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The Last Cast

Why ten pounds is the benchmark for many fresh-water fish in terms of angling accolades is a bit of a mystery. The imperial yardstick and it being double digits would be my best guess. Admittedly this aspiration is what now drives my journey to rivers and lakes with a fly rod in hand.

We start off just wanting to catch a single fish (the label of ‘Billy Blank’ from your best fishing mates being a major motivator) which soon develops into a desire to land many, evolving into a quest for a trophy, until we only want to catch big fish.

This is the cycle of every fishing excursion and the urge to prove whose is the biggest would not be lost on any budding shrink.

Of the many great target species in the rivers of Africa, Tigers would have to rank as my firm favorite, not just because of all their sport-fishing attributes, but the environment in which you find yourself hunting these prize fighters is generally home to the wildlife that justifiably puts any fishing in perspective.

This turbulent year allowed me to visit three great destinations in pursuit of a Tiger worthy of bragging rights and I could be forgiven in each bout for throwing in the towel in.

My first excursion was to join Robin Pieterson and Danie Pienaar in the Kruger Park to film the pioneering research program with Dr. Gordon O’Brien, where we were tasked with catching tigers for acoustic tagging to monitor their migratory behavior.

Needless to say it requires very little angling skill to catch a Tiger in the Sabie River, considering the zero rod pressure and abundance of fish.

But to catch a 10-pound specimen is another story! Population dynamics ensure that only a few fish reach such maturity and every ravenous Tiglet in the vicinity were beating the larger females to the punch, much to my conflicted enjoyment and frustration.

Cast for cast is no exaggeration, the action was incredible, but days later and numerous fish in that 5-7lbs category, I had yet to crack double digits.

I had to keep reminding myself of why we had been invited, which certainly wasn’t for any personal gratification, but even the phenomenal wildlife around every corner couldn’t dislodge the nagging irritation at being thwarted.

Eventually you just have to acknowledge that fish get to trophy size for a reason, which as despondent as I was, the wilderness area in which I was fishing was the real privilege. And in accepting the circumstance with deserved humility, as we were walking back from our hike, I saw a fish break the surface, which provoked an automatic cast that demanded attention.

You’re never calm and collected when a big fish smashes your fly as it hits the water and my reaction told all in attendance of my panic-stricken state of mind. In a confined channel it challenged every ounce of my patience, until the nerve-wracking ordeal ended with the beast in my net. Relief gave way to hollering celebrations and eventual thanks to our hosts for truly my finest Tiger experience of a lifetime.

My first last cast of the year!

A few months later we were fortunate to be invited to Matoya lodge in Barotseland, where you are always guaranteed double digits, to the extent that 20lb has now become the new benchmark.

‘My Visserman Vriend’, Rhuan Human proved this by opening his account with a 12lb Tiger in his first session.

Fishing with my partner in grime, Jeremy Rochester, I was to see evidence firsthand of the wee beasties that were lurking, witnessing him snap a fly line on a big fish, then have his 20lb trace wire sliced through on another.

My contribution however would barely be fit for a dinner plate and after an exhausting 5 days on the water, I wasn’t in danger of showering myself in any glory. Jerry typically got an 11lb fish during this time, but it was clear that the time of year was not conducive to the fly, as we were both struggling to deliver any decent-sized fish.

Even lures, thrown with precision by Craig Thomasson didn’t deliver the renowned Barotse Express, with Tommo resorting to live bait for the result.

Squeezing in a last two-hour session in the morning had my resigned last cast at a tree stump surprisingly and resoundingly answered. The fight wasn’t a fair contest, as I didn’t give an inch of line, my overweighted tippet ensuring that what stuck was going to be landed.

Another 10 pound Tiger on my very last cast of the trip….….. I was starting to believe in Karma being just deserts.

That was until we landed in the Lower Zambezi a few months later to unprecedented water levels, drowning the sandbanks that ordinarily typify this region, with dirty water adding insult to injury. Only the magnificent base of Baine’s River Camp with such specular wildlife could give the needed perspective.

Scotty Brown, the man behind Baine’s proved that both bait and jig’s soon uncovered the size of fish on offer, with multiple Tigers eclipsing that all-encompassing 10-pound mark each day.

But the watercolor only had me praying for that proverbial blind squirrel to stumble upon my nut. I spent an irritating amount of time watching my line racing down-stream with the fly imitating a teaser shunting through the current.

I’ve never been a patient man, but my last two Tiger outings had drummed in some degree of stoicism, which gave me a glimmer of hope for the last session.

But eight hours later I decided to call it a day and resorted to washing away the disappointment with a few cold Mosi’s. Line in the water, no retrieve, talking shit, which now I can’t even remember the topic.

Nothing sharpens your focus more than fly line searing through your hand! Momentary chaos, which autopilot, fortunately, rectified through an instinctive line strike.

The ensuing colorful exclamation from the skipper following the jump solidified my initial judgment of a good fish on. That’s when my rod tip decided to follow the fish……relentless casting can always loosen a ferule. I’ve been here before, so was quite nonchalant about the rod section.

No quarter given, so only a few minutes of nervous silence as I worked the Tiger to the boat, a final jump, in which she almost landed directly in the net.

When you fluke a double-digit Tiger, in so far as by some miracle, it found my fly, you simply have to put down your stick and raise a glass. To my third ten-pound Tigerfish on the last cast of the trip and for that matter the only three trophy Tigers hooked and landed this year!

I can’t confess to being a man of faith, but I do believe in persistence paying off and now finally trust that every cast counts, especially your last one!

No quarter given, so only a few minutes of nervous silence as I worked the Tiger to the boat, a final jump, in which she almost landed directly in the net.

Mixing It Up

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.

Count Out

I’ve never considered fly fishing to be a competitive sport, amongst anglers that is. It’s the fish you have to battle with after all, so another fly fisher can only really be considered company on the water.

Hence, the TOPS Corporate Challenge has never been about fishing, despite some 24 000 Trout having been caught and released over the last 20 years. This benchmark fly fishing festival is all about the time you spend with mates, imbibing and embellishing on past angling adventures you’ve had together and possibly trying to convince anyone within earshot that you can throw a line.

And despite ‘Ronas’ efforts to keep us all locked up at home and Uncle Cyril’s adjusted levels causing mayhem with our best laid plans, this illustrious gathering was yet again successfully hosted at the legendary Notties hotel. Of course the pub was a shadow of it’s former self with sensible social distancing but that didn’t stop every entrant from celebrating in the great outdoors!

The WildFly waters lived up to their reputation, producing some spectacular Rainbows and even a few rare Browns made an appearance. The conditions however couldn’t have been more challenging!

Howling winds, driving rain and sleet that turned into a genuine snowstorm!….thankfully we all had our Jonsson fleeces!!

No rational person would chose to take out a fly rod, but that’s one symptom resulting from this pandemic, you lose all sense of perspective and logic is quickly cast aside. Every single person braved the merciless weather and returned grinning like a schoolboy who had finally been allowed out to play, albeit with a slightly bluish tinge to their complexion.

Fortunately a Glenbrynth single malt kept the polar bears at bay and the Trout played ball, with 699 fish making into the record books in the qualifying legs

Thankfully the final brought out a little sun and with spring brightening up the landscape, the 48 fly fishers made a lot of hay.

112 fish in the first session was followed by 75 in the second, with a 64cm Rainbow hen from Oakbrook dam landed by Paul Lishman, equalling the 64cm Brown caught in leg one. Remarkably 79 Trout were landed in the 3rd session and as one has come to expect only 48 in that last shell shocked session with Gavin Loveday recording another 64cm from SpringGrove dam.

The yardstick of a good sized Trout I believe is 50cm and if you are lucky enough to broach the 55cm mark, you move into that 7lb category, which for most casual anglers is a memorable catch indeed. But if you’re lucky enough to land a wee beast that eclipses the 60cm mark, you’re in trophy territory.

This was the first count out, forcing us to look at their respective largest fish in the legs, Paul’s 59cm from Oribi dam, pipped Gav’s 56cm, bestowing on him the trophy for the largest fish of the 2020 TCC.

The 314 Trout caught in the final took the tally to 1013 fish for the event. But yet again it was the average size of fish recorded this year that caught everyone’s attention with every dam measuring a Trout in excess of 55cm and more fish caught over 50cm than any other year!

The session scoring system kept the adjudicators busy and everyone guessing with two count outs, for 4th and 3rd place as well as for silver and gold, with just a single fish tipping the scales.

Every fly fisher won a holiday to enjoy some more fishing compliments of, and Easy Escapes, but there were some anxious anglers waiting to see if they’s made it to the trophy tiger grounds of Matoya lodge, the majestic Bains River Camp in the lower Zambezi or the luxurious White Pearl resort in Mozambique as well as the incredible Orange river drift with Kalahari Outventures.

Hendrik Fourie took top honours with his 17 Trout caught and released, engraving his name into the WildFly honours board at Notties.

And this performance was good enough to catapult his team ST Fergusson, past the 3rd place of ‘Nympmaniacs’ and the 2nd place podium held by team ‘ZZ Tops’ to be crowned the 2021 TOPS Corporate Challenge champions.

With trips to Semonkong in Lesotho, Shayamoya on Jozini, Giants Cup in the berg or Fordoun and InverMooi in the mIdlands, every team was rewarded for their efforts on the water.

This coupled with the incredible prizes from Hardy, Greys, Airflo, Frontier Fly Fishing, Outdoor Warehouse and Xplorer ensured that regardless of the who caught what, just for harassing the Trout you walked away with an armful of goodies.

So when all was said and done their were a lot of winners in the war waged against the Trout in WildFly country!

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