By Philip van Wyk, Tiger Hunter Tours and Safaris
WHENEVER one thinks of tigerfishing, our minds seem to almost automatically drift to some remote wilderness in Africa where you have to battle your way through hippo pods and crocodiles to get to the best fishing waters. And then — as the sun sets romantically in a blaze of orange, with the call of a fish eagle in the background — you’ll be standing there fighting this behemoth of a tigerfish. A true angler’s paradise.
For many anglers this experience remains something that they can only dream about. Travelling to some of the African countries has become a logistical nightmare and costs have shot up, making it next to impossible for the average angler to experience the true fight of Africa’s river monster.
The thing is, there is actually no need to leave South Africa to catch tigerfish; you can experience first-hand what it feels like to be fighting with a river monster right here!
Pongolapoort dam, better known as Lake Jozini, is the southernmost point in Africa where tigerfish are naturally found. The lake sprawls across Maputaland in northern KwaZulu-Natal, nestled between the Obombo and Lebombo mountain ranges. Built in 1972, the dam was to be used as a holding reservoir for water desperately needed to irrigate the surrounding areas. As this is the only lake in South Africa where tigerfish naturally occur, it’s a popular destination for angling enthusiasts in search of the ultimate freshwater fishing experience.
Today the lake is surrounded by game reserves teeming with wildlife on the shores of the lake, making it a spectacular place not just for the fishing, but also for water-based game viewing and birding. There are regular sightings of buffalo, elephant, rhino, waterbuck, tsesebe, wildebeest, giraffe, zebra, kudu, bushbuck, duiker, nyala, impala, warthog and even the occasional sighting of leopard which roam the Lebombo mountains. Over 350 species of birds have been recorded in the area.
If you have to compare the quality and quantity of fish in Jozini to other places such as the Zambezi, I would personally say that it is up there with some of the best destinations.
At Jozini the average size fish are 5- to 6 lb (around 2.5kg) and we have regular catches of fish over 10 lb (4.5kg). With the dam record standing at just over 21 lb (9.5kg), it’s fair to say that there are some real trophy fish in this lake.
Lake Jozini has an amazing climate with warm to extremely hot weather all year round. Winter temperatures average 25°C and summer 35°C, making it ideal to target tigerfish all year round. Unlike other destinations where the fishing is limited depending on rainfall and water colour, Jozini always has a pocket of clean water somewhere.
I have found that if you are after quality fish then the winter months from mid-March to end of August are the best. However, if you are after quantity rather than quality, then the summer months are best, and you can sometimes catch up to 30 fish in a two-hour session.
Methods of tigerfishing vary all over southern Africa, with each place having its own best method. These methods range from flyfishing, spinning and trolling with lures and spoons, to dead bait and livebait fishing with fillets and live tilapia/bream.
Fishing successfully for tigerfish on Jozini requires a lot of local knowledge and patience, as techniques used in other areas of Africa don’t necessarily work here.
On Jozini we prefer to use livebait as the main option, but this means that you will need to have some patience out there. We also use other methods such as spinning and trolling, but find these are more effective in the warmer months when the fish are more active on the surface.
One must remember that the tigerfish at Jozini are very different to those in other areas in Africa, and prefer open water to structure. They do congregate around structures, but unlike bass you don’t find them within these structures.
Here we often see anglers sitting at these structures for a short time and then moving off, which does not work at Jozini. Here patience is the key; we often sit for hours in one spot before considering moving.
Ideally what we do is look for a drop off point, then we anchor on the shallow side and fish into the deeper water, waiting patiently for the shoals to move past. Unlike the bass that ambush their prey, tigers will move around and physically hunt down their prey, so sitting in one spot and waiting for them to pass by is key.
When fishing with livebait into the drop off, there is always a better chance for larger fish.
Spoons are also used from time to time. We use copper double-bladed FZ spoons at 17/18g, or the single blade. When using spoons, again, look at the wind and pick a bank where you can start at the top of the bank and drift down the bank as the wind pushes you.
Always be sure that the wind is coming straight off the shore so that you can anchor perfectly on the shallows and fish off the back of the boat into the deep water.
Casting towards the bank with a fast retrieval can be a fun way of catching a lot of fish, but not necessarily big fish.
I cannot stress enough what a big factor the wind is on Lake Jozini. You always want to be on the sheltered side of the lake, and you always want to be on the side bank from which the wind is coming. As soon as you see white caps on the water you need to move as the tigers here really don’t like the wind.
I find some of the best fishing happens on a north or northeasterly wind, within fishing limitations depending on the strength of that wind. The southerly wind generally brings in rough weather.
The tackle we use here varies from angler to angler, but in the 22 years I have been fishing this body of water, I have found that the best rig is a round profile baitcaster with 16 lb monofilament line on a 7ft medium/heavy rod.
Do not use braid when fishing for tigerfish, as this line has no stretch in it at all and the force and speed at which the tiger hits the bait will break your line. I have proved this to many anglers over and over.
The rig I personally use consists of a ±12 inch black carbon-coated steel trace with a power swivel on one end. I then like to slide about three orange or red beads on the trace between swivel and hook just for colour, and then finish with a 7/0 hook. This is my standard trace that I use on all my trips.
I then hook the livebait through the tail, as this allows it free natural movement in the water. Try to avoid hooking the livebait so far up that it cannot swim properly, because tigerfish in Jozini are rather fussy feeders and I believe they can often see or sense when there is something trying to catch them.
When fishing with bait, always remember to fish free spool. Never set the drag on your reels as these fish are very sensitive to any tension. If you strike and the fish feels the tension, it will almost immediately drop the bait. On free spool, however, they don’t feel any tension until you engage the spool to strike.
Make sure to close the spool when you’re ready to strike, as some anglers completely forget about this and I have heard the words flying from across the dam as the fish strips the line.
When fighting the tigerfish, be sure that you have no slack line. Keep the tension on the fish all the time, otherwise he will throw your hook very quickly. Tigerfish are notorious for jumping out the water, although this is more prevalent in smaller fish, and many anglers are completely surprised by the power of this fish as it shoots out the water. Again, be sure to keep that tension, not giving any slack, otherwise the fish is gone.
The tigerfish is not the easiest fish to catch, and with a hook-up rate of 2:10 strikes, it is a fish that takes some patience to land, but if you stick to the tips above you will be sure to bring out that dream Jozini tigerfish.
Lastly I would just like to remind everyone how unpredictable the weather can be on Lake Jozini. Strong storms can pick up very suddenly, going from calm, mirror-like water to sea conditions in a matter of minutes. This is very dangerous for smaller boats and you need to always be on the lookout for this, so check your weather before going out.
You do not want to be on the main lake when the southerly is blowing, and need to be extra cautious as the conditions can get worse than the ocean. Wind currents are often heavily affected by the mountains, causing the water to turn into a washing machine with no distinct wave direction. Many boats, both big and small, have capsized in these conditions.
In the summer months there are typically late afternoon thunder storms or wind storms, and many anglers have been caught offguard, so checking weather constantly through the day is important.