Eye on the Tiger

  • Shaun Tolson

The first couple of hours that we spend drifting down the Zambezi River pass with little action. They’ve been as uneventful as two hours spent drifting down the Zambezi can be, which is to say, they’ve been anything but boring; they just haven’t produced any fish. This stretch of the Zambezi, which runs through the western expanse of the Lower Zambezi National Park, is teeming with wildlife. Pods of hippos surface all along the river, vervet monkeys scamper along the banks, herds of elephants drink at various inlets, while crocodiles sun themselves on reed-covered islands and subsequently slink into the murky depths when our 18-foot pontoon ventures too close. The river is also teeming with tigerfish, which is what brings me here and to Chiawa Camp (www.chiawa.com), a luxury tented safari lodge set at the river’s edge that is best known for its guided walking safaris, its canoe tours (the riskiest activity at the camp), and most important, its fishing.

Standing at the bow of the boat with a spinning rod in my hand, I cast line after line toward the shore and—whenever possible—toward the outcroppings of fallen trees partially submerged in the river, which is where the tigerfish are waiting, assures my guide, Clement. In that respect, fishing for tigerfish is not unlike fishing for largemouth bass. The sizes of the two species also are similar; the average tigerfish in this section of the Zambezi hovers around 5 pounds, a trophy-sized example will weigh 10 pounds and up, and the largest example caught at Chiawa (pronounced Chee-ah-wah) weighed just under 22 pounds. The fish in this river won’t measure up to the Goliath tigerfish found in the Congo or in Lake Tanganyika—species that can grow as large as 110 pounds. They also can’t compare to the size of the tigerfish that swim in Lake Kariba some 65 miles to the southwest, where calm waters and steady sources of food allow the species to exceed 30 pounds. But what these Zambezi tigers lack in size they make up for with strength. While it’s true that all tigerfish species are remarkably powerful, the ones that reside in the rivers are the strongest, since they must constantly battle the current and be fast enough to outswim the occasional croc.

My fishing partner for the morning, a 58-year-old retired special agent from Washington, D.C., stands resolute at his post at the boat’s stern and optimistically casts his own spinner bait toward the shore. It’s the beginning of May, and although tigerfish can be caught at any time of the year, the cold season is creeping in, which curtails their activity. If ever there was a species of fish worth seeking out in the cold season, however, it’s this one, especially considering the tigerfish’s aggressive nature. Grant Cumings, Chiawa’s cofounder, recalls one trip during which two anglers caught the same fish at the same time. The fish—already hooked and fighting one fisherman—attacked a second lure nearby and was hooked again.

Given our lack of success so far this morning, the prospect of sharing a fish with my partner doesn’t sound so bad. We drift past a small troop of baboons perched on a low-hanging tree branch, and they watch with languid interest as we carefully coax our lures through the water, lift them out dripping and bare, and return them to the shallow waters near the bank to repeat the process. “A couple of baboons in the boat, that’s what they’re probably thinking,” my partner surmises.

Suddenly his rod bends acutely, and he stammers in surprise, pulling back as fast as he can to set the hook. But just as quickly, his rod returns to its unflexed state. “It was a strike?” Clement asks, a reasonable question given our proclivity thus far for hooking only reeds and other vegetation along the bottom.

It was definitely a strike, he says. The news lifts my spirit and proves that not only are the tigerfish here, but they’re growing more aggressive. Now I just need to catch one.

Grant cumings was born in Lusaka, the capital city of Zambia, about a 30-minute flight from the Lower Zambezi National Park. As a youngster, he fished the river for tigerfish with his father, and after drifting about 60 miles downstream and into the undeveloped confines of the national park they would set up camp on the shores of the river. Those overnight trips introduced Cumings to the dense and diverse wildlife in the area and later served as his inspiration to establish Chiawa Camp, which he did as a 24-year-old in 1989. “It was that sense of wilderness, that sense of adventure that really attracted us,” Cumings recalls, explaining that at that time there were no permanent camps or lodges in the Lower Zambezi. “We could’ve gone to other national parks in Zambia that were established and running, but we wanted to be a leader rather than a follower.”

Today, the camp consists of nine dwellings, each equipped with colonial-style furnishings, claw-foot tubs, indoor/outdoor showers, and a surprisingly strong wireless Internet signal that’s available in the early evening hours (Wi-Fi use is limited to avoid draining the generator). Comfortable communal areas include a library, a fully stocked bar, and a second-floor observatory deck. Stays at the camp are all-inclusive and often are paired with stays at the camp’s sister property, Old Mondoro, a more rustic and smaller camp located about 22 miles downriver that is best known for its elephant sightings. Rates at Chiawa range from $450 to $1,080 per night, and anglers visiting the camp during the prime tigerfish season, which runs from September to the end of October, can expect to pay the high-season rate. (Be warned: Those are the hottest months of the year, and temperatures routinely exceed 100 degrees during the day.) Private fishing charters also can be arranged for an additional $650 per day.

Despite its amenities, Chiawa is decisively wild. Proximity to the surrounding wildlife is part of the property’s allure, and as Cumings explains, the camp is best suited to travelers who recognize it, embrace it, and most important of all, respect it. “The ignorance-is-bliss type of people . . . they don’t appreciate what a wild, beautiful, and potentially dangerous place this is,” he says.

Van Heerden Haasbroek, a 28-year-old South African and one of the camp’s managers, makes it his responsibility to remind the guests of that. “Just because you’re in camp or on a path, don’t think that you’re safe,” he tells me, only moments after I’ve arrived. “We share this space with the animals. If you come across one on the path, get to the nearest dwelling as quickly as you can and radio us. We’ll come and get you.”

As Haasbroek shows me to my dwelling, which happens to be the one farthest away from the rest of the camp, he alerts me to a recent development. A musking bull elephant has visited the property every day for the past two weeks, and because it’s at its sexual peak for the year, the elephant is very aggressive. “He’s not a pleasant fellow; you don’t want to bump into him,” Haasbroek advises, though I had already come to that conclusion on my own. Almost on cue, a throaty rumble echoes from the bush not far from my tent. “That’s him.”

It would seem I should be more concerned with him bumping into me. But as the local adage goes, “this is Africa,” and it’s exactly what makes an angling trip at Chiawa so memorable.

The Zambian government passed new fishing regulations earlier this year, drastically impacting fishing for all species on the river, but specifically tigerfish. The regulations apply to the section of the river that flows through the western half of the national park (where Chiawa and Old Mondoro are based), and they prohibit the use of barbed hooks, treble hooks, multiple hooks per line, and bait fishing. Cumings has advocated on behalf of these new laws for years, primarily because he’s witnessed a gradual decline in the strength of the tigerfish population over the last two decades. Fishing only represents about 5 percent of the camp’s business nowadays, but when Cumings and his father founded Chiawa 24 years ago, fishing was the first—and for a time, the primary—activity available. “The overriding goal now is to keep the national park protected,” he says. “We can’t have commercial success without the wildlife.”

Some of the largest tigerfish caught at Chiawa over the years were caught using cut bait, but Cumings says that during the high season, an experienced angler using artificial lures will outperform the angler idly fishing with bait. However, he also explains that tigerfish are a challenging species to catch, due to their bony jaws and sharp teeth—which make setting the hook difficult—so using circle hooks (the only accepted form of tackle) requires a greater level of angling skill. “If you only get one fish into the boat out of 10 solid strikes, you’re lucky,” he says. “Even though they’re aggressive, it’s not an easy fish to catch. It’s considered by many well-traveled anglers to be the finest freshwater sport fish. They go for fly, spoon, spinner; they’ll attack anything that you’ll throw at them. That makes them an exciting fish [to catch].”

As a fly-fishing expert and an adventure travel specialist for Camelback Odyssey Travel (www.camelbacktravel.com), Betsy Donley has spent the better part of the last 20 years casting a line into exotic waters for equally exotic fish. She’s fished for trout in the Yukon during grizzly bear season, she’s stripped her line for taimen in Mongolian waters 60 miles from the Siberian border, and she’s caught bonefish on the Seychelles flats. But of all the places that she’s fished, she says that the Zambezi River ranks as the most spectacular. “You always want to catch fish, but just being there is an experience in itself,” she says. “Chiawa is the crème de la crème to be in the middle of everything, and the guides are experienced with American fly fishermen. They know what rods to use, what flies to use, and what leader to fish with.

“Everyone should see the Taj Mahal in their lifetime if they can, and tigerfish fishing is kind of like that,” she continues. “It’s a whole other world, and there aren’t a whole lot of places in the world where you can do it.”

“Come on, fishy! Come on, fishy!” Clement exclaims, as he watches my lure move through the water.

With the morning behind us, one that included numerous strikes, I approach the afternoon with greater confidence. Clement does his part to help, which goes beyond urging the fish to strike. Shortly after we set out from the camp after lunch, the 23-year-old guide takes an unused rod and makes a couple of casts. He has a fish on the line almost immediately, and in less than a minute I’m snapping a photo of him holding a 4-pound tigerfish that measures about the length of his arm (from elbow to outstretched fingers), its half-inch-long teeth glistening in the sun.

Clement makes it look easy, but I’ve learned firsthand that it’s not. There’s a finesse required to both hooking a tiger and to landing one. Clement has been fishing on the Zambezi since his grandfather first took him out on the river when he was 5 years old. No morning of strikes, regardless of the quantity, is going to provide me with that amount of skill.

Now, in the waning hours of the afternoon, Clement has repositioned the boat to a protected inlet among the many small, grassy islands at the river’s center. It’s a peaceful and calm spot and I open my mouth to say as much when the fish strikes. It hits the lure hard, and this time my reflexes are sharp. The hook is set and the fish is on. I can feel every acute jerk in the rod as the fish, concealed in the cloudy water, struggles to get free. Out of the corner of my eye I can see Clement lean forward with keen interest, but my gaze never leaves the spot where my line meets the water’s surface. The fish leaps, and for a second its skin shimmers a bright silver before it splashes back into the river. And just like that, it’s gone.

 I turn to Clement, staring at him in disbelief, as my line drifts lazily in the current. It was a big tigerfish, between 9 and 10 pounds according to Clement’s estimate, and like any dedicated guide, Clement is perhaps more disappointed than I am. But I know that with fishing there is never a guarantee, especially when the goal is such an elusive and challenging species.

As we return to the camp we pass numerous crocodiles sunbathing near the water’s edge.

“Not a good spot in the river to go for a swim,” Clement deadpans.

“Is there really any spot on the river that’s good for a swim?” I ask.

“No,” he responds, chuckling as he ponders the idea of it.

But, as I’ve learned, the river overflows with areas that are good for catching tigerfish. Finding them is easy. Catching them . . . well, that’s another story.

African Arrivals

While many adventures await travelers to Africa, the options for getting there in style and comfort are more limited. Not all travelers wish to fly privately, and even those who do may not wish to do so all the time. The standard commercial airline experience historically has left plenty to be desired, but Abu Dhabi–based Etihad Airways (www.etihadairways.com) is aiming to change that—the airline recently elevated its first-class service and is gradually expanding into North America, with flights in and out of New York, Chicago, and Washington, D.C. The airline also offers service to eight African destinations. “Luxury means different things to different people,” says Peter Baumgartner, the company’s chief commercial officer. “True luxury is offering a level of flexibility and personalization that accommodates our guests’ individual tastes and preferences.”

In addition to private, enclosed chambers and almost-7-foot-long, lie-flat beds, Etihad’s first-class travelers enjoy made-to-order meals prepared by classically trained chefs, all of whom have at least six years of culinary experience, though many have worked in the professional kitchens of five-star hotels and fine-dining restaurants for more than a decade. “We have consistently elevated our in-flight dining experience by putting culinary experts in airline roles as opposed to airline experts in culinary roles,” says Lee Shave, Etihad’s vice president of guest experience.

All of Etihad’s first-class travelers have access to private airport lounges complete with Champagne and cigar bars, and in Washington, D.C., those travelers can board their plane directly from the first-class lounge. While all of these features are part of an attempt to blur the line between commercial and private air travel, Baumgartner explains that the highest level of service still depends upon a familiarity with the traveler. “Many of our first-class guests are regular travelers,” he says, “so the better we know them, the better the experience we can deliver.”

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