Tanzania bound once more, the call of the Mnyera and Rhudji is an irresistible one for me and every year, I head home. Well, not really home but as Malawi is closer to Tanzania than Hampshire I’ll take what I can get.
Meeting weight allowances with kit is normally a challenge but Tanzania is one destination where a 20 kg weight limit isn’t difficult to make. Flies take up the majority of the allowance and clothing is minimal as laundry is done in both camps and included in the cost. Kit wise, I travel with two 9′ 9# rods (one Hardy Proaxis and one Hardy Zephrus) and a 9′ 5# Hardy Proaxis. Reels go in next (a Hardy Fortuna X2, a Hardy Demon and a Hardy Ultralite MA). I have two spare Sci Angler 350 grain sinking lines, 1 spare tropical floating line (an Airflo as it works well in the heat) and an intermediate line that I’ve never used (I liberate it from Peter’s desk every year and return it untouched). On the leader front, a full spool of 45 lb green Maxima and I always have a couple of packets of tiger wire waiting for me in camp. It’s the other stuff that I have to ponder over. Heathrow weighed my fabulous new brighter yellow than the last bright yellow bag in at 23 kgs but with Dar-es-Salaam bound birthday presents on board (for my 2 year old great nephew) due to be jettisoned on arrival I knew I had some leeway. It’s always pretty vital that the 3 kgs of chocolate and sweets (for the guides) and any other shopping make it to camp – this year it was a layer of Rapalas (for Gabon) creating a nice cushion for my rod holding drainpipe.
With no direct flight to Dar-es-Salaam, you’ve got to go via somewhere and Dubai still offers the best schedule for those of us arriving from Europe. My dreams of a quick exit and cold beer in Dar were quickly scuppered as Andrew discovered that nothing moves slower in Africa than a visa queue. It gave me plenty of time to ponder on how eventful the trip had been so far and we hadn’t made it past baggage collection. So far the journey had involved keyless car keys remaining in the pocket of the person who drove up to Heathrow and not with the person driving back home. There had been a bag pull post security and a very thorough search during which, thankfully, the reels were not ejected. We’d braved an overtaxed and understaffed lounge and nearly missed our connection in Dubai through a lack of haste on our part.
Back in Dar, the challenges continued. Ronnie realised in the customs queue that he’d lost his glasses case with all of his contact lenses. Now you can find most things in Dar but it takes some doing and traffic doesn’t make anything easy. Meanwhile, I’d collected our bags and was looking for Andrew’s which I eventually unearthed, moving several tons of luggage to get to it. The visa queue still hadn’t moved. At all. I belatedly realised that the newly revealed bag was a Simms bag; not the Fishpond bag I’d despatched Ronnie to find earlier. Did I tell him? Nope. Sorry Ronnie.
Eventually all reunited, we made it out into the sunshine and into … yup, you got it. The traffic. Dar traffic is notorious and a 20 minute drive can take four times that long and we now had to battle the traffic to find an optician, on the right side of town that was still open. We did. Sight was restored as was bickering about what had delayed getting the first cold beer the most. Andrew’s visa queue or Ronnie’s lack of eyes. Eventually we made it to the hotel and I was happily reunited with a cold bottle of Kilimanjaro. Pure bliss. Until the keeper of the carless car keys announced he hadn’t any malarone. Too late for a chemist and with no chance of getting to one in the morning, I split my stash with him and hoped I’d brought enough with me. A few more beers coated the world in a cosy blanket and I finally sat back, looked up at the stars and relaxed. All the pieces of my soul were reunited, complete once more and happy to be back in Africa. Big fish were waiting.
We spent the evening trying to spot the other members of our group. We got two right and the other three totally, hilariously and disastrously wrong. Our early morning wake up came around far too quickly and we were soon getting to know Chris and Diane (two Americans fresh off safari), South African Wouter and the Bristols, another two Americans who had come in from Dubai.
We were soon heading down the traffic-free roads to the domestic airport. Our flight down to camp was piloted by the immaculately pressed Mohammed. His creases would have had Windsor Davies crying with joy into his waxed moustache.
Once airborne, it seems to take forever to clear the vast spread of Dar-es-Salaam and just under 2 hours later, the vast empty tracts had given way to small patches of cultivation and tiny villages before giving way to the mountains. One day I’ll do the journey down by train; years ago when I drove in this part of Tanzania I would occasionally see the train, rattling and swaying its way south west and the experience still beckons. It’ll take about the same length of time as a visa queue.
Beyond the mountains we caught glimpses of rivers – not yet one of ours – and finally, I saw the emerald green on the wetland and knew we couldn’t be far away. With one fly over to make sure the runway was clear we flew over the vehicles heading from camp to the runway before descending towards our little strip of dirt. Wheels down. Dust in the air. Outside, it was so much greener than on past trips and it was lovely to see Miles and Robert, big smiles in place with tales of fish landed and lost during their week.
With eight anglers leaving, and another eight arriving, the team have it down to a fine art and in very short order, we were loaded up and just waiting for the plane to take off before setting off on our ride down to camp. There we were greeted with a traditional song of welcome from the whole team, hugs for me from Greg and Stu and the wonderful cry of “mama you are here” from the staff accompanied by a fair amount of giggling.
The team have made some changes to the layout in the bar area but nothing major and we were soon settled in signing our lives away, collecting flies, tiger wire and fly lines and catching up on some sleep. Very well briefed on the week by Head Guide Stu, we were told who was going where. Four anglers stay at Dhalla Camp, the hub of the concession, and four leave after lunch for Samaki Camp on the Ruhudji. Team USA (Chris, Diane and the Bristols) were starting their week on the Mnyera and staying at Dhalla.
Team Aardvark were heading to the Ruhudji – in my head I was doing cartwheels of joy as I love the Ruhudji. Greg and Johann were to be our guides for the first three days while Stu and Brent remained on the Mnyera. Saturday is the only day that the team get to stand down a little, it’s a day for maintenance and admin and catching up with the world as there is little signal around camp for either phone or internet. The teams split off and the four of us headed for the drive over to the Ruhudji. The drive takes you through Miombo woodland, through dry river beds, open plains, tall grassland and riverine forest and starts with a bush style river crossing.
While this is a hunting concession, it never ceases to amaze me how much game there is, albeit more skittish than you would find in the protected safari areas. We saw bushbuck, waterbuck, red hartebeest and several groups of warthogs on the way along with numerous species of birds. At the highest point on the drive, we always stop at the repeater station which fulfils a vital role, keeping camps connected to one another. Its also one of the few spots where you can pick up a cellphone signal so its no wonder that the guides take a few minutes to upload and download before we set off again. It’s a harsh six month posting but one which I am told is much in demand. Makes you appreciate what we have when a diet of bush rat and river water are an incentive.
So why where we here? Hydrocynus tanzaniae. Endemic to Tanzania, tigerfish in these river systems grow to significant size and the record is a 28 lb fish, landed in 2014 by Andrew Thomas on the Ruhudji. They have a distinctive gunmetal blue adipose fin and are, in the main, less bright than their more common cousin, Hydrocynus vittatus. H vittatus has a much wider distribution throughout Africa and would be your target species fishing further south on the Okavango and on the Zambezi.
The Ruhudji is special. On my first trip I caught two 12 lb fish one after the other, on the swing, in consecutive little riffles behind clumps of phragmites. Both came in hot and hard on a little blue and white bait fish pattern and Greg’s very quiet but clear instructions soon had my first tigerfish to break double digits safely landed. Anywhere else in Africa, a 12 lbs fish is a fish to be justifiably proud of and it is worth hanging on to that thought because here, you are spoiled. The Ruhudji is a beautiful river and a very different beast to the Mnyera. While it is a wide river like the Mnyera, it has more form, more structure and with the shallower water and the larger sand banks, it seems lighter. The river is fished in three beats, the runs can be up to 2 hours and you are normally on the water early and stop as late as possible to allow for a safe journey back.
Samaki Camp on the Ruhudji is called Guantanamo by the camp team and while it is a very simple camp, there is something truly special about it. There is a small communal reed structure as you drive in and beyond that two Meru style safari tents with ensuite flushing loo and shower. The donkey boiler for the hot water is behind the tent and how they achieve the water pressure they do, is beyond me. Down on the sand bank, a long opened sided canvas tent provides cover for all your meals and beyond that, camps chairs around the fire for an evening of fish tales. Simple in the extreme; Guanta calls to the adventurer, no matter how deeply buried.
This year the Ruhudji was tougher than I’ve ever fished it before. Thanks to Andrew’s barometer and Wouter’s regular updates, we knew that the pressure changes weren’t helping. Like all freshwater game fish, tigerfish don’t like pressure changes.They sulk. I’m happy to be corrected on this but It doesn’t really seem to matter what the weather is doing as long as it is constant. Hot and still is favourite but consistency is key.
We were all getting what I refer to as tentative enquiries. Little taps to the fly but with few serious commitments. To be fair, setting a hook on a tigerfish that is mildly interested in your fly is never going to be easy. When the fish did come in hot, the conversion rate could have been better. Perhaps we were hitting too hard or too slow. Or too fast. Whatever the reason, fewer fish came to the boat. In truth we all had to dig deep and Johann and Greg were working like Trojans. At the tillers, Six and Sayedi moved us around with a skill that only comes with many years on the river, manoeuvring as needed when flies were embedded in structure. Tigerfish like structure; you need to get your flies as close as you can to structure and that inevitable means you hook up. The first of a new species is always a pleasure and I think the smiles says it all. Bigger fish came later in the week, but the first is always special.
Up before the sun, it is my favourite time of day as you listen to the bush come alive as the sun rises. Breakfast on the banks of the Ruhudji is nothing to be sniffed at and you really need to be out on the water as early as you can. This particular morning, I was quite literally on my fifth cast of the morning, casting a heavy sinking line with a big heavy fly. I’d let it sink and stripped in hard and fast off the swing and on the third strip, connected lightly and set hard. Quite often with a gentle hit, you realise you’ve just imbedded your fly in structure and then commences the battle to retrieve the fly and in truth that’s what I thought I’d done. I felt no movement so handed the rod over to my guide to see if he could bounce the fly out of what I though was a small branch moving in the current.
A couple of tugs later and Johann almost threw the rod back at me, shouting “it’s a fish”. Just as I grabbed the rod, my ‘branch’ came to life and shot off towards the bank with Ronnie’s fly now attached as well. It was a stunning burst of speed followed by a dead stop. We had a tug of war for a while with neither of us gaining or loosing more than an inch or two. Suddenly the angle changed. I thought it was going to jump so laid the rod down – and then it breached the surface.
Oh my word. It was huge. I’d hooked myself an enormous Nile crocodile. It stayed on the surface long enough for us to get a good look and come up with a conservative 11 ft estimate before it took off like a rocket, swimming up river just sub surface. I’ve never seen my entire fly line go out so fast. In the space of two heartbeats, Ronnie’s fly had been shaken off and I was down to my backing which was disappearing at a frightening speed. A neon green, dead straight line, heading upriver.
One more tiny click and the drag was locked down totally on the Fortuna X2, the rod was absolutely straight and a heartbeat later the croc exploded out of the water. Completely out of the water to mid-tummy. White foam surrounded it as it breached, its white belly flashing, its head thrown back. That reel had stopped it dead. My croc threw its head about a bit, water droplets in all directions, but the drag held firm and it slowly settled back down on the bottom to sulk.
After a while of this Tanzanian standoff there followed some serious debate on how on earth we could land him without loosing life or limb. Our blood up, Johann and I were off in the realms of fantasy. There was a sand bar. We did have duct tape. Of course we could do this. Eventually good sense returned and we decided to snap him off. No mean feat as he wasn’t moving and the knots Greg had tied the night before weren’t giving either. The leader eventually snapped at the backing and I said goodbye to my trophy croc and brand new fly line. I wish, wish, wish we had some video footage because that croc was stopped absolutely dead. Hardy’s marketing team would have loved me forever. The reel didn’t slow it down, it just hauled it to a standstill. A croc that size is no lightweight, its got to be over half a ton. Add in water pressure (he was up river) it beggared belief.
Although our focus is very much on tigerfish, it is worth remembering that both the Mnyera and Ruhudji are home to several other species that have been landed including two species of catfish and two species of yellowfish that are endemic to these river valleys (velvet and rhino).There are, no doubt, more species yet to be caught and some to be identified. Fishing a seam edge around structure one morning, I was almost at the end of my retrieve and having stripped hard and fast to no avail, my last strip was a tad half hearted and when the take came, it came hard. I held tight; not wanting to lose the fish among the roots and branches sub surface and after several runs, it came to the surface and into Greg’s waiting net. It was a beautiful example of a mid-sized tigerfish. Or was it? As Greg reached for the boga, I saw him do a double take followed by “@*@! it’s a toothless tiger”. Initially, I thought he meant a tigerfish early in the cycle of tooth replacement but as soon as the boga was in, it was abundantly clear that what I had landed wasn’t a tigerfish.
Well disguised as Hydrocynus tanzaniae the imposter was in fact Alestes stuhlmannii locally referred to as a toothless tiger. It has very Pacu-like teeth, with one row on the lower jaw and two rows on the upper jaw. Information on the species is slim and I’d love to learn more so please, if you have more information or a source I could refer to, I’d love to hear from you.
Compare that to the real deal and you can see how easy it is to mistake the two at first glance
Leaving the Ruhudji, we’d made up a little ground on the landed fish front on the last day and we left camp, heading back to the Mnyera as a slightly more introspective group than when we’d brashly set out. With the obligatory pit stop at the repeater station to catch up with the world, we quite literally drove off into the sunset, arriving back in camp as darkness descended. While we had been battling on the Rhudji, the Mnyera had been firing on all cylinders and team USA were in good spirits. So good had the fishing been, that the Bristols had decided to leave while they were ahead and head out on safari so Chris and Diane would be setting off to fish the Ruhudji by themselves.
Dhalla Camp on the Mnyera is home to hunters and anglers for a few months every year. The rooms are shared at Dhalla but singles can be arranged (for a small supplement) if there is room. Each of the bungalows has high ceilings and mesh covered windows to allow the breeze to flow through while keeping most of the bugs out. They are roomy, each with two beds with mozzie nets. There is power in the rooms, with UK 3 pin plugs but no fans as the inverter is a bit temperamental and definitely not man enough. Each room has a donkey boiler for hot water, a flushing loo and sink. It’s more than comfortable enough and it is the gateway to another phenomenal river system. With rods set up ready for the morning, all we had to be concerned about was what was Ronnie actually up to?Back on the Mnyera with Denis and another Sayedi at the helm, and Greg and Stu in the middle, we headed out the following morning for the first of our three days on the Mnyera. A wide river, it lacks the form of the Ruhudji and to me “feels” bigger and darker. I don’t think it is, it just feels different. The trees look bigger and darker, the structure in the river seems bigger and more imposing. Birdlife on both rivers is incredible but seems more prolific on the Mnyera. We had the most incredible luck seeing Pel’s Fishing Owl, three times in two days. Another avian treat are the Palmnut Vultures that are a rarity elsewhere. Weaver bird nests line the riverbanks and the cry of the African Fish Eagle is the sound of “home”. As you move between pools and seam lines, you have constant aerial activity around you while storks and egrets stalk the shallow water for baitfish.
We all came into our own on the Mnyera, with an increasing number of fish landed as the days ticked past, the fish seemingly increasing in size daily as well. We all had stunningly productive periods and periods with little action. On our second afternoon, my flies were tasty, my hooks were sharp and the fishing gods smiled on me. In what seemed like quick succession I had landed a 9 lb and a 10 lb fish and then a few hours later, I landed a 12 lb and 14 lb fish in quick succession – all of them on “Stu’s Blue”, a simple blue and white baitfish pattern. Happy to sit down and leave the rest of the day to Ronnie, I flicked my fly towards the bank for one last half hearted cast and BOOM. A 15 lb fish nailed that rather beaten up fly. When you swing a fly across a pool that has already given you a fabulous fish, you really don’t expect another one but I was proved wrong and it was an afternoon I will remember for a very long time. What was interesting was that the three big fish were all spawned out so add 2lbs – 4lbs per fish and they were edging up towards that magic trophy number.
Looking back at the entire week, the pain of those tough days on the Ruhudi was quickly forgotten. I didn’t get as many hits as Ronnie but neither was I covering the same amount of water. He can effortlessly cast a full fly line while I’ve definitely got a few yards still to gain on that front. My conversion rate was pretty good; I stick them hard, keep the line tight and don’t let them run. That’s mostly out of fear of losing a fish but if hold them tight they are helping you set that hook. You don’t play a Tanzanian tigerfish on the reel, in fact there’s no ‘playing’ at all – you have to bring them in hard. Everyone has their own technique and mine works for me. I’m right handed and between strips, clamp down hard on the line with my first two fingers and release pressure only slightly as I strip line in. That way the line is tight as I bring my hand back up to strip again. If I get a hit then, I can set with rod as my left hand comes back up the fly line. I lost a fair few fish by not having the line clamped down tight and thus not having enough tension. Keep the rod low, be ready for the jump and keep the tension on. The take is hard, the fight can be brutal but its rarely long and the rewards great.
We were blessed with decent water with reasonable clarity and Ronnie was the king of the popper. Watching a popper that isn’t popping, but disturbing, the water is mesmerising. If you had pay per view popping TV, you’d make a fortune. Its calming. The blunt nose of the fly pushing water ahead of it, the sound of line running through fingers. No takers. Pick up, cast again and repeat. Watch, listen. Pickup, cast again. Watch the water moving, listen to the line. When the explosion comes you are rocked out of your somnambulant state. I’m convinced that part of the set is fright when that fish comes charging up to nail the popper. You’ve been happily focused on the fly’s dreamy glide through water, a pied kingfisher occasionally coming to investigate when Yongary rises from the depths and frightens the life out of you. Well, that’s how it works for me anyway. Its awesome. You have to try it.
Our last and final day on the Mnyera saw us heading up to the rapids which mark the end of tigerfish water. This was the first time I’d experienced the rapids fully as on previous trips I’d either been sick or had opted to explore above the rapids, looking for yellowfish. This time around, I got to experience them in all their fishy glory and what a final day it turned out to be. As all good days should, it started with a kiss … although with rather more beard than is normal ….
Andrew had been dreaming about 18 lb fish for about 12 months and in this beautiful section of the Mnyera, it all came together at the right time, on the right day, to the right man with the right fly. He worked his way up the weight ladder with an 8lb, 10 lb and 11 lb fish before taking the big leap up to 18 lb. One of his rapids fish as the fattest, roundest tigerfish that Stu had ever seen; imagine a pufferfish with enormous teeth.
Ronnie’s final day made up for my excess the previous day; he warmed up with a 10 lb fish, moved on a 12th, then a 14 lb fish. With a bit of rock hoping behind him, a nearly lost line and a totally stripped fly after an encounter with a submerged branch, he followed up with a 17 lb fish and ended his day with a stunning 18 lb beauty that had run him into roots, around a tree and down a rapid.e and a man who had worked so hard for his fish, digging deep day after day. He’s promised me the night before that he would catch a 20 lb tiger the following day. A man of his word is Wouter.
My last day? I started off with a 15 lb fish after losing a fish on the first into the pool. A 16 lb fish came next and the final fish, always the most memorable. The last cast of the last day, Stu said “just put a cast in behind us”. One strip and the fish came in hot and hard, nailed my fly and proceeded to run rings around me and the boat. Ronnie had not long before asked Stu what he thought were the best rods on the market. Having watched the angle and the bend on my Hardy Zephrus, he couldn’t believe it hadn’t blown up. Stu and I both had faith; those rods are designed for extremes. Anyway, a beautiful 15 lb fish rounded off my week and if only we had the photo to share. Positioned with an eye for the sinking sun, Stu was finally ready with the came and … boof. One kick and my small girly hand slipped right over the tail and off into the depths she went. A fitting end.It was an astonishing day. 8 lb, 9 lb, 10 lb, 2 x 11 lb, 12 lb, 14 lb, 3 x 15 lb, 2 x 18 lb and a magical 20 lb fish landed. And we all also lost a fair number of fish. A word of warning – that’s not a normal day on the Mnyera but it seemed like a just reward for the soul searching in the early part of the week. It is a truly unique experience, a stunning destination with the ultimate quarry.
As for me well, at the beginning of the week, Stu had said that his only goal in the week was to get me back on the plane incident free. Its fair to say that previous trips hadn’t been and he was determined that no antibiotics would be needed or blood spilled in 2017. Barring some nasty reactions to tstetse fly bites which thankfully subsided prior to amputation of my forearm or necessitated a bic pen tracheotomy, all was well. For those of you who waded through last year’s blog, the tiger fish wound healed amazingly well thanks to Stu’s medical care although I still maintain he didn’t have to use quite so much alcohol to clean it!
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