Fishing is Fishing All Over the World, Mostly
No Place Like Home (aka Baileys Harbor)
This was a situation I was very comfortable with. A ballet I had performed thousands of times in the past. Perched on the bow platform of a gently rocking open boat, spinning rod dangling in my right hand, searching for active game fish. We were slowly working along the rocky shoreline of a swiftly moving river looking for breaks where baitfish could seek refuge from the current. This is also where the predators would look for a meal. Spotting a likely backwater eddy, I sent a chartreuse colored Shad Rap arching against the blue, backlit sky alighting it softly at the edge of the eddy. Allowing the lure to sink for a moment, I rapidly retrieved it, trying my best to make the lure behave like a darting minnow. Following the movements of the bright blob of color just under the surface of the water to the side of the boat, I recovered the lure, flipped the bail of the spinning reel and repeated the process.
The local guide I had engaged for the trip was positioning the boat as we drifted along with the river. He sat at the helm of the sixteen-foot fishing craft maneuvering the boat using the main engine, a 50HP Mercury outboard. As he expertly placed the boat repeatedly in good position for me to cast, I wondered why his boat, in many aspects very similar to my boat back home, did not have an electric trolling motor mounted on the bow. It seemed to me that the guide's task would be much easier if he had a 70-pound thrust unit, preferably with autopilot. I nonchalantly asked the guide, "Why don't you use an electric trolling motor to position the boat?" Captain Masaiso casually responded, "Hippos. It's because of the hippos. If they come, an electric motor is not fast enough to escape them." Oh yea, there's that. I hadn't thought of the hippos.
However, on Africa's Zambezi River you need to be aware of hippopotamus. They can easily overturn boats much larger than the one we were in. Hippos are responsible for about three thousand human fatalities annually. I normally don't have to consider that when casting shorelines in Door County.
I was fishing a section of the Zambezi above Victory Falls on the Zimbabwe-Zambia border. I had flown to Victoria Falls from the capital of Namibia, Windhoek, to experience the spectacular falls, but also to take the opportunity to catch one of the legendary tigerfish native to southern and central Africa. I had become aware of the tigerfish as a game fish from a South African fishing guide I had met while on a fishing trip to the Victoria Nile River in northern Uganda. This very experienced angler insisted that the tigerfish was one of the more aggressive and exciting fish he had ever experienced. I was intrigued and the seed was planted. However, at the time I saw no scenario that would give me the chance to target tigerfish in Africa. Then the opportunity presented itself. My sister Lani and I planned a trip to Namibia to experience the Namib Desert, the animals of Etohsa National Park and the southwest African coast. It was trip long on my "bucket list" ever since I taught desert ecology to high school students almost 40 years ago. The stark, arid and forbidding landscapes of the Namib fascinated me. I wanted to be there.
So here I was. The travels through Namibia were all I had hope for and more. However, my location also offered me an additional adventure. Looking at a map of southern Africa, I noticed that Victoria Falls is very close to Namibia and a little web searching found an Air Namibia flight from Windhoek to Zimbabwe at a reasonable price that fit my schedule. Here was my chance to not only experience the world’s largest waterfall but to pursue my desire to catch a tigerfish. I could not pass on this opportunity and I didn't.
I contacted a number of local fishing guides in the VF area and settled on Clint Robertson of Umdingi Safaris. A four-hour trip on the Zambezi targeting tigerfish would set me back a little over a hundred bucks, pretty cheap compared to stateside guide fees. So arrangements were made to pick me up at my accommodations (a tent near Victoria Falls) at 6AM on my last day in Zimbabwe. The schedule was tight as I had a return flight on Air Namibia early that afternoon.
The morning did not start out well. The pickup was late, two hours late. I was worried that the trip would not happen at all. After several frantic calls to the booking agent, a car eventually arrived to take me to the boat landing. When I met my guide for the morning it turned out not to be Clint, the owner of Umdingi Safaris, but one of his other guides, Masaiso. Clint I was told was "in the bush" and not available. I got the distinct impression that somebody had dropped the ball on this booking and they were scrambling to find a guide and a boat to take me out fishing. I was getting a bad feeling about the whole escapade.
Thankfully my misgivings were unfounded. Captain Masaiso was an excellent guide. He had fished this section on the Zambezi all his life and guided for over twenty years. He knew the river well. As I hopped into the boat, a well used fiberglass bass-type outboard boat, Masaiso brimmed with the optimism typical of anglers at the start of a fishing outing. "We will get you your tigerfish for sure!” he enthused. Masaiso backed the boat off the shore, powered up the Mercury outboard and started flying up the river. "We are getting a late start, so we will go directly to the good spot,” he informed me. I liked the sound of that. The journey up the Zambezi River was hair-raising to say the least as Masaiso rocketed the boat through raging rapids and past protruding rocks at white-knuckle speeds. I had signed up for a fishing trip, but the whitewater experience was unexpected. It was only Masaiso's confident manner that soothed my concern. "This is my backyard," he reassured me.
Once we made it up river to the spot we intended to start fishing and I recovered my nerves, I settled into the well practiced routine of cast and retrieve just I had thousands of times before in hundreds of different venues. I casted various types of Rapala Shad Raps, chartreuse and clown patterned. The spinning rod was a fairly heavy graphite rod affixed with a Diawa spinning reel. At the end of the monofilament line was a steel leader, prudent considering the notorious teeth of the tigerfish. It was no different than casting the shoreline in northern Door for smallies or the lakeside bays for northern pike. Well, there were some diversions such as the occasional hippo popping its head out of the water, ears twirling like tops and eyes fixed on our boat. Masaiso took great care to give the hippos a wide berth so as not to trigger the hippos' instinct to protect their territory. There were crocodiles lying along the bank, slipping silently into the river as we passed. Herds of springbok and Thompson's gazelles grazed in the distance. Kudus, baboons and wart hogs all made their way to the riverbank. Birds of many varieties including herons, eagles and marabou storks were continually soaring and darting in the trees above. Then, as we rounded a bend in the river, we came upon a large herd of elephants coming to the river to quench a thirst driven by the extremely arid air. It was a group of about twenty individuals including females with young ones, bold young bulls and one very large bull who kept close watch as we drew nearer. It was quite a thrill to drift so closely past the gathering of wild pachyderms, all the while continuing my casting in search of the elusive triggerfish.
Bang!! The rod jolted in my hand almost slipping from my grasp. A hit, one that felt like a lighting bolt and then nothing. Missed him. Masaiso instructed me to set the hook hard if I felt a strike. "The jaws of the tigerfish are very boney,” he explained. A few minutes later another hit and a miss. On the third failed strike a bit of frustration crept in. Then finally another hard strike and "fish on!" I was bringing my first tigerfish to the boat. Granted it was smallish fish, about a foot long, but it fought hard and strong even against the heavier tackle making several acrobatic leaps before Masaiso slipped the net under it. The result was a bit anticlimactic, but hey, I just boated my very first tigerfish. I felt a sense of satisfaction and relief. I gingerly held the fish as Masaiso snapped the requisite photo. I have a firm rule when fishing; always take a picture of the first fish of the day, no matter how small, because you may not get a second one. The fish was released back to the waters of the Zambezi and Masaiso and I returned to the task of catching "one more".
We changed tactics, long-line trolling along a tree-covered shoreline. I held the rod in my hand, imparting some action and attempting to avoid the branches of the overhanging trees. Again, I missed several hits and had one larger fish on that came off after one acrobatic leap. Finally I got a hard strike and a nice tigerfish was throbbing at the end of my line. This was a bigger fish. It made a powerful run into the river current followed by several frantic jumps, twisting and writhing above the surface of the churning water surface. The fish came boat-side and Masaiso made one unsuccessful stab at getting the fish in the net. The second try entrapped the tigerfish and Masaiso lifted the fish over the gunwale. The two-foot long fish had bold horizontal stripes reminding me of a Wolf River white bass and bright orange tail. I proudly held up my catch as Masaiso snapped away with my cellphone camera.
The morning was moving swiftly and time was running out on my African fishing adventure. We boated a few smaller fish, lost several more and caught sight of a menagerie of animals along the shore. As the sun rose higher in the sky the temperature was starting to soar and more of the animals were seeking the shade of the surround bush. Too soon it was time for "the last cast" and Masaiso powered up the motor and again we went hurtling through rapids, this time downstream.
Once back at the landing, I bid farewell to Masaiso. He had done his job. He had helped me "get my tigerfish". As the driver took me back in time to make my flight back to Windhoek, I reflected on the experience as I have done many times since returning home. Was this worth all of the effort not to mention the time and money? Yes!!! Not necessarily for the few fish I caught. A great fishing trip is only tangentially about the fish. The experience, people and memories are what sustain me and keep bringing me back to the water's edge. The trip had produced several "drool moments"
What about the "legendary" tigerfish? Did it live up to the hype? Now I was catching your garden-variety tigerfish, not the Goliath Tigerfish of "River Monsters" fame. That is a whole different animal, some weighing in at over 100-pounds. That said the tigerfish of the Zambezi River are indeed a formidable game fish. They strike with lighting speed, but I must admit not any harder then a chucky smallmouth slamming a fast moving crankbait in Rowley’s Bay. Tigerfish do make powerful runs, but not near the tremendous runs of a 20-pound King salmon taking a fly off a down-rigger release over Jacksonport Reef. The aerial antics of the tigerfish are indeed spectacular, but I have witnessed a silver flashing steelhead explode out of the water 150-feet behind the planer board against the Lake Michigan horizon. Nothing compares to that. So I guess I again learned what I always learn from my travels. The world is a wondrous place and the exploring of it is terrifically rewarding and life changing. I am a different, and hopefully better, person for having traveled and fished around the globe. But I eventually get to come back to my home in Baileys Harbor and fish the waters surrounding Door County. I am not sure I have found better then that.
I'm going fishing.
Tight Lines, Bruce
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