Two weeks into Lockdown level 2, with international borders still closed,  Jazz Kuschke goes in search of  local tigerfish in South Africa at Lake Jozini to wash away the cabin fever.

Up close and personal with some of the permanent residents

Up close and personal with some of the permanent residents

Tigers, again. This time was different though. I’d not stamped a passport to get here; I wasn’t sucking on a Mosi Lager while tackling up and, instead of 9-weights loaded with Di7’s, I was rigging my sevens with intermediates.

Angola, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and, if we’re going to get technical with lines on a map, then Namibia too. I’d landed tigers in all of those, it was time to tick the Saffa Hydrocynus vittatus box.

Now, South African tigers are limited to a few special waterways.  Most are in the Lowveld and flow in, through or out of the Kruger National Park. Arguably the most accessible homegrown tigerfish water however, is the Pongola River system. Parts of the top section of the river are fishable and the section below the dam wall is a beautiful tailwater fishery, but it is the dam itself, previously called Pongolapoort and today more widely known as Lake Jozini, where I’d come with Mavungana Flyfishing to target the revered striped water dogs.

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At approximately 30km long and 5km wide, Lake Jozini is a serious piece of water. Completed in 1973 in the gorge separating the Lebombo and Ubombo mountain ranges, it was constructed in an area that formed part of the first proclaimed wildlife reserve in South Africa. Its water level remained low until it was filled, almost overnight, by cyclone Domoina on 31 January 1984.

“It remains a wild place today, surrounded by reserves where rhino, buffalo and elephant cruise the banks, and crocs, hippos and tigerfish guard the bays.”

Tigerfish and crocs along the banks of Lake Jozini

Tigerfish and crocs along the banks of Lake Jozini

It remains a wild place today, surrounded by reserves where rhino, buffalo and elephant cruise the banks, and crocs, hippos and tigerfish guard the bays. When the wind gets up (which is fairly often) it gets even wilder and there have been various incidents over the years of boats getting into serious trouble and worse.

After four years of bad drought which saw the water level drop all the way down to 21% capacity, the dam has made a good recovery.  While not quite up to 100% again, it is now settled and stable and the annual cycle seems to be back in motion. This sees the summer rains from October through January fill it up, with around 20 percent of the water released during October to help flood the Makatini flats downstream, where locals rely on it to irrigate their subsistence crops.

“Flooded mud banks and shallow reed beds are alive with baitfish, juvenile tigers and, of course, the area is frequented by those that eat them both. What is not to love?”

The early season rains are also a fertile time in the dam. This, and an increase in water temperature, triggers the bigger female tigers to run for flowing water upriver to a protected section, to spawn. The vegetation which grows on the exposed banks during the dry season gets flooded, offering structure for small fish to hide. The hydrilla weed beds are lush, making the margins even more alive.

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It’s all about the margins and for Mavungana’s Jonathan Boulton, who has fished and guided all over the world, this is the ultimate in fishing. He’s been targeting tigers in the dam since the 90s and knows it better than most.  He says, “Flooded mud banks and shallow reed beds are alive with baitfish, juvenile tigers and, of course, the area is frequented by those that eat them both. What is not to love?”

He continues, “Seeing a long, closed-off weed bed against the shoreline with just a single opening, and knowing tigers will be there to ambush baitfish and then landing a small polar fibre baitfish through the corridor and stripping it back, guarantees a take and an extraordinary level of satisfaction.”

After months of lockdown, some satisfaction I could do with.

Here are a few snapshots of what went down:

Snapshot #1: Back to (cold) front

tigerfish in south africa lake jozini

Silence.

The symphony assaults me as I half-stumble down the wooden steps of my log cabin at Inkwazi River Lodge. Last night’s wine is foggy behind my eyes so it’s possible I could be mistaken. But no, my ears are good.  As I take a moment, there it is.

Deafening silence

It is windless for the first time in four days.

Set elevated in the foothills of the Lebombo Mountains on the last river bend before the train bridge, Inkwazi offers a spectacular vista over the Pongola Game Reserve and ‘estuary’ section that is the 5km long wider part of the river before it mouths into the main body of Lake Jozini.

It’s dark, but not.

Low in the Western sky the setting full moon paints the Pongola River in silver. Sunrise is still some way off, but there is enough moonlight for me to stumble (without a headlamp) the 60 steps to the main lodge for coffee. It also possible to make out the very distinct tree line way across to the north, where this section of the dam’s original highwater mark is. Venus is still smiling.

Ah, cloudless too, for the first time in four days.

It’s the final morning, of course it is.

One last session in perfect conditions awaits. This is on the back of having shuddered through the last big front of the winter in September, that dusted much of the high ground in snow. That front did not spare us. It did not spare Lake Jozini, and wasn’t too kind to our fishing.

“The one thing that can really screw you over up here is a front,” Jonathan muses over his coffee. “But there are still fish, if you’re willing to take on the elements and work for it.” Indeed, Jono got his biggest fish to date, a 13,5-pounder some years back, during a torrential downpour in the middle of a cold front.

Not just that, the largest fish of our week (the second biggest Mavungana knows of that has ever been taken on fly in the dam, behind a late-90s 15-pounder) came out during a particularly foul-weather session.

Snapshot #2: Riders on the storm

tigerfish in south africa lake jozini

A chunky tigerfish from Lake Jozini

“Yeeeeuw!” The hoot from the next bay sparks everyone in our boat’s attention. We’d been fishing the river section, right near the mouth of the main lake, working tight in the bays to find some protection from the wind. That was a proper howl to have been heard through the wind.

Without a word Tim Andrews and I reel up as Jono hastily hoists the trolling motor and starts the engine.

“Jono. Jono…Jonooo.” Charged, in a blend of confidence and ecstasy, guide Rowan Black’s voice blasts through the radio.

“It’s a tank,” he exclaims.

“We’ll be right there,” says Jono, the boat already on a plane. You can just sense this is a special fish.

“Thirteen-and-a-half, at least. Fourteen maybe,” Rowan crackles back over the radio.

My pulse is pumping with that raw mix of elation for whoever landed the beauty, combined with slight pangs of honest envy. We run the 100 metres around the corner bracing against the wind and chop. It’s a bone-chiller of a day with jackets and longs all-round, not exactly what you would expect from midday at the base of the Lebombo Mountain range in early September. But then, this fish didn’t seem to mind.

“I bet you it’s Owens,” Tim snickers, referring to Johnno Owens, one of his best mates and the guy who (with an eight-pounder on the first session of the trip and good numbers since) had been the hot rod for most of the week. “Sounded like him.” I can see Tim, with whom I’d shared a boat for much of the week, was as chuffed and jealous of his mate as I was.

We motor around the corner. It’s not Owens, he’s not even on the boat.  Instead we’re met by an absolutely beaming crew. In the net rests as chunky a female tiger as you’d ever hope to see within South African borders. Not long, but girthy, colourful and healthy.

I’m fumbling with the camera and shoot a few shots with the long lens as we get closer. On board Rowan, Craig Smith (one of Mavungana’s oldest clients) and Neels Heyneke are all a-grin.

tigerfish in south africa lake jozini

Neels with the fish of the trip

It is Neels, an experienced fisherman, but the most unassuming guy on the trip with the biggest smile. Between the boats we quickly weigh her in the net using two different Boga grips to gauge the weight via the net. Rowan had called it.  Fourteen pounds of beautiful mating female. She poses for a few frantic images before she powers off to make sure the fishery continues its cycle.

In the afterglow, the boys retell the story: Apparently Rowan had advised full trace and fly changes as they came into the spot. He’d just had that hunch. Neels had put a long cast out toward the mouth of the bay and went tight on the second strip, the fish running itself onto the reel almost immediately. A few blistering runs and a brace of jumps were followed by a nervy end-game just before the net.

Then that elation.

“I’m done,” says the banker from Johannesburg. It’s a special moment, even for someone who has caught notable fish all over the world, like he has. One of those you lock to memory, but don’t realise you did until you return to the photos later.

Right then I decide to dedicate the rest of the trip to pure trophy hunting. It’s a marginal call, of course.

But, not before some early morning top water action.

Topwater tigerfish are a real option at Lake Jozini

Topwater tigerfish are a real option at Lake Jozini

For the rest of Jazz’s Pongola story, get stuck in to issue 24 of The Mission below. As always, it’s free: