Our friends Jonathan and Attison, Co-Founders of Captain Experiences, recently returned from a badass trip to Tanzania chasing tiger fish, dogtooth tuna, and Kilimanjaro rainbow trout with their guide Dom Lever and photographer Austin Stapleton. Read on to learn more on the tigerfish leg of their trip, and check out Captain’s tiger fishing trips here.
Our First Tiger Fish:
We must’ve looked like a bunch of war-time generals surveying the field.
“Put us where you want us, Bwana” I said to Austin, using our favorite word (“Boss”) in Swahili.
“Alright” Bwana responds, “Attison, grab the 8-weight with the popper and go stand on that rocky point on the right. Oh my gosh, there’s a hippo back there- hustle, this is gonna be great.”
Attison (AB) and George, one of the Ruaha National Park Rangers, scurry down the rocks to get in position for the first cast of the trip, leaving Austin, our guide Dom, and myself to our bird’s eye view from the bridge overlooking a prime tiger fish pool on the Great Ruaha River.
“Cast towards that rock just upriver” Bwana whisper-yells down, hoping AB can hear him and the fish can’t. “That’s right where I saw em smashing baitfish.”
AB strips out some line, false casts, and drops one right where the rock gets wet.
As AB strips, the little popper sends a cascade of water flying, disturbing the otherwise dead-flat pool.
Like a cheapshot slap to the face, a massive blow-up destroys AB’s poor popper.
AB, resorting to his quick-twitch instincts as a high school wrestler, strips hard, rod tip down. He’s tight on a Tanzanian tiger fish.
“LETS F*****G GOOOOOOOO!!!!!” We all scream at once from the bridge like a well-trained choir.
“Get the net!” he yells back.
We all sprint down the rocks, net in tow. Just as we get to AB, our first tiger of the trip shows off with an acrobatic, fully airborne, tarpon-like leap, and AB’s popper comes flying back at his feet.
“DAMN!!!” The choir hits another perfect note.
“That was absolutely insane.” AB turns and says, smiling ear to ear to a captivated audience.
“Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth”
Mike Tyson’s famous words rang true here. Our plans of “picture here,” “picture there,” from the bridge went right out the window as soon as that tiger hit AB’s popper.
AB, Austin, Dom, and I dispersed to every corner of the expansive pool. AB, Austin and I had traveled halfway across the world from Austin, TX to catch our first tiger fish, while Dom, a seasoned vet, showed no lack of excitement in chasing a familiar foe.
Fly Fishing Techniques for Tiger Fish:
Tiger fish are full of contradictions: beautiful scales, and tails, but a face only a mother could love.
Susceptible to a variety of presentations, tigers are somewhat easy to get a bite out of, but they’re notoriously difficult to land.
Always on the move, tiger fish are ambush predators tough to pattern, so fan casting to cover water got the job done for us.
That being said, we did key in on a few concentrated spots that seemed to hold numbers- we found success fishing noticeable structure and dropoffs, where current might drift baitfish right over expecting tigers lower in the water column.
When to Fly Fish for Tiger Fish:
Per Dom’s recommendation, we headed over to Tanzania in November, the end of the dry season. Generally, the dry season in Tanzania runs in August-early December.
As the name implies, it effectively never rains in the dry season, and since Tanzania sits in the Southern Hemisphere, our winter is their summer, and temps were consistently 90-100+ degrees Fahrenheit. Be sure to pack lightweight sun protective clothing and a few good pairs of polarized shades.
We were cutting it close with our seasons by heading over in mid-November, and as fate would have it, the first rain of the season (and the only rain we saw) coincided with our drive into the park.
The end of the dry season is prime time for tiger fishing since water levels recede heavily. As the water dries up, the Great Ruaha River in Ruaha National Park divides into distinct, deep pools connected by thin, trickling streams.
As mentioned, tiger fish are ambush predators, so they congregate in deep pools, concealed by Dr. Pepper-colored water.
These pools are easy to spot when surveying sections of the Great Ruaha, or you can close your eyes and listen- hippos and crocs dot these pools to escape from the heat, so just listen for the grunts of hippos and you’ll find tigers.
Word to the wise: hippos account for more human deaths each year than sharks (more than 5 times more according to the Bill Gates Foundation). Keep your distance and never get between a hippo and the water as Dom cautioned us- they’ll feel vulnerable and charge.
Fly Fishing Tackle and Gear for Tiger Fish
As anyone would assume, tiger fish are ridiculously tough on tackle. Wire leader is a must and do as Noah did back in the day- bring (at least) two of everything. There’s nothing worse than realizing your favorite popper or streamer works so well that tigers literally destroy it.
On fly, 8 and 9 weights are great with smaller streamers and poppers for “Mvulana mdogo” (“little boy”) tigers. But for the big dawgs, 10-12 weight rods are the go-to.
Tigers aren’t known for their eyesight and water clarity isn’t much, but lighter poppers and streamers with red accents seemed to do well, followed by whites with green or blue streaks. Generally, dark flies and lures attracted less attention, but tigers would smoke ‘em nonetheless.
On Safari in Ruaha National Park
As far as I know, there’s nothing in the world like Ruaha NP in that you can pair world-class tiger fishing with a world-class safari. We had our routine down like a tight summer camp schedule:
We’d wake up to Chapatis, a delicious flatbread (like if a tortilla and a pita had a baby). Chapatis originated in India and are a longstanding staple throughout East Africa since the two regions have traded together for centuries.
After Chapatis with peanut butter and honey or eggs and cheese, we’d fish the morning hard and then check out what the park locals were up to by midday- elephants taking a dip…
…baby Eles taking their first steps…
…water buffalo butting heads…
…and lions chowing down…
The dry season is also a complete game-changer when it comes to safari.
Many of our favorite sightings would’ve been impossible during the wet season, as grasses grow tall and vegetation provides otherwise absent cover.
The Ruaha National Park Record Tiger Fish:
We fished Ruaha for 7 days, and at some point lost count on the number of tigers we collectively caught- the excitement when a buddy hooked up paled in comparison to the anticipation of a big one tugging at your own line- no friends when the bite is on!
Such is the mood as we scope out a new pool late in the trip. “No crocs here, good. Some hippos over there, alright,” I’m thinking to myself when I’m sharply interrupted by what sounds like a croc thrashing out of nowhere near the bank we’re standing on.
“Giant fish. GIANT fish.” Austin calls from just a few yards from where we set our tackle boxes on one of the first casts of the day.
He’s honestly not excited at all between his voice is genuinely full of concern and fear. He knows this is a really big fish, not a croc, and is worried it’ll spit the hook, snap the leader, a croc will “shark” it, or it’ll break our spirits in some other creative way like the vast majority of tigers before it.
“Get the net- PLEASE someone get over here with a net. This is a huge fish.”
Tackle goes flying, reels get a little sandy, we run into each other grabbing nets and GoPros, and run down the bank to Austin.
12-weight bending over, Austin walks back to bring the fish up the bank. As he does, the fish flops, half in the water, snapping the wire leader clean.
Austin, still in panic mode, turns back to the water’s edge, half expecting a croc to lash out and fully expecting the fish to disappear. It flops again and George dives down the bank to net it (or at least all that’d fit in the net, about half of this giant).
Austin turns back around, panic giving way to full stoke: “WOOOOOOO!!!!!!”
George is the first to get a good clean look at this goliath: “new record” he says without a drop of doubt.
We quickly measure the giant with a piece of line, snap a few quick shots, and send the fish swimming off strong.
George confirms it as the new Ruaha National Park record at 89 centimeters (35 inches) that night.