Inside Angling and Wildfly recently did a trip to Matoya Lodge in Zambia. Matoya is in the Barotse floodplains area, in Western Zambia, and is one of my favourite parts of the Zambezi River. I have put together a daily report on the trip:
We met at King Shaka International and flew from Durban to Lusaka on Pro Flight. Our flight departed Durban at 1pm and landed in Lusaka at 3.30pm.
We were collected at Lusaka (Kenneth Kaunda International) by Davis, the driver for Palmwood Lodge, where we would be spending the night.
I had a delicious chicken curry with nshima (Mielie meal) for dinner, It felt good to eat some traditional Zambian food, with a couple of ice cold Mosi beers as well, to wash it down. We were all tired and went straight to bed after dinner, in bed by 8.30pm.
Up at 4.20am, packed and had our luggage at the Reception ready to load the Prado at 4.50am. Davis was driving us to Lukulu. We left at about 5.15am and drove through the dark streets of Lusaka, stopping briefly at red traffic lights, before passing through. The streets were pretty empty, and we got well out of town before the roads became busy. We drove for about two hours or so, before entering the Kafue National Park. We then drove through miles of broadleaf woodland, on a straight road that went on and on. We saw some Impala, puku, waterbuck, Roan antelope, hartebeest, and yellow baboons. The yellow baboons are skinnier than our chacma baboons, and appear to have longer limbs, they are also obviously quite yellow in colour.
We played music along the road, through my ipod and speaker, everything from rock to reggae, country etc. We had asked them to pack plenty beers for us, so we chatted about fishing and had a pleasant journey as we passed through rural Zambia.
The Chinese were doing roadworks on the bridge that they had built over the Kafue, so we crossed a temporary bridge next to it. It is a big river, looking a lot like the vaal near Vereeneging.
We stopped at the petrol station at Kaoma to fill up. Every vehicle in the garage was a Toyota, including an old red land cruiser with no suspension on one side. Shaun needed more penlight batteries for the microphones, so Davis took us to a Pep Store in the village, where they would accept his credit card, and he bought some weird no name brand batteries.
Not too long after Kaoma we turned off the ever deteriorating tar road onto a dirt road, and spent the next 4 hours or so driving on the undulating sand road to Lukulu. The trip took us close to ten hours in total. We were collected at the little river harbor by Marvin Sissing, one of the owners of Matoya, along with Paul and Junior, with some of the lodge’s boats. We went to the lodge, got our gear sorted and had a quick snack and beer while rigging up, then headed out for a short late afternoon session.
The guides had told us that the fishing had been tough the last couple of days, there had been quite a bit of wind and the water was quite cool. The good news was that there had been plenty of fish in the days before that, with some solid double figure fish up to 17.5lbs being landed. I figured this was good news, as the bite would surely pick up again soon.
We worked the waterberry area, below the lodge, I mainly used Rapala Skitter V’s, floating stickbaits, as there were a lot of stumps in the area and I didn’t feel like losing any lures before the fishing really got going. It felt good to be on the river at last, with the familiar sights, smells and sounds of the Zambezi all around us.
I had a few swirls from smallish fish, with one hitting the lure and pulling it below, but no solid hookups. I threw the 30g double clapper tiger express now and then, just speculatively into the main river, and brought it back slowly, bumping along the bottom, looking for a pull. Marvin fished with me, throwing a copper spoon of about 16g, but he had no hits either. We came back to the lodge as it was getting dark, had a few beers and dinner, then an early night.
We got up at 5am, still pitch dark. Had coffee (coke for me, as I don’t do hot drinks) and headed out at 6.15 as soon as it got light enough to drive. The river was quiet, it had been through a down time, and everything was slow. Conditions were perfect. No wind at all, oily glassy water, sun rising pink, steam coming off the water like mist. We went down to an area called Barotse stumps and did a drift as the sun came up. The water is very clear, with some of that green snot that grows on the rocks just above the Lungwebungu confluence. It seems that when the water level hits a certain height then the stuff blooms and pieces break off and drift downriver.
We went past Mulembwe village, our old drop off has been sanded up, and is no good this season.
I fished surface lures from first light , till after nine, with the odd flick of a Storm Tiger Express copper spoon, or a bucktail jig. Marvin had two solid connections, not big fish, but around 4lbs and 8lbs both spat his 13cm skitter walk on the jump.
I had a 4 pounder landed after lunch, and dropped one solid fish, otherwise nothing to show from 13 hours of active service. The wind stayed away pretty much, and conditions were good. It got pretty warm during the day. I saw a bataleur eagle standing in the water, cooling off and having a drink, magnificent bird! (I still can’t bring myself to call them by their new name: short tailed eagle, Bataleur somehow sounds more fitting).
The fish weren’t biting and everything was quiet. The fish eagles didn’t even bother to hunt, they just flew high in the sky, wheeling and calling, almost like they were trying to fly to the sun. There were some big bush fires around, we could hear the crackling and popping and the smoke billowed up, dark and grey. The open billed storks started flying in, from all over. They have been feeding in the drying up pools and vleis in the floodplains, taking advantage of a bounty of mussels being exposed. They started congregating in the smoke, and used the thermal of the fire, to form a super flock, wheeling and gaining altitude with minimal effort. Obviously happy to get the chance for a free ride to a higher place, where they can check out their options from and the glide there so easily.
There are lots of new clean white sandbanks being exposed with the dropping water, and the skimmers are so happy, colonizing each new bank as it appears. The white fronted bee eaters, are nesting in the banks, kicking sand out of their burrows in a spray, that catches the early light. Monitor lizards lounge on the banks, rushing through the grass and into the water when we drift close. Plenty to look at while casting at all the likely looking spots and waiting for that arm jarring hit.
We headed home for lunch at around 1pm, and then headed out again at 3pm. We went upstream, to a spot they call banana rock, a long drift, past lots of reeds and some interesting bottom contours, just downstream of Lukulu village.
I landed a 4lb fish on a black and purple bucktail jig. Had another decent fish on for a few seconds then gone. All in all, very quiet by Matoya standards.
Tough day today. It started off well, with some nice surface smashes upstream at Banana rock at first light. I landed a 6 pounder and we had about 20 minutes of intermittent smashes, with some of them definitely being big fish, but no other hookups, then it went very quiet. 9 hours till our next bite, that is a long time between drinks, when you are casting your arm off all day.
We went upstream past Lukulu, to the confluence of the Lungwemova river, and fished the rapids in the Zambezi just above the confluence. I had one knock from a small fish. I used a weighted VMC swimbait hook, with a Storm jerk plastic, rigged weedless. It worked pretty well in the shallow water over rocks, it still got stuck a few times, but we could get it out.
I rigged a Storm Superu paddletail afterwards, gold, with blue glitter and some bluish on the back, it looked deadly in the water.I couldn’t get any bites though, and even Marvin’s bottlenose livebait wasn’t getting enquiries. In the late afternoon we had a few swirls around sunset, on the surface at waterberries, not big fish and none connected.
Wow, super tough day today. We did a full day downriver, leaving the lodge at 6.15am as it got light enough to go. Our first stop was an area with some big stumps in the river, just past Mulembwe village. The air and the water were warmer than they have been, and we did a drift throwing surface lures, I used the Storm Arashi Top Walker 13cm and Rapala Skitter-V, Marvin used his 12cm Rapala Skitter Walk, with a sort of ripping and pause action.
I had a few half hearted swirls and splashes, then a monster smashed Marvin’s lure on the other side of the boat, close in. The fish took off, ripping line from his drag, making that Stella sing in the quiet of the early morning. Sadly it came unstuck, as tigers often do, leaving us all excited. We cast surface lures with super focus and energy for the next 2 hours, our hearts beating, expecting carnage on every cast, waiting for it.
The fish however, continued with their fast, into the fifth morning now, since the bite died off, as there was 2 days of tiger Ramadan before we even arrived.
Later in the morning I got a 4 pounder, very feisty, that smashed my swimbait paddletail, as it came out of hole in the reeds, where I had flicked it in search of a lurking bream. It was well hooked on the swimbait hook and I was happy to see that it hadn’t ripped the paddletail up too much.
A bit later The livebait got hit and Marvin grabbed the rod and hit, but the fish managed to shake the hook. As his fish came off, my 5” Suberu paddletail got eaten and I had a strong fish on that ran quite fast, but fought deep, and of course it was a Maramba, grrr. An 11 pound sharptooth catfish in fine fighting form, but not what I am after. It was admittedly nice to have a hard hit and a bit of a pull though.
A bit later Marvin picked up a catfish on his live bottlenose and had a good tussle, but was sorely disappointed that it wasn’t a tiger.
We were drifting down a clay bank, with a flat grassy floodplain above it, the water level around a metre below the lip. I was casting a bucktail jig, with an orange top that I called Ed Sheeran, looking for a nembwe in the deep water immediately below the bank. I was letting it sink deep, then giving it a few enticing twitches, before giving it a few seconds to sink down again, then repeating. I noticed a blacksmith plover standing on a pile of mud, just above the bank, and another that was fluttering and looking like it was trying to draw attention away from eggs or young, but it couldn’t be us she was worried about, we were drifting past, a good 30 metres away.
Just then my jig got hit so hard that my arms felt the smack, right into my shoulders, and the fish took off with that blistering speed that those double digit fish can do, tearing line from the drag, as the braid sliced through the water, first towards the bank, then across heading straight for Marvin’s line. Just then the line went slack. He had spat the jig.
I looked up and noticed a dugout, pulled up on the bank, and two guys walking aimlessly around on the bank above. It dawned on me that they could be the threat to the plover’s nest.
We drifted on down golden banks, hoping for a nembwe or another good tiger hit, but no luck.
We went back up to the bottom of a stretch called Rottweiler’s, to have lunch. Matoya had set up a gazebo, with a braai and the chef cooked us boerewors, and made chips on a frying pan over the fire. It was a lovely big sandbank.
On the way to lunch, I asked Fred to stop at the bank where I had hooked the fish, and I jumped off. I walked up to the blacksmith plover, which looked really buggered, when I got close it took off and flew, with one leg hanging down, it looked genuinely broken.
After lunch we did long drifts down golden banks, but had no luck at all. We came back up to Rottweilers and fished the deeper channel near the village. Marvin got a 4lb fish on a copper spoon.
There were two ladies and some kids bathing at the water’s edge. They saw us drifting towards them, along with two mokoros, with young men in them drifting near us. They got the kids to hand them kangas to cover up and had some called conversation with the mokoro paddlers as they passed. When the mokoros were out of sight, the ladies uncovered again and carried on soaping up, totally ignoring us drifting by.
We went upstream and did a drift at tiger rock, where Marvin got another 4 pounder on his spoon, then went up to the stumps at Mulembwe to end the day where we had started, using surface lures. Unfortunately it was very dead, and we had no action at all.
Everyone was really tired at dinner, it had been a long, tough day. We had an early night, by Matoya standards, with all in bed by 10pm.
The people along the river in this part of the world are so pleasant and cheerful. There are the ever present high pitched yells of “how are you?” from the banks, often from kids that can’t be seen, hidden somewhere in the reeds. Most people seem to speak English pretty well. They all seem very friendly, respectful and relaxed. Big smiles and lots of laughter are the norm.
The whole family is involved in the day to day task of survival, with little kids helping carry firewood or water. The young daughters take care of the little ones, when the moms are involved in working, so it is common to see a girl of ten or eleven, carrying around a baby or toddler.
We see mokoro’s drifting fairly often, with nobody on board. These are craft that weren’t well tied up. They never get interfered with, fishing gear, clothes, whatever is on board remains untouched. I asked Marvin about the honesty of the people and he reckons that they will never steal these things, as they are afraid that a curse will be put on them by the owner. The people of the river are very superstitious.
We started the morning by running to Mulembwe stumps and casting surface lures again. Marvin stayed behind, as he had some work to do at the lodge. It was dead quiet, not even the little tiglets that normally come out swirling and spitting around the topwater lures showed their faces. I danced my skitter V in its most enticing manner past the stumps, trying to tempt out the monster from yesterday. Nada.
We carried on with the drift for ages. Eventually there was a little swirl of interest from a fish not much bigger than the lure, then another. We had a few pretty decent enquiries along the way. I flicked the lure into the back of a gap in the reeds and brought it out swanking. Just after it got out of the gap it got hit. Screamed off, jumped, threw the lure, #%$@.
I picked up a 4 pounder on a weedless paddletail cast behind a stump in the main river, I had foul hooked him in the chest. He gave a lot of resistance and felt like a big one at first, as they do when foul hooked, but sadly he was not. Unusual to foul hook a fish with a weedless soft plastic.
One or two knocks and long, long drifts with not a bite, for maybe four or five hours. This allowed plenty of time for thoughts, some of them along the lines of how challenging tiger fishing is. Regardless of how experienced you may be, how good your tackle is, or how great the area is that you are fishing in. If tigers don’t want to bite, they can’t be forced.
This lead me to start thinking about bream.
I asked our skipper Fred about the nembwe, and whether there were still any places along the river where there was water spilling in from the floodplains. He said there were some places, quite far downstream. It didn’t take long to discuss and we found ourselves heading in that direction at full speed. We went to an area called Mahewu, further downriver than I had ever been in this area. We found some spill offs, and the river was dimpled with swirls and rises from catfish.
There were plenty of cormorants and egrets along the banks, and the water was boiling with heaps of baitfish!
I started casting my Ed Sheeran bucktail, and bouncing it slowly off the bottom, looking for one of those beautiful, green, bream. Sure enough, after a few casts my jig was picked up, and after a hard and deep fight, I landed a 6lb nembwe. Something to celebrate at last!
After that we went back upstream to Banana Rock. I did a drift casting the jig and caught a 10 pounder on Ed Sheeran, cast just behind a bit of reeds, on the edge of a little clay inlet.
I changed to surface lure and had one big smash. Then the fish came back and ate it. Been thinking about that. Those tiger come in and maim, then circle round and eat. Leave the lure in place after a hit, and twitch it on the spot. The tiger comes back and hits it again, eating it properly this time. Nice, things are starting to look up!
Out at first light again, straight up to banana rock to do some drifts with surface lures. My Arashi 13cm got smoked near the side by a good fish, which did three jumps and pulled hard. I landed it, 12.5lbs. At last, a really solid fish.
I had another good smash, but didn’t stay connected. I then spent a bit of time teaching Marvin how to walk the dog, which he got going, getting his lure looking really good in the water.
We came back to the lodge for half an hour at 9am, to shootsome overhead drone footage, then headed downriver.
We went all the way down to Mahewu, and fished for nembwe again. I got two, one of 6 and one of 7lbs. The 7 pounder was a lovely olive green male, the other one was a female, paler I colour, like the one yesterday.
We ran back up and started a drift at Croc Alley, across from waterberry, just before sunset. Second cast my lure just passed the tip of the reed island that seperates the alley from the main river, when there was an explosive smash and the tiger came right out of the water on the eat. Ran hard, then jumped again, a good fish of around 12lbs, did another run and the hook pulled!
What a last day. The fish are definitely coming back on the bite, and we will no doubt be seeing posts from Matoya in the next few days of big tigers. It is a pity that we hit it during a slow period, but then again, it forces one to keep thinking and keep trying new things. I lost a few good fish this week, so I did have my chances too.
We stopped on our way to Lukulu for Rhuan and Marvin to have a last early morning shot at a double figure fish. We were ahead on the drift and Marvin had some success in raising some fish with his new, walk the dog skills. He had a few enquiries from small fish, and a couple of decent smashes, with all of the fish missing the lure.
We drove back from Lukulu to Lusaka, left at 8am and arrived at Palmwood at around 4.30pm. Marvin took us out to the Marlin Restaurant at the Lusaka Club, where we had delicious large Zambezi Beef steaks covered in a rich pepper sauce. The restaurant is awesome, with a very basic old school décor, Marv says it hasn’t changed in 26 years. The food came quickly, portions were very generous, it was hot and tasty. There was a good looking self service salad/veg bar where customers could dish up a side plate or starter of salads or nice veg, at no extra charge. The beef in Zambia is amazing.
A few thoughts from the trip:
Lures that worked on this trip: Copper spoons, Storm Zambezi Express ones are great because of the reflectivefinish and strong red fluttering tail. The split rings and hooks straight out of packaging are also good enough to stand up to big tigers. Storm Arashi topwater, Rapala Skitter Walk, bucktail jigs are an excellent tiger option. Rapala DT 6 or Fat Raps are ideal for nembwe, as well as some smaller weedless swimbaits and jigs with weedguards, in red and black.
The trick is to get lures into the zone where tigers will see them, and then have them entice a strike by having good action.
Topwater strikes sometimes happen in the low light, even when fish have lockjaw, making me think that some of these are reaction strikes. The splash of the landing of the lure seems to play a large part, with most strikes coming closer to the edges of the river, targeting fish holding in structure, or hunting along the edges. Smashes vary from soft boils, to vicious strikes, to fish even clearing the water on the bite. The bigger the fish, the more vicious the hit and the hookups seem better with bigger fish. There are lots of misses from smaller fish.
Those days of tough fishing, sometimes our only bites came at around sunrise and sunset, with us fishing the full day, with virtually no action at all. Those very short windows of activity, are usually maybe half an hour where the fish will hit surface lures. It is important to plan ahead and never waste any of that time driving, be on the spots for the feeding window. Maximise the opportunity.
Fishing the edges means losing more tackle, as there are lots of underwater snags. Also lots of smaller fish along the edges of the river. Dropoffs and structure in the middle of the river often hold bigger fish, particularly during the daylight hours.