A Fly Angler’s Essentials for Tigerfish
Gerhard Laubscher shares a few invaluable tips on how to up your success rate with big tigers.
As little as 20 years ago, most fly anglers in South Africa only targeted trout. Catching yellowfish and inshore salt water species was in its infancy and pursued by just a handful of dedicated anglers. For the modern-day fly angler, fly fishing has evolved to much more than catching trout on an artificial fly.
One species that has always fascinated the angling world is tigerfish. Ferocious looks combined with the environment in which these fish are found make them a highly sought-after sport fish across all disciplines of angling. For the fly angler, tigerfish are a particularly challenging species. Fortunately, South African-based fly anglers have relatively easy access to the waters inhabited by Africa’s premier fresh water game fish, so it is no surprise that our local fly fishing fraternity is spearheading the development of techniques for the species. This development was based on the original belief that they are an easy quarry because of their aggressive nature, but this theory was quickly blown out of the water. In the mid-nineties, it was assumed that any brightly coloured fly stripped quickly would result in a strike. While that approach does hold true in certain instances, it will mostly result in small juvenile fish, or tiglets as we refer to them. Over time we learnt that, just like for any other species, refined techniques and an in-depth understanding of the quarry were required to consistently catch trophy-sized tigerfish.
The points highlighted in this article are what most experienced tigerfish anglers and guides believe hold water. While there is more to these than the brief synopsis discussed here, I still believe that, as a beginner or inexperienced tigerfish angler, it is important to be aware of these factors. They will undoubtedly help increase your catch rate for good-sized tigers.
The Four Rules
- Keep maximum tension on the line
- Keep your fly in the water for the maximum amount of time
- Big fish like open water and strong, deep currents
- Set the hook as quickly as possible
The majority of fly anglers who find themselves in tigerfish habitat will most likely be intimidated by it. The Zambezi River is a big piece of water, even in the upper reaches, and can be several hundred metres wide, so finding fish is sometimes like looking for a needle in a haystack. The banks are frequented by dangerous animals, and encountering crocodiles and hippos is a daily possibility. This means that fishing from the bank is not an option, so you will be confined to a boat. Learning to manage a fast-sinking line from a boat is a challenge, to say the least. My preferred position when fishing sinking lines for tigerfish is to be at the back of the boat. The current will drag the line away from the boat, so you don’t have to worry about it sinking under the boat. The line should be presented upstream, 90 degrees to the boat, or, at least, quarter the casts downstream. This will give you the maximum time to let the line sink while never losing contact with the fly. From time to time, tigerfish will pick up the fly while it’s sinking, so it’s important to remain in contact. If there is any slack in the line, you will not be able to get tension on it quickly enough in order to set the hook in the tigerfish’s hard, bony mouth. So, rule number one: keeping maximum tension on the line is imperative when targeting tigerfish on fly.
Tigerfish hunt in loose packs. They are rarely single and, unless you find them in fast-flowing rapids, they do not hold stationary lies. They are opportunistic hunters and on rivers like the Zambezi will move around feeding in areas where bait is concentrated. This is important information for the fly angler. So, for rule two, when you find an area where the fish are hunting or known to hunt, try to keep your fly in the water for the maximum amount of time. It is for this reason that I prefer a slow, steady retrieve instead of ripping the fly through the strike zone at speed. Tigerfish are the fastest fish in the river and can chase down anything – the slower retrieve keeps the fly in the strike zone for longer. Trophy fish, especially, respond very well to a slow(er)-stripped fly.
When hunting trophies, bear in mind that the big fish like open water and strong, deep currents. You will find large concentrations of tiglets hugging the bank or hiding in structures such as fallen trees on the bank. Flies presented close to the structure and retrieved quickly will result in strikes on most occasions, but these fish will be small. Trophy fish hunt in the open currents over drop-offs and on current seams, so if you are looking for a trophy fish, then focus your attention on open water with a strong current.
The strike and fight
Advances in modern-day hooks have had a huge impact on the success rate of fly anglers targeting tigerfish. The old days of using stainless-steel hooks are long gone. Today’s nickel-coated carbon hooks made by Grip, Gamakatsu and Tiemco are the hooks to use. They are thin, have needle-sharp points and penetrate the hard mouths of tigerfish relatively easily.
The highlight of catching tigerfish is the strike; it’s like a thunderbolt jolting your rod arm, and to this day can still take me by surprise. I will go so far as to say that there are no other species of fish on the planet that hit a fly as hard as tigerfish, not even monster-size GTs or golden dorado. Rule four says that when the fish hits the fly, it is important to set the hook as quickly as possible, as the fish will reject the fly in an instant. This will leave you with trembling knees and no fish at the end of your line. Make sure your line is as straight as possible, so that you can get the maximum pressure on the hook point when the fish eats the fly. Use your line hand to set the hook, and once you have tension on the line, use the rod butt to drive the hook through the bony plate in the mouth.
If you are fishing from a drifting boat, the boat will drift downcurrent with the fish so it is highly unlikely that the fish will take you into the backing. Forget about the reel; rather focus on keeping as much tension on the line as possible. I have seen too many fish lost because anglers started fussing with the reel at this point. When on an anchored boat, the situation will be different: the current will quickly drag the fish away from the boat, picking up any loose line at your feet, and the reel will come into play very quickly.
- The most popular rod for tackling Zambezi River tigerfish is a 9-wt. It carries flies well and has the necessary backbone to handle most fish you will encounter. That said, my personal preference is an 8-wt rod. I find them easier to cast for extended periods of time and they will handle any tigerfish you might encounter on the Zambezi.
- You won’t need long leaders when fishing high-speed sinking lines; a 4ft section of 15lb – 20lb mono or fluorocarbon will be more than adequate.
- As far as the need for wire shock tippets goes, there is a lot of debate about this. I personally use piano wire, even though it kinks easily (if this happens, I just replace it immediately). When the water is clear, the thin diameter of No 1 or No 2 piano wire makes it my preferred bite tippet. I don’t mind using knottable RIO Powerflex Wire Bite Tippet when the water is dirtier. It is far easier to use, especially when changing flies, and doesn’t kink. Whichever you prefer, use a section of at least 20cm long. Trophy tigerfish have huge mouths and my leader has been bitten off above the 20cm bite trace on more than one occasion.
Of all the species I regularly fish for, the tigerfish represents the quintessential African fishing experience. Furthermore, it teaches you as a fly angler essential fishing skills which will make you a better angler and come in handy when targeting other species.
Manage that fast-sinker
Managing fast-sinking fly lines on the deck of a boat can be a nightmare. These lines are mostly very thin to enable them to sink quickly and they also tend to be dark in colour, a combination that brings a new set of challenges. The moment the line heats up, it tends to tangle on every cast, which can be hugely frustrating, but here are a few essential tips for managing this:
- Slow down your casting stroke. Because of the thinner diameter of the line, it is much easier to generate the necessary line speed to load the fly rod than when using a floating line. Slowing down the casting stroke will result in fewer tangles while still generating sufficient line speed.
- Use a line tray with a little bit of water or a wet towel on the bottom. This will help keep the line cooler and stiffer, which will also cause less tangling.
More than one is a charm
I prefer to carry three rods when targeting tigerfish on the Zambezi. The first rod is loaded with a full sinking line, something like an Airflo DI7 (warm-water version). The second has a 300-grain Airflo Depthfinder with a floating running line, and the third an intermediate line. I start fishing the full sinking line early in the morning. The moment the first rays of the sun are on the deck of the boat and the line starts tangling, I switch to the second rod. The floating running line is a little thicker and usually brightly coloured, so it doesn’t absorb heat as much as the full sinking line and therefore doesn’t tangle as much. Make sure you manage the floating part well when it’s on the water and try to keep it as straight as possible, because it is much easier to get slack line when using a floating running line. Late in the afternoon or during perfect weather conditions when the fish are close to the surface, I fish the intermediate line.
Despite their fearsome appearance, tigerfish are extremely sensitive, especially to changes in weather patterns. When there is a falling barometer, you will probably be better off staying in camp, tying flies and prepping tackle.