Fly of a Tiger
By Edward Truter
Lionel Song in his bush camp kitchen makes Jamie Oliver look like Mickey Mouse. Lionel isn’t wearing a shirt and his shorts are shades of a Kalahari dust storm. He’s slicing tiny tomatoes with a cleaver big enough to chop a buffalo carcass into soup bones and he’s not watching what he’s doing.
He’s tracking the hunting spiders scuttling across the floor, waiting for one to come close enough to grab. When he nabs one he brings it over to where I’m tying tigerfish flies at the mess table. Holding it close, we marvel at its mouthparts – the guidebooks say they are proportionally the biggest of any animal.
I finish the flies and sit down with Lionel and his Thai chicken supper. He gouges out the wishbone and nibbles it clean. “Do you know I have a collection of wishbones? I cook a chicken at each significant event in my life and I save the wishbone. I have wishbones all over my house,” he says, pocketing the bone. “This one marks your coming to fish with me.”
I am flattered.Lionel is a hired gun; he can take anyone into the bush, whatever their kick, but fly fishing recces are his favourite. He sent me one of his fishing diaries recently and a lot of who he is can be read between these lines, where he is describing fishing for bream while wading waste-deep in an Okavango lagoon: “Just then a croc surfaced quite close to check me out, prompting me to put a cast across his bows to remind him that I was a predator as well and that he should store this in his poikilothermic brain for future reference.” Anyone whose idea it is to fend off crocodiles by casting Woolly Buggers at them is quite special.
Lionel is particularly fond of tigerfish, which is why each spring he is in the Kavango River’s Panhandle, guiding tigerfish trips. The morning after our chicken dinner we’re on the water at dawn and Lionel has a plan.
We head downstream, way, way downstream. Lionel is wearing a white hat, and looks like Chuck Norris, except Lionel is hard-core. We go and we go, as though on a search mission. We pass up likely targets, the kind of places a gang of tigerfish might patrol when looking for a scrap of live food. After 45 minutes of blow your hair back cruising, Lionel kills the motor so that we can shoot a few casts along the edge of a sandbank.
The fishing is dead, not even the little racing-snake tigerfish pluck at our flies. Lionel digs through his fishing bag, his ragged, cut-up fingers extracting a skanky wishbone. It’s our wishbone. He rubs it first against my fly rod, up-down a few times, all the time muttering like a sangoma tending a spell. Then he applies the bone to his rod. Satisfied he puts it safely away, fires up the motor, and off we go again, but feeling luckier.
Next stop is the mouth of a gully draining off the floodplain. As we drift into range I note that the probability of it being hot is better than average. But before I can get my fly airborne, unusual sounds halt my plans. The first thing that comes to mind is a coup d’état I once got mixed up in. I am hearing what could be machine gun fire. It sounds like war. But, there is a background noise of squawking birds. We navigate towards the cacophony and come face to face with a phenomenon.
The papyrus banks are rank with egrets, shoulder-to-shoulder, all spearing at fish. Terns wheel over the open water and dive. The river is a riot. Feeding catfish inhale baitfish with gunshot claps of their jaws, and thousands of other catfish are rising to gulp air. I am standing at the edge of a raid, the water seething with whiskered faces that look hungry and impatient. This is a catfish run; the holy grail of Kavango tiger fishing, we’re in the strike zone and I realise what we were looking for.
When Angolan Highland rainwater inundates the Kavango River floodplains, it creates a vast, seasonal nursery that helps spawn masses of small fish. Once the river recedes, the small fish are forced to shelter in the vegetation fringing the main channel, and that’s when the trouble starts. Sometime in September, African sharptooth catfish (Clariasgariepinus) group into mobs and begin to pillage and plunder (or ‘run’) these fishing colonies. It is not a single event throughout the Panhandle; there can be numerous mobs of catfish simultaneously working sections of riverbank. The catfish form into masses so dense they create an amorphous wall of obliteration that swallows up most of what can fit down their bucket mouths. Each run can last a few days before the catfish disappear, only to regroup and start a new frenzy a day or two on.
But what do catfish, all squat and whiskered, have to do with sleek tigerfish in racing stripes? Every other fish-eating predator on land, water and air piggybacks on the catfishes’ carnage. Crocodiles and otters park off as though stalled at a collection window in a drive-thru. Catfish literally swim into their mouths. Fish Eagles watch from the banks and reach a talon into the water to whip out a snack. Squabbling egrets, herons and terns scramble for the rest of the pickings. It’s fast food for everyone and, although the catfish get the lion’s share, the tigers keep close to get their pound of flesh too.
Lionel lets me watch the run for a while, which I start to process as one of the most fascinating of nature’s spectacles I’ve seen. Then he repositions the boat ahead of an oncoming horde and I send in a fly. Before you can say happy holidays in Magadigadi a tigerfish does a hit-and-run on me and in the process the wildly whipping line loops around my finger, slamming it into the stripping guide and busting off the tippet, BANG-WHOOSH-BAH! Gone. Just like that. I suspect that’s why Lionel likes tiger fishing, like the way some people are drawn to a bullfight. Pain and humiliation are good teachers so I get in on the party soon enough.
Dusk ended it all, ordering us back to base with a special day of war stories burned into our minds.
It doesn’t take a catfish run to have good fishing on the Kavango. Action can be had just fishing likely hangouts, but Lionel is not one to let the water lilies grow under his calloused feet. He postulated that if we could catch enough small fish to use as live chum, we could whip up our own tiger frenzy near camp.The problem was catching enough little fish.
Plan A involved fishing with tiny hooks and worms, but the catch rate was too slow. Plan B involved Lionel welding assorted bits of steel into a net frame and scooping up fish under torchlight. That worked slower than the worms. Plan C involved modifying a shopping trolley that had mysteriously disappeared from the Shakawe Supermarket. Before being sunk in a lagoon, it was hard to tell if it was a fish trap or something from the Botswana Deep-Space Research Programme. That worked not so much.
But then we hit on Plan D. We would make an industrial version of the electro shockers that fish scientists use for fish surveys. The current briefly stuns the fish, allowing them to be scooped up. It was a brilliant plan, especially seeing that Lionel was pretty switched on when it came to understanding electricity. He once connected his Savuti camp’s generator to an orange as part of an elaborate 220V idea to teach the raiding baboons a lesson. They quickly learned that canvas abodes could harbour evil intent.
Much fiddling with wires, insulation tape and black boxes brought us to expectantly flip a toggle switch. An explosion of shocked shrimp erupted around the terminal but not a single fish went belly up. In hindsight we realised the October heat had caused a short-circuit in our brains and we’d got the numbers wrong on the inverter. We didn’t have a Plan E.
As I write this, Lionel is back in the Panhandle, no doubt looking cool, running the Kavango in his white hat and fishy shorts. He says it’s going to be a bumper year. I thought of joining but sometimes I ask myself, is fishing with anyone who climbs to the top of a tree to catch a black mamba good for my health? And then I remember reading an ancient Chinese proverb: “Man who drink snake blood, easy catch tiger.”
Want to see a catfish run? Check out www.tourettefishing.com
Source: Country Life