Before we get into the details, warning: strap up your fingers for this adventure – stripping gloves do not cut it. Bring a roll of tape – the type that sticks to itself not to skin or hair – Vetrap is perfect. This is also good for saltwater flyfishing. You need a roll or two because it can start to slip if you get it wet which of course you will. Second warning: there are lots of photographs in this blog but I hope they are worth it.
I have been about a bit but for one reason or another tiger fish have eluded me. I have admired great photographs of model-like guides (rumour has it they are required to work out!) holding stunning tigers with Richard Keil-like teeth, the character Jaws in the Bond film The Spy Who Loved Me. Always tempting and so was the fact that I am quite often asked about tiger fish (Hydrocynus vittatus or striped waterdog) and although I have known where to suggest, I could never speak from 100% authority and experience.
I raised my team who had endured -13 degrees steelheading in 2016 thinking they would be game for another adventure. Barrie sadly had to cancel but he was ably replaced by Matthew, the dates were set…mission on!
Dom and I landed in Dar es Salaam after a smooth journey via Dubai on Emirates. Patrick, or aka The Man from del Monte because of his immaculate linen suit, arrived at the same time on Qatar via their main hub Doha. Matthew from his Frontiers’ safari. I had attained a visa before departing but Patrick and Dom had not so they had a little wait. Dar airport is tiny and hot but there is a new one on the way, you can see it dwarfing the old terminal just a couple of hundred yards away. We were met and headed off to the Sea Cliff Hotel for our overnight stay. Not the greatest hotel but fine for one night. Clearly known for its nightlife as the restaurant was packed even though it was pretty basic food. Maybe it was because it was Friday night.
0600 and we were back in our transfer vehicles and headed to the domestic terminal where charters take people out into the bush for their safaris. We were a total of six fishers, four in one of the camps and two in the other. One spot was unfilled and the other taken up by Juan being a single. I always like to see we are flying in a caravan aircraft, they are safe and spacious. The 25 kg limit on luggage was not a stress thankfully and we were off for our 90-minute flight via Zantas Air to the Ndolo landing strip 300 km south-west of Dar.
Some of the team were there to meet us and load us up for the short 20-minute drive to the main Dhala Camp. It is a largish camp with the centre being the service headquarters, the hunting camp serviced one side and our little fishing set up the other. It worked well in terms of privacy for both. There we napped, lunched and chilled for a few hours to let the heat of the day pass. Juan and Murray were staying at Dhala, we were headed to Samaki Camp, a traditional tented safari camp on the banks of the Ruhudji river. About the same width as the Mnyera at Dhala but shallower on average. If you go to the outpost Samaki Camp first (in my view preferable) you fish 2 ¾ days from there and then head back to Dhala and do three full days. If you do Dhala first you do three full days and then drive to Samaki on the morning of the fourth fishing day early so lose a little bit of fishing then (it gets dark at 1830) and then you pack up a little early on Day six to come back to Dhala before dark for the last night. So, you lose a night at Samaki (two instead of three) and a tiny bit more fishing time. It was about a 2 ½ hour drive and this is really where there is the only regular concern over being bitten by tsetse flies. They do not bother some people except when biting but they give me some lovely big welts a couple of days later. Don’t wear dark blue, it attracts them and wear either loose clothing or double layer (tricky when hot) because they have a long proboscis and can go through a single layer with ease. On the river, we would have an encounter or two a day whereas driving through the bush you are stirring them up and they land on you much more.
Samaki Camp is not a luxury camp the likes of which we see in photographic safari brochures but there was very little wrong with it. It was in a lovely setting on a sandy beach by the river and the staff did a great job. Everything was cleaned and tidied well and the laundry (done each day which makes keeping your luggage weight down easier) was returned immaculately. Was it 5 star? No, but there was nothing not to like including the food which was adapted to your tastes and always delivered hot. Every soup was outstanding. For just four guests and two guides it was a really pleasurable experience.
You need two rods up and ready to use. If each of your team of four bring a spare rod, the team should be covered. We broke four rods in the six days. Two were accidents, one was a tiger going under the boat and another just snapped striking into a tiger. I took a pair of 8 weights and a pair of 9 weights – with the flies being the size they are (not weighed but weighed by being wet) four 9 weights might have been better. One was rigged with a 300-grain hot weather sink-tip by Sci Angler (Sonar Sink Warm) as recommended in the pre-trip and the other was rigged with a full length WF Tropical Intermediate line. They do not like guests having three rods rigged in the boat because it increases the risk of breakage but had we been allowed, my third rod would have been a floater. My boat partner Dom used a floater which was good for popping but I felt the Intermediate was the better of the choices as it could pop and could gain some depth if need be. I used that rod more than any other with good success. Reels were saltwater style such as Einarsson, Hatch etc but backing was used rarely and I’ll explain why later. Leader was 40 lbs Maxima Ultra Green (they prefer monofilament to Flurocarbon) with Tourette Fishing 45 lbs knotable wire. About ten inches of wire is about the right length to start and allows you a few fly changes before having to re-rig. Don’t skimp on the wire, three or four inches will likely get bitten off!
For clothing reach for your saltwater gear. Three of us wore normal Simms saltwater trousers in light colours with wading socks. Dom wore his usual leggings. We were wary of the leggings option (so good for flats fishing) because tsetses can drill through them easily but Dom had no issues. The guides wore shorts so if you are not trying to protect lily-white legs go for it! We wore normal saltwater Ts or shirts, some with hoods. Buffs (bring two) are vital as are sun gloves (again bring two pairs) – the Glacier stripping gloves seemed to last best but still did not cover key finger areas hence the need for tape. Hats were of course vital as were polaroid sunglasses. Unless you are a keen fly-tier I would just pre-order a set of the lodge’s flies and they will be there waiting for you.
Other stuff to bring for certain is as follows:
Binoculars – the birds were spectacular
Nippers and lanyard
A waterproof boat-bag for your gear
Spare stripping gloves
Sun cream of appropriate factor
A light saltwater waterproof just in case
One warmer item such as a fleece for mornings and evenings
Footwear – some wear sandals of the Simms, or Teva variety and I wore saltwater boots. The guides, who go bare-foot recommend just trainers and they are probably right. The other options were fine except on the rocks which really only applies to one beat, one day but once those rocks were wet, they were lethal. Freshwater wading boots would be another good option. For the most part you walk on sand when going to the boats or getting out to take photos.
They suggest you bring a 5 weight, floating line and nymphs etc for Yellow fish but I am not sure we saw any. The guides saw a few here and there and Matthew had a try one lunchtime but saw none. I believe there are more present later in the season so it might be worth checking if your dates are likely to have Yellow fish before you pack one.
Each river is split into three beats – upper, middle and lower. So one day you float down and then have about a two-hour ride back. One day you go up for a while and have a shorter journey back and another day you have a long journey up and a short journey back. You see a lot of country but the journeys can be long. They also have designated lunch spots that they have cleared and feel are safe and you also sometimes have 20-25 minute journeys to the lunch spots and then back which seems like a waste of time but needs to be respected for safety. The boat is a team of four. Two fishers, one guide and a boat driver. The boat driver does the engine, the guide guides and uses the pole to slow your drift to work spots etc and get you out from the inevitable snags.
There are three ways you fish.
Floating – The boat drifts down one side or other of the river and your job is to work the structure be it fallen trees, bays in the clay banks, pockets created by Phragmites reeds, which adorned much of the bank, or bays created by bankside trees. The fish like to hide and ambush and their ideal habitat is either deep water pools or around structure with fast or drawing, tail-out-type, water. Particularly with sink-tip and big flies, this can be hard, intense work and you have to draw the fly back a lot further to you before lifting it from the water than the Intermediate option. Consequently I favoured the Intermediate because I reckon I made three casts to every one with the 300-grain sink-tip. The guides favoured the sink-tip but grew to like my Intermediate and allowed me to use it more! The take generally comes within two metres of stripping if you are getting your fly in the right places. Getting stuck on structure, the bottom and trees is a huge pain but you have to take risks because the better you search the structure, the greater success you will have. You will both need to cast over the guide or boat driver’s head at some stage and it is a really good idea to practise your back-hand casting which you will undoubtedly need to do. It is best to swap with your boat partner at least half-daily. The rod at the back of the boat has the guide one side of them and the boat driver the other which requires serious concentration and vigilance flinging those big hooks back and forth.
Anchoring – There are three reasons to anchor: the guide likes a spot and wants to work it; the guide likes a pool and wants to work it systematically; or you hit a hot spot where fish seem to be rising to every cast and you stop and try and make hay while they are on. It is not quite a feeding frenzy à la golden dorado but similar. The guides prefer the use of the sink-tip when working the deeper pools and spots and that is fine because you are not needing to cover spots quickly, quite the contrary they often want you to strip line and just let it sink to get as deep as possible. I slightly lost interest with this technique but the guides clearly believe in it.
Rocks – This is only on the rapids beat of the Mnyera. Where it is safe to do so, the guides will drop you off on rocks and ask you to work the area around you a full 360 degrees so upstream as well. They will also give you very clear instructions on where they DO NOT want you to stand. The areas they do not like are low to the water where it is deep right next to you. Although the crocodiles in the river are likely 100% fish eating and have likely never eaten a mammal, the guides consider such places as ambush spots and really make sure you do not stand in the wrong place. They are never far away even if they leave you on a rock (a rock might be ten metres by five) they are still watching you and call if you do the wrong thing. All good stuff and credit to them.
So, what happens when a fish takes and how do you respond? I warn you, they hit the fly at alarming speed and immediately pull very very hard. By definition of where you are in your stripping routine i.e if you are reaching from completing one strip to make the next, you are very likely not going to hook the fish because you will not be providing enough resistance when the take occurs. Basically, when they hit, you hit back. Not by lifting the rod (that is the worst thing you can do) but by pulling/strip-striking back at them as hard as you can and you attempt to yield no line at all. It reminds me of trying to stop a trigger or a Bumphead parrotfish. You try not to yield for fear they will make it to the coral, or in this case, to structure like sunken branches etc. I was taken into the backing twice, once by a 19lbs fish and once by a 12 lb fish. The rest I clung on and tried to yield nothing or very little. Your efforts to fight the fish need to be unrelenting. The guides would prefer you do not spend any time trying to get line on the reel, they just want max tension at all times until the fish is in the net. In summary, the take and battle is short but ultra-intense and it really gets the blood flowing! Throughout you are jabbing the fish to keep the hook where it is as deep as possible and yet when the fish is netted, most often the Tiemo 600Sp size 1 to 3 hook simply falls out immediately.
I was ready for a big row of serious teeth but I was not ready for the stunning, silvery beauty of these fish with the delicate red or pink on their tails. I thought they might be a little ragged on the fins like dorado but they were pretty much fin perfect. The disc-like head or gill plate is very similar to the golden dorado when you look at portraits of both species. There were many highlights but admiring these wild creatures and their mirror-like flanks with giant tarpon-like scales was a big deal for me. The males generally grow up to 10 lbs so it is the females that one really seeks. The males are very good looking with small heads and broad shouldered bodies whereas the ladies are more balanced. Once on the boga, they relaxed and were easily managed with little worry about being bitten. They did need some TLC going back and one wanted to see them go back strongly otherwise their brothers might take advantage. Some might ask which takes harder and stronger, dorado or these big tigers? I can tell you that the guys from Tsimane (another wonderful trip – see blog from 2015) think the tigers do. I am torn but would not disagree, both take with spine-chilling speed.
There were several spectacular moments but the most amusing for us all was on the last day. We were fishing upstream into a small tail of a pool. The water was moving fast so I would cast, strip as fast as I could and then roll up the line to make another cast. Rolling up increases the speed of the fly before it flips over and out of the water. A tiger rose to that extra speed and boiled aggressively at the fly right beside us. Now we knew it was there so I made sure we covered it and whack! The fish hit the fly. Then crack! I struck hard because I could not strip strike because of the angle and the crack was the butt section of the rod snapping like tinder just above the handle. So now I had a nice big tiger on with the rod handle and reel hanging in the water and I was pulling as hard as I could just holding the rod. The fish went downstream below us into the rapids and though that increased the pressure it made it easier to control because the pressure was constant. To our great amusement we landed a beautiful 13 lbs fish.
The Ruhudji river was very pretty. Day One was superb. Had we been more experienced we would have made more of it. Dom and I would have had over 20 takes that day. The wind got up a little the second day and tiger fish are moody beasts and do not like weather or pressure changes (best weather for them is hot and still) so Day Two was very quiet, so much so that three of the four of us blanked. We had the odd rise but few proper takes. Day Three was still quiet in the morning but the afternoon changed so it was a pity we had to pack up a bit early. Matthew took the first 20lbs fish of the week that afternoon. We were sad to leave Samaki but we left in time get back to base just before dark. It was a cooler journey so fewer, if any, tsetse flies.
It was clear that things were not as beautifully organised at the main camp Dhala, because the showers were not heated, the shower heads were blocked, the laundry arrived damp late in the evenings and we continued to get up at 0530 but breakfast was very slow in coming which of course made us question the early rise. The issue the guides face is that the camp is run for them by Kilombero North Safaris (KNS) who are also running the hunting camp from the same headquarters thus it is a bigger operation and the fishing side can be the forgotten side. The guides were very receptive about the issues and did their best to resolve them and there was some improvement.
At this point I need to address something that I feel every guest needs to know. The only option for a single room is to pay a single supplement of either $3750 for single room, boat and guide or $750 for single room but shared boat and guide, instead of $8,150 per person, $8960 for 2018 due to new 16% VAT). Otherwise you share a room. Somehow, in the traditional safari tents of Samaki, being in your ensuite bathroom with just canvas between you and your friend is almost OK. In the rooms at Dhala, there is about a six-foot wall that separates you from the main room. There is another twelve foot to the ceiling so your ablutions are basically in the room with your friend! I believe this could be easily rectified (Ed Note – 11th October 2017 – I have been informed this will be rectified by end of season 2017 – again all credit). While on the negatives of the trip, let me address the final one and turn it into a positive. There was a guiding mix-up on our last day due to a misunderstanding over some other guests booking a fishing guide. It meant that on our best day, to the most exciting water, possibly with the biggest fish, all four of us had to share a guide. It was a pain. Here is the positive bit and Tourette deserve a big cheer for this. They did not have to be chased for compensation and did not some lowball offer, it was upfront and generous and their willingness to listen to constructive comments and criticism was excellent too. All too rare in the sporting travel world these days and to be commended.
Our three days on the lower water started with more moody tiger fish but we did pick up some nice fish including a second 20 lbs fish for Matthew. In the Mnyera you just felt the average size was bigger and that made it exciting even though for the first two days, fishing was moody. Our last day was hampered by being a guide down but the boys were right, it was very attractive and exciting fishing and we did have some action from good numbers of fish. This is a walking day and getting four people organised who have not done the day before just takes more time so we were not able to make the most of it with one guide down. Our team of four caught 39 fish for our six days. I did not know what numbers to expect but I had 2 fish a day in my head for some reason. Interestingly the guides were frustrated by the fishing and how dour the fish were for long periods and we did see how it can be. Pressing guides for realistic expectations is always a big ask but I sensed they felt that 2 fish a day under normal conditions was on the conservative side and they would hope for more. Having said that look at the sizes: 2 x 20 lbs, 19 lbs, 2 x 16 lbs, 3 x 15 lbs, 2 x 14 lbs, 3 x 13 lbs, 3 x 12 lbs etc. Over half 10 lbs or more and the 8 or 9lb fish should not be sniffed at.
There is one last major shining jewel in the Tanzania tiger fish crown and that is the wildlife on the river. We saw many crocs, hippos and baboons as well as waterbuck and other antelope. Elephant and even lions are seen on occasion, we heard lions at night. I did not count the number of species of bird but here are some for you bird lovers: fish eagle, seven types of kingfisher (malachite, pied, great, pygmy, half-collared, brown headed and grey headed) bee-eaters, pied wag-tails, vultures, pelicans, cormorants, three types of white egrets (great, yellow-billed and Squaco) yellow-billed and saddle-billed stork, greenback heron, hamerkop, Pel’s fishing owl, various species of weaver birds, African fin foot and the graceful skimmers.
Yes, we did have some slow moments but we were also novices at this game and there were a couple of minor annoying issues but we caught some spectacular fish in very beautiful surroundings being looked after by some fun but professional guides. Stu (South African), Greg (Tanzanian), Johann (South African) and Brent (South African) you did a great job and thank you. Would I go back? I would for two reasons – first I enjoyed the whole experience but secondly, I left feeling that the fishing should have been better and I also felt I could have done better. Do I recommend it? Yes, absolutely, it is one of the most complete fishing trips in terms of being an experience. I have a couple of warnings however. The strange open plan bathroom set up might not be for everyone. You are casting big flies on sinking tips for quite a bit of the time so you need to be sure your skill level is up to that as well as your stamina. It is not the easiest fishing in the world in terms of the casting or the actual catching, lift your rod at your peril.
As their own promotional video asks, “have you got what it takes?” So if tiger fish are not on your list, they should be.