the bank, 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, throw 2-3 mends into your fly line, allow the sink tip to get down, and fish down and across, swinging all the way to straight downstream. Tiger strikes may happen at any point in the process, but often occur at the end of the swing or during the retrieve. The retrieve consists of sharp strips with short pauses, and tigers often struck 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 baitfish.
In addition to beating the banks, you may drift downstream and fish either side of the main river channel in the general vicinity of the catfish runs, as baitfish will have been herded out of the papyrus and into open water by the sharptooth catfish. One of our guides, Lionel Song, disclosed this strategy may offer your best shot at a double-digit tiger on the Okavango. My 9-pounder, however, struck my fly the instant it hit the water very close to the bank. Tourette Fishing also offers tiger fishing 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 hardworking team of Tourette guides on the Okanvango. In addition to Lionel Song, we fished with Stu Harley and Johann du Pree, all South Africans. These seasoned guides compare favorably with any I’ve fished with anywhere in the world, and prepare a delicious shore lunch as well. We booked our trip through Frontiers Travel (frontierstravel.com) of Gibsonia, PA. We flew from Washington Dulles to Johannesburg Tambo Airport on South African Airways, then from Johannesburg to Maun, Botswana on South African Airlink. A 4-hour ground transfer from Maun, and then a short boat ride, took us to Xaro Camp, situated on island in the Okavango River, where the Tourette guides picked us up every day.
If you’re traveling to the Okavango River, you and your family most certainly should experience the astonishing wildlife of the Okavango Delta and nearby areas in Botswana. The incomparable Okavango Delta is the largest inland river delta in the world. A sampling of highlights from our stay at Wilderness Safari (wilderness-safaris.com/) camps included: 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 3 times in a half-hour span, seeing rare white rhinos, and countless more. I documented the wildlife and their behaviors with over 2000 photos. We ended our trip at Victoria Falls in Zambia; the falls’ awesome power was diminished in September owing to a multi-year drought and low flows at that time of year. However, we still regard this trip as one of our finest, truly a once-in-a-lifetime adventure!