When it comes to catching big tigerfish, one of the most important considerations is to fish in remote areas that don’t get a huge amount of fishing pressure.
The Barotse floodplains area on the upper Zambezi is just such a place.
I was fortunate enough to visit Matoya lodge in this area in September. Getting to this isolated area involved a flight from Johannesburg to Lusaka on SA Airlink, then a charter flight from Lusaka to Lukulu with Staravia.
The first thing I noticed when I saw the river, was how clean the water was. I have fished the upper Zambezi many times during winter, but this was the latest I had ever visited the area.
The water was about as low as it would go for the season, and very clean indeed by Zambezi standards.
The clean water was pretty to look at, but it looked like it could make lure fishing difficult. Tigers are fish that are seldom leader shy, but in clean water conditions, they can see the trace setup much more clearly and are more likely to be put off the bite.
This thought was confirmed over the next few days fishing, as I tried all my lures and tricks in order to get a decent tiger fish on the line. There were certainly big fish around. I lost two fish in the 15 to 20lb class in the first two days. One took my line around a submerged tree and managed to shake the hook during the resulting chaos.
The other took to the air, well tried to, but was just too heavy to lift its whole body clear of the water. It did enough to get its front half out of the water, then shook its big, armoured head and spat the lure back at me.
I decided to start drifting with a live bait out while I cast lures. Livebait were still a decent bet to get bites from those big, suspicious fish, while lures were going mostly untouched, with thousands of casts resulting in only a handful of hits.
We took some decent sized bottlenoses from the lodge livebait cage and took them with his on our next outing. These were rigged with a single 4/0 Owner Mutu Light circle hook, on a wire trace, through the nose and allowed to drift weightless in the current as we floated down the river and cast lures at good looking structure.
It was interesting to see how many more bites the live bait generated. I guess there is nothing artificial that can completely mimic the scent and movement of a live fish. The tigers hit the baits at speed and ran hard with them. After giving the fish a few seconds to eat, I would turn the handle of the Penn Baitrunner reel and click it into gear. The resulting tension was enough to set the sharp hooks, with no need to strike.
Fishing this way I managed to land some very decent trophy tigers, with the best two being 17.5lbs and 18.5lbs.
These are spectacular fish and I was glad that I had varied up my techniques, in order to experience the privilege of handling giants like that at the boat. Had I just stuck to spinning on this trip I would have had a lot less trophy fish action.
Sometimes it pays to mix it up a bit, especially when conditions are challenging.