Tigerfishing on Tanzania’s Mnyera and Ruhudji rivers is more than just fishing, says Matt Harris. It is an experience like no other.
"Is that real?” asked my youngest son Pete. He was looking over my shoulder at the fearsome close-up of a tigerfish’s savage maw that was filling my computer screen. I could understand his incredulity. As Pete studied the vicious ranks of teeth, I thought of the taxidermist’s notorious hoax animals of yesteryear, and wondered just how skeptical I might have been if I’d been presented with a stuffed tigerfish by Joseph Banks or one of his chums at the Royal Institute in the early 18th century.
The truth is, tigerfish really do look too nasty to be real. In the seminal book Somewhere down the Crazy River, Paul Boote describes the tigerfish as “a metre of stainless steel with an alien’s smile”, and the description perfectly captures this otherworldly monster. There is perhaps nothing in nature that looks so utterly malevolent.
Let me tell you a little about them.
Until recently, science had it that there were three subspecies of tigerfish: the most common, the Zambezi tigerfish (Hydrocynus vittatus); the Egyptian tigerfish (Hydrocynus forskhalii); and the celebrated but now tragically rare Goliath tigerfish (Hydrocynus goliath).
Then, in 1986, Hydrocynus tanzaniae, the Tanzanian tigerfish was identified as a separate species.
These fish are similar to the Zambezi tigers, but they feature a paler body-stripe, less colourful fins, and a heavier jaw-line. One other thing: they’re bigger. Much bigger. While they’ll never compete with the Goliaths, these fish are a real handful, occasionally breaking 20lb and in rare cases even ranging up towards the 30lb barrier. Crucially, unlike Goliaths, if you know where to look, they are still plentiful.
Better still, they live in fast, shallow rivers, and this makes them a perfect target for the fly fisher.
In 2008, acting on a tip-off from a local hunter, pioneering fly angler Keith Clover caught a 23lb Tanzanian tiger in a remote part of the Ruaha watershed, and he realised that he had stumbled across one of the world’s most exciting fly fisheries.
The Mnyera and Ruhudji Rivers that tumble out of the remote mountains at the head of the Kilombero valley are packed full of Hydrocynus tanzaniae, and in the dry season, when the waters drop, and the huge numbers of baitfish are forced into the relatively narrow watercourses of the rivers, the tigers go on an almost relentless two-month feeding spree. Recognising the potential, Keith and his business partner Rob Scott formed Tourette Fishing, and teamed up with Kilombero North Safaris to set up two remarkably comfortable and luxurious fishing camps – the main camp on the larger Mneyra, and a tented camp on the more intimate Ruhudji. I’m lucky, I’ve been there, and I can tell you that despite their remote location, the camps are a logistical miracle. Constructed in the classic East African style, they have a relaxed, informal atmosphere, with crisp, comfortable beds, excellent service and plenty of delicious food and drink. The indigenous staff are all disarmingly friendly and welcome you into camp with an infectious song, a booming “Karibu Sana!” and a collection of broad smiles. Every moment in their company is a real pleasure.
But what about the fishing?
On my second night, I found myself sitting out under the stars on a wide sandy beach on the banks of the Ruhudji, with an icy Kilimanjaro beer in my hand. The rich aroma of marinated buffalo kebabs sizzling on the charcoal hung in the air, and I was enjoying a million laughs mimicking Eddie Izzard’s hilarious old ‘Deathstar Cantine’ routine with Tourette’s excellent guides Mark and Stu. It was impossible to be despondent in such magical surroundings, but in truth the first two days had been tough, and as the laughter died down, I wondered aloud whether perhaps I was not destined to see what the Kilombero valley was capable of. Mark and Stu were sanguine: they put the tough fishing down to the sharp fall in air pressure, as the huge thunderheads that threatened an early start to the wet season had gathered overhead. However, both pointed out that the clouds had started to drift away to the east, and as we looked up at the stars twinkling in the clear African sky, my guides predicted that a scorchingly hot, bluebird day would follow.
And so it did. And just as Mark and Stu had also predicted, the tigers went nuts.
Tigers are like pike, barracuda, freshwater dorado, peacock bass and any number of other fishy predators. They are either all ‘on’, or all ‘off’. They lie in wait amongst the undercut banks and the countless trees that have been forced into the rivers during the floods of the wet season, and when a change in atmospheric pressure or river levels or who knows what else flicks their switch, they are ‘on’. And when I say ‘on’, I mean that they just go utterly berserk.
Although Tanzanian tigers will regularly eat large yellowfish, big purple-finned libao and even each other, their staple diet is the unfortunate dashtail barb. The sheer, unalloyed terror that these wretched little fish must experience when the big silver butchers of the Kilombero go on one of their merciless feeding sprees doesn’t bear thinking about.
If you’re around when the tigers decide to feed, and you can cast your baitfish fly accurately and consistently into the keyhole lairs where your quarry are holding, you are in for one of the greatest adrenaline-rushes in all of fly fishing. These big, brassy assassins burst out of their hiding places with freakish velocity, and they will hit your fly with a force that will shake you to your boots. And if your savage and repeated strip-strikes manage to find a hook-hold, then you are in for a wild roller coaster ride of a fight.
A big tiger can charge around a pool with such lightning ferocity that they are quite simply impossible to control, and even the very biggest ones will catapult into the crackling heat from out of nowhere, in a blur of chrome-bright scales and hideous, razor-sharp fangs. The fight is mercifully short but incredibly violent and will leave you shaking and – maybe, if you’re lucky – elated.
Our third day on the Ruhudji was special. Casting from the skiff, we ran into mob after murderous mob of tigerfish that attacked our flies with visceral savagery almost from the moment we first put them in the water. For extra kicks, I fished a surface pattern: Stu’s ingenious “Platypus” fly. The thing is a killer, and the waters of the river were almost boiling as fish after fish attacked it, until its foam head was utterly slashed to pieces.
We caught some stunning fish well into the high teens, and shared any number of double hook-ups, but the much-coveted 20-pounder eluded us. We stumbled back into camp in mid-afternoon, exhausted and thoroughly elated. I hurriedly packed my bags; the fishing is split between the two rivers and day three is changeover day. As we bounced back through the bush to the Mnyera camp in the Land Cruiser, Lady Luck smiled on me: we rounded a corner and came face to face with a lioness and her cubs at very close quarters. I’d barely finished photographing them when we saw a rare Martial Eagle up-close in a nearby tree, and I managed to get some lovely images before she finally tired of the attention and took off over the savannah. “I’ve seen three lions in four years and only a handful of Martial Eagles in that time, too,” lamented Mark, himself a keen and talented photographer, “You don’t know how lucky you are!” I really didn’t.
At dawn on the following day, as we cruised quietly upstream on the Mnyera, it seemed that every animal in the Kilombero had come down to the river’s edge. We saw lions up close again. We watched legions of vast crocodiles lazing on the sandbanks. Stunningly beautiful lemon-yellow weaver birds fizzed all around us, and hyperactive bee-eaters shot in and out of their bank-side retreats. Exquisite little malachite kingfishers zigzagged in and out of the tasselpods, while vast, lumbering hippos retreated into the dark pools as we approached through the early morning mists. Elephants loped into the forest, yellow baboons chattered in the trees and a trio of puku drank nervously at the water’s edge. And that day, we also saw tigerfish. Lots of tigerfish.
Fishing with Tourette Fishing’s director Rob Scott, veteran guide Greg and local boatman Dennis, we headed far upstream to a wild set of rapids where the Upper Mnyera tumbles through a beguiling series of pools and runs. Keeping an eye out for “flat dogs” (crocodiles), we left the boat and hopped from rock to rock to fish each holding spot in turn, and were soon pulling some handsome tigers out of the fast shallow waters. It was exhilarating fishing and in truth, I didn’t want to leave, but finally, with a long trip back downstream ahead of us, we upped sticks, reboarded the skiff and started to drift downriver.
While Rob held the boat steady with the pole, flats-style, I worked the shoreline structure, casting into every likely-looking spot. As we drifted downstream, Rob would call out the most productive lies, and I would do my best to put the fly into the gaps in the fallen branches, while a diorama of waterberries, giant fig and sausage trees unfurled along each lush riverbank.
One spot, just below a huge rock in the centre of the river, looked particularly dark and promising – a small bay, overhung with tasselpods and a birdcage of low-hanging branches. I cast the fly in low under the canopy and suddenly I was hooked up to a rampaging, silver-steel blur that burst out of the turbid water and greyhounded through the surface, throwing up iridescent roostertails of spray as it crashed off downstream.
The Mako reel fizzed furiously, and backing shot up through the rings. Then the fish was up again, tail-walking wildly and lighting up the inky shadows of the forest. This was my chance at a big tiger, without a doubt. I applied as much pressure as I dared, but the fish was having none of it. The fly line, so recently recovered, went rushing back out of the rings, burning a deep groove in my thumb as the fish bolted downstream yet again.
A big tigerfish is capable of so much chaos that you almost resign yourself to losing it before it happens. But Mark was right – the luck really was with me – and after a ferocious tug of war, I finally drew the fish up to the boat. It looked stupendously large, its vast chrome fuselage shot through with a subtle steel-blue sheen, and its cruel jack-knife jaws chock-full of vicious, razor-pointed teeth. I was almost spellbound. And then, in a magical instant, Rob swept the huge creature up into his net, and we were gazing down at 22lb of Tanzanian tigerfish – the third biggest of the season and a fish I will never forget.
The following day I showed Rob a huge 10-inch articulated Gamechanger fly that I thought might work. Twice on the Ruhudji, I’d watched big tigers come and have a swipe at smaller tigerfish that were already on the line, and I wondered whether, like ferox trout back home, the really big tigers, on reaching a certain size, turn cannibal and switch to eating really big prey, i.e. each other. I was convinced that a seriously big fly might just mimic a mouthful worthy of a real monster.
Rob was keen to give the fly a swim, and we quickly knew that we were onto something. That afternoon, four huge tigerfish, including one that I swear was close to 30lb, came out to investigate the fly. Each in turn grabbed the fly side on, mouthed it briefly and then, perhaps disappointed that their proposed lunch was made of nothing more than fluff and Waddington shanks, spat it out. The problem was clearly that the huge hook was in the head of the fly: tigerfish have relatively small mouths, and they grab their prey sideways on, before – assuming they like what they bite – they turn it and swallow it.
The hook clearly needed to be somewhere near the middle of the fly, and with the relevant tying gear a million miles away, I was unable to tie the fly I needed. The next day, the rains came, the river rose, and the fishing shut down, leaving me to ponder what might have been. Or perhaps, more optimistically, what might yet be to come.
Tigerfishing on the Mnyera and the Ruhudji is more than just fishing – it is a relentless and authentic safari that will assault your senses throughout each and every day. But it is also, first and foremost, one of the most exhilarating and electrifying fly fishing adventures on the planet. If you love to fly fish for big, nasty fish in the very wildest surroundings, put this place very close to the top of your list.