There are five tigerfish species that live across Africa and you may find that when you gain experience in catching each of them your techniques will change and your tackle preferences will also differ slightly for each species. I noticed this when I compared notes after fishing for tigerfish in the Zambezi River in southern Africa and the Mnyera and Ruhudji Rivers in Tanzania.
I’ve had two guiding season’s experience targeting the Tanzanian tigerfish (Hydrocynus tanzaniae) with Tourette Fishing and have also had the privilege to visit several areas on the Zambezi River, targeting the generally smaller Hydrocynus vittatus or ‘Zambezi’ tigerfish. Although the Zambezi tigerfish caught on fly are on average much smaller (mostly <16 lb) than Tanzanian tigerfish (plenty fish caught that weighed well over 20 lb and almost one or even a few of these big fish per week trip in the Tourette camps on the Mnyera and Ruhudji Rivers), the all tackle records for Zambezi tigerfish from Lake Kariba are bigger (>30 lb).
Tanzanian tigers (Hydrocynus tanzaniae)
I’d say that even while I guided for several months over a two year period in Tanzania and also caught my fair share of Tanzanian tigerfish in that time, my knowledge of that tigerfish is limited, but enough to guide you into a ≥20 lb (latest camp record is 28 lb, guided by Stuart Harley) trophy fish. The most important part of the terminal tackle you would use for the Tanzanian tigerfish is the hook; the Tiemco SP600 was according to our experience in the Tourette camps the most reliable hook for those fish and especially for the big specimens. These tigerfish typically opened up 2/0 and 3/0 Gamakatsu B10S stinger hooks (the preferred brand and hook model/code for Zambezi tigerfish) and Gamakatsu SL12’s and then most other hooks just couldn’t penetrate their bony jaws and a jumping fish easily shook them out.
The Tanzanian tigerfish is much stronger, lives in a much hairier environment riddled with structure and has a much heavier bony jawline compared to the Zambezi tigerfish – The jaws of the Tanzanian tiger could probably be better compared with that of the goliath tigerfish. Heavier tackle is needed to fish comfortably for Tanzanian tigers and the lightest rod you’d get away with is an 8 wt, but 9 – 10 wt rods are recommended.
They aren’t hooked easily and that sharp spear tip of the SP600 really makes a huge difference in penetrating the bony jawline. The SP600 in 2/0 and 3/0 was combined with 35 lb braided, knottable wire or 32 lb single stranded ‘piano’ wire for the best success.
The wire types were linked to tippet and hooks differently and wire traces were never pre-tied onto flies as it was a pretty disposable tackle item while fishing for Tanzanian tigers. These fish surprisingly snapped the strongest power swivels we could find in the desired size to make up pre-tied leaders and the Tourette owners and head guides, Rob Scott and Keith Clover, simply stopped using unnecessary ‘clutter‘ in the leader setups:
The 35 lb knottable wire setup
John Travis was the guy that showed me how not to stuff around too much with the knottable wire setup and his simple surgeon’s knot wire-to-leader join saved precious fishing time and it was certainly strong enough to hook and land plenty Tanzanian tigerfish and also really big fish. My personal catches increased tremendously after I started to practice John’s advice and I can vouch that his recommendation is by far the simplest and most effective way of catching these fish. A piece of American Fishing Wire (AFW) Surflon Micro Ultra 19 strand (superior to any other knottable wire that had passed through the Tanzanian Tourette Fishing camps) – you can buy this directly from Tourette Fishing in South Africa – is joined to a straight piece of 30 lb Maxima Ultragreen monofilament with the surgeon’s knot. The Maxima Ultragreen leaders were <9 foot long – that’s less than standard rod length, linked loop to loop with a bimini twist to the fly line – and fly line loops were customised and secured with about three 15 lb nylon nail knots and covered with a uvi resin or superglue, depending on what was available in camp. The other end is attached to the fly with a slightly modified Lefty Kreh’s loop knot (non-slip loop knot) so that the final piece of knotted wire trace is approx. 20-25 cm long. The advantage of the knottable wire was its suppleness, still giving great movement to the fly, and the ease of use. (SBS to follow in a separate post)
The 32 lb ‘piano’ wire setup
Interestingly, there were times when the Tanzanian tigers were shy to take a fly and I noticed that one could then still get strikes from fish on the standard, single stranded ‘piano’ wire trace setup (which was used before Mark Cowan from Pescador Solitario introduced the AFW Surflon Micro Ultra 19 strand to the Tourette Fishing camp). The 32 lb piano wire (single stranded, stainless steel wire in a camouflaged brown finish) is notably thinner than the Surflon Micro Ultra braided wire and it obviously made a difference when the fish were spooked and/or not feeding hard. The piano wire was definitely more laborious to work with and kinks from tiger bites and from hooking trees constantly needed to be smoothed out with a small wire straightener tool.
Before a piece of single stranded wire was cut, a double Rapala knot was made at the tip of the 30 lb Maxima ultra green leader. The wire was then thread through the double Rapala loop knot and a haywire twist (made by hand, not with pliers) was used to finish off the wire loop. The fly was then attached to the other end of the single stranded wire with a haywire twist loop so that there was approx. 15-20 cm of wire trace between the fly and the leader. (SBS to follow in a separate post)
Zambezi tigers (Hydrocynus vittatus)
Vast stretches of the Zambezi River are over fished by local subsistence fisherman using destructive fishing methods like mosquito nets and small-mesh size monofilament gill nets and therefore most of the Zambezi tigerfish that you will encounter and catch are <10 lb. This is one of the reasons why lighter tackle is used (you could even get away with catching Zambezi tigerfish on a 5 wt in most areas where they occur) for Zambezi tigerfish; the other reasons are that the Zambezi River flows much clearer in the favoured tigerfish angling ‘season’ (approx. June to October) compared to the Tanzanian rivers, there is more recreational angling pressure in the popular fishing areas on the Zambezi River, and the Zambezi tigerfish has a much thinner or ‘lighter’ bone jawline compared to Tanzanian tigerfish.
Hence the use of refined hook and wire trace methods, which will increase your odds of catching good numbers and big tigerfish in the Zambezi River. The main terminal tackle difference is the use of the trusty Gamakatsu B10S Stinger hook from sizes 4 – 2/0 for Zambezi tigerfish; interestingly, this Gamakatsu hook model is coded F314 in the UK and it is a favoured hook by sea match anglers whom use it for crab bait and soft bait for rock and surf fishing. Although I’ve used this hook with surprisingly good success (and have found it to be very rust resistant) to catch South African saltwater fish, it is globally used as a freshwater fly hook to tie streamers for predatory fishes, like pike, bass and tigerfish. In southern Africa (where it is sold under the B10S Stinger code) it is widely known as THE tigerfish hook, and for good reason.
The long, fine tip of this hook penetrates the thinner bone jawline of Zambezi tigerfish well and the relatively good strength of this thin wire hook is good enough to fight and land even the big Zambezi tigerfish up to and over 20 lb. One of the main differences between the Zambezi River and especially the Mnyera River in Tanzania is that the Zambezi has a wide and open main channel with few snags, so big tigerfish can run long distances and anglers can get away with lighter tackle, like lighter hooks and tippet, and less reel drag. The B10S Stinger also suits the profile of the smaller, thinner Clouser baitfish imitations that are so popular on the Zambezi River (Zambezi tigerfish typically feed on smaller baitfish like robbers and bulldogs, compared to the Tanzanian tigerfish that will easily take on and devour any fish from 1 lb up to 8 lb in my experience) much better than heavier wire hooks, such as the SP600, for instance.
I’ve tested both these hooks on Zambezi tigers and to my own surprise the B10S stuck way more fish than the SP600. It felt like I simply couldn’t get enough striking power/pressure with the relatively thin leader material and lighter wire trace to make the heavier wire SP600 stick to and penetrate the jaws of Zambezi tigers; the takes from Zambezi tigers can also be very fast and there are theories that the thinner B10S Stinger hook tip catches and penetrates the thin layer of flesh between the teeth of these tigerfish better than most other hooks with the slightest pressure. So, although a sharp and hard strip-strike is recommended for tigerfish to set the hook, one could get away with the odd, accidental lift of the rod or ‘trout strike’ on the Zambezi River using the B10S Stinger. A trout strike, however, will only result in lost Tanzanian tigerfish – these fish really need to be man-handled by a series of hard strip strikes and palming the rod on a tight line to ensure hook penetration.
The B10S Stinger hook can then also be combined with a lighter tippet – I’ve often caught good Zambezi tigerfish on 15 lb fluorocarbon tippet and especially in places where the river was shallow and very clear. The bigger fish (>10 and even >20 lb) should still be targeted on 25-30 lb fluorocarbon leaders/tippet I believe.
The 27 lb ‘piano’ wire setup
The single stranded 27 lb wire trace is tied to the leader and fly in exactly the same way as explained above for the 32 lb single stranded wire used for Tanzanian tigers. The double Rapala loop knot is used with hay wire twists in the wire loops and approx. 15-20 cm wire is sufficient to prevent the fish from biting through the fluorocarbon tippet. Alternatively, a small power swivel can be used to link the wire trace to the leader; note that in some anglers experience, small tigerfish may attacked the moving power swivel in the water and they may damage or bite through the tippet – in that case the double Rapala loop knot is recommended. A small wire straightener tool will also be required to straighten the wire trace after takes or after catching fish.
Knot2Kinky wire setup
The only other trusty wire trace setup that I believe holds merit for catching Zambezi tigerfish is Jack Lotter’s Knot2Kinky and power swivel combos. I have never used this trace setup before but Jack Lotter swears by it and Jack and his brother, William Lotter, have caught impressive numbers and also big Zambezi tigerfish on fly using the Knot2Kinky trace setup. Although slightly thicker, the 25 lb Knot2Kinky titanium wire is likely superior to the 27 lb piano wire setup in most cases (the titanium wire also doesn’t need to be straightened after catching a fish on it) – I still believe there is merit in using the very thin 27 lb brown piano wire in very clear and also shallow areas on the Zambezi River. (SBS on the Knot2Kinky trace setup to follow in a separate post)
Note: I haven’t used knottable wire of any sorts in the Zambezi River, but lighter braided wire, like the AFW Surflon Micro Ultra 19 strand in 26 lb or less and/or Rio Wire Bite in 20 lb could be tried on Zambezi tigerfish using the same knots described for the 35 lb AFW Surflon Micro Ultra 19 strand above. NB – the albright knot is NOT recommended for attaching wire trace to tippet, it is a weak point in the line and tigerfish easily snap the line at albright knots in my experience.