As the 737 made a turn, I nosed the windows of the airplane like a kid on a field trip. At first only the mist was visible rising into the African sky. Then the mighty Zambezi River came into view. Spanning a one mile width, the river plunges 328 feet into a vertical chasm to form Victoria Falls - one of the great natural wonders of the world.
The stop in Victoria Falls was short and soon were we on the road bound for Ichingo Lodge. Because the borders of three countries are in close proximity, in two hours we crossed the border from Zimbabwe into Botswana then the Chobe River into Namibia. Ichingo Lodge is on Impalila Island near the confluence of the Chobe and Zambezi Rivers. An upscale operation, Ichingo has double bedded East African style tents with ensuite bathrooms. Access is by boat and you are literally seconds from good fishing. Both fly and conventional fishing is offered with tiger fish and bream (a type of tilapia) the primary targets.
My fishing partner, Alan Sands and I had come to Ichingo to catch tigers on a fly. As a result we were teamed up with Alan Bonella, the resident fly fishing guide at Ichingo. Just before sunrise the next day we boarded a 16-foot aluminum boat, built specifically for fly fishing. With wide decks both fore and aft, there was plenty of room for casting. Add a shallow draft hull and a jet drive inboard and you have a serious fishing machine.
Our first angling venue was two miles from the camp below a series of rapids. Alan negotiated the white water expertly then ran five minutes to a long pool flanked by lush riverine vegetation. The fly of choice was a size #2/0 Clouser Minnow attached to a fast sink tip line and an 8-weight fly rod. Casting the weighted fly across the current, I let the line sink then brought it back in long fast strips. On my 10th cast, the line came tight and I set the hook. Instantly, a tiger was airborne shaking its head violently in an attempt to throw the fly. Several hard runs followed but steady pressure prevailed and I brought the fish alongside. Our guide slid the net under a six-pound tiger.
Upon close inspection tigers look like striped bass on steroids with red-tipped fins and a set of jaws with dagger-like teeth. There's no question they are top predators once you get an up close and personal view of their dentures. We took a few minutes to photograph the prize then lowered it into the river and let water run through its gills before it was released.
The next drift took us along the edge of a deep pool and a series of small islands. We didn't see the huge crocodile until I sent a fly toward the bank where the croc was sunning itself. We moved closer for a photo and when we were 30 feet away, the croc slipped into the water. I looked at Alan the guide and said "It's probably not a good time to go swimming." His reply was "Not unless you want to stop fishing permanently." I stayed out of the water!
Over the next hour we had half a dozen strikes and hooked two fish but didn't land a single one. Alan commented that on average only one out of three tigers hooked are landed. Hard mouths and strong jumping abilities make them hard to hold on to. The very next cast broke the jinx and Alan landed a five-pound tiger. That morning, we hooked 15 fish and landed six in the three to six pound class.
Back at the lodge, we compared notes with the other clients. The spin fishermen using crank baits were hooking about as many fish as we were but landing fewer. However, one of the other anglers in our group, Dylan Holmes, caught a 12-pound tiger on a crank bait. After a gourmet lunch of impala steaks, fresh vegetables, salads, rice and a glass of South African merlot, we retired to our tents for a short rest.
That afternoon, we left the lodge at 2:00 p.m. and headed upstream into Chobe National Park for an hour or so of game viewing. Less than 15 minutes from the lodge, we came upon a herd of elephants leisurely feeding on the lush grasses of the flood plain. No far from the jumbos were 10 hippos that were resting on a muddy bank. We continued upstream and spotted a herd of cape buffalo standing knee deep in the water and a group of lechwe grazing on the flats.
From Chobe, it was a short run to a pool where one of the clients hooked and lost a good tiger two days before. On his third cast, Alan caught a three pounder and couple of minutes later a four pounder. I scored as well with a five pounder. We were on a school of cooperative fish and by luck or skill (we didn't care which one it was) we were landing most of the fish hooked. However, our good fortune changed when a pod of hippos decided to move upstream to "our" pool and make it their domain. Their intention became crystal clear when guide Alan fired up the outboard about the time I looked back at a hippo's gaping mouth heading in our direction.
The unscheduled move took us to the rapids downstream. But instead of running the rapids, Alan entered the white water then pulled off to the side and dropped the anchor. He said "Cast toward the center of the run." Alan Sands complied and dropped a streamer into the white water and let the current bring the line tight. Half a dozen casts later as Alan was stripping the fly back to the boat, the line stopped and he set the hook. Instantly, a tiger fish cleared the water then sprinted down stream. The fish jumped four times and stripped line from the reel taking it well into the backing. Ten minutes after the strike, Alan landed an 11-pound fish. A tiger fish over 10 pounds on a fly is comparable to a 30-inch mule deer or a 10-pound largemouth bass.
We fished in early August when the river was relatively low and the flood plains were a sea of grass. In this region, some of the best tiger fishing of the year is in June, July and August when run off from the flood plains brings water that has been warmed by the sun back into the river. The temperature of the river warms by a few degrees attracting both bait fish and the predatory tigers. As a result, a tiger fishery has developed during the coolest months of the year. In other locations, the best tiger fishing is August to December when the weather is hot.
Overall, it was one of the most exiting fishing trips I have experienced anywhere. Exotic surroundings, wildlife viewing and spectacular fishing for a hard fighting and acrobatic species made it a trip that will be etched in my memory long after others have faded away.