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Sport: Tiger Tales

Kelley McMillan

The sun resembles a fiery peach as it rises over the Zambezi River at 6 am. Fish eagles fly overhead and elephants graze on a distant riverbank while I set out by pontoon in search of the legendary tigerfish, one of angling’s greatest prizes.

Two fishing guides, Vasco and Werner, lead me on my quest along a private 10-mile stretch of water managed by the Royal Chundu Zambezi River Lodge. Built as a fishing camp more than 20 years ago, the property completed a multimillion-dollar renovation last spring and is now one of the finest resorts in Zambia. The camp encompasses a main lodge, 10 stand-alone suites (from $390 per adult), and—two and a half miles upriver—a private island with four cottages and a swimming pool. New amenities include a heliport, a spa, and butler service, and the resort offers such activities as bush walks and tours of nearby Victoria Falls. But the real draw at Royal Chundu remains the Zambezi—and the ferocious fish that populate the property’s stretch of river.

Four full-time guides with two platform pontoon boats escort guests in search of the tigerfish, which, pound for pound, is one of the world’s top fighting fish. Notoriously aggressive, with razor-sharp teeth and muscular bodies built for speed, the tigerfish is Africa’s equivalent of the South American piranha—but much larger. Tigerfish can grow to more than three feet and 60 pounds, and can swim faster than 30 mph. "They put up a big fight," says Vasco, "and when food is scarce, they are known to eat each other."

Vasco, a local villager from the Lozi tribe, has fished these waters 20 miles upstream from Victoria Falls his entire life and says he has seen tigerfish jump out of the water and take down animals standing on the edge of the shore. Because the Zambezi teems with hippopotamuses and crocodiles, angling here is almost always done from a boat, and Vasco navigates our pontoon to a wide swath of deep water that separates Zambia from Zimbabwe. Wer­ner, an Afrikaner and an all-Africa angling champion, ties a streamer onto my saltwater fly setup, then points to a set of circles peppering the otherwise still water. "Cast over there!" he shouts. "That’s lekker!"

Lekker, I learn later, means "very nice" or "sweet" in Afrikaans, and is a word I hear often during my stay. From the fishing to the food to the Technicolor African sunsets, it is all lekker at Royal Chundu.

My line graces the water, and almost instantly I feel a strong tug. "Now the hard part," Vasco says excitedly. "You must set the hook and get him into the boat." Whipping my rod backward, I lodge the hook in the fish’s bony jaw. With quaking arms, I reel in the line as fast as I can and, following a five-minute struggle, finally glimpse a silvery-orange flash clip the air behind the boat. With one last tug the fight is over, and Vasco helps me net the fish into the boat.

After admiring my catch—all 10 pounds of it, with a full mouth of knifelike teeth—I manage to hold the surprisingly docile tigerfish for a picture before throwing it back into the Zambezi and watching it slip slowly back into the river’s depths. The fish is exhausted, as am I.

Royal Chundu Zambezi River Lodge, +27.41.407.1000, www.royalchundu.com

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