THE TIGERS OF MTSITSI GORGE

THE TIGERS OF MTSITSI GORGE

If it feels like it’s all been done before, think again. Those truly wild places (where you’re just as likely as your fly to get chomped) still exist. That was what Gareth Tate and mates were looking for (the wildness, not the chomping) when they went deep into Big Five country in search of tigerfish that had never seen a fly before. As featured in The Mission Issue 43. Photos. Gareth Tate, Christian Fry, Frans Louw.

“One border crossing, one blown-out tyre, one aardvark hole leading to one flipped trailer, and 20 anxious beers later”

For me, nothing beats the African wilderness. We have it all. Extraordinary, wild, untouched spaces where biodiversity still thrives, blissfully unaware and cut off from the perpetually growing pressures of mankind. I have dedicated my life to the conservation of some of these spaces, including some of our region’s most threatened species and habitats. Through my endeavours I have been flung into some of the wildest landscapes in Africa. As I work, I always keep my eyes peeled on the water below and the fly fishing potential that each site may offer.

I have come across pristine water systems: wild rolling rivers, meandering streams, lakes, and wetlands that hold remarkably rich aquatic life. The booming populations of large fish are enough to make anyone with a fly rod quiver at the knees. In many of these systems, the fish remain somewhat uneducated and have, without a doubt, never laid an eye on a fly. So when the opportunity arrived to fish one of these places that very few get to see, let alone fish, there was no question that I’d be joining. I admit that I did have prior knowledge. My local Slowveld chinas Frans, Simon and Christian were among the keen crew, with Doug, Grant, Chris and Weber also playing a vital part.

“A perfect striped water dog, mean and prehistoric-looking, with an oversized head and teeth, full of battle scars.”

The approach road took us along an almost un-drivable, impossibly rugged and rocky pass winding down the valley. One border crossing, one blown-out tyre, one aardvark hole leading to one flipped trailer, and 20 anxious beers later, the thick woodland bushveld finally broke open to reveal one of the most beautiful scenes I have ever seen. There it was, the mighty Mtsitsi River. My mind immediately started to short-circuit. Clear, cool water snaked and cascaded through rocky outcrops, pooling and bubbling, running into gorges, across sandy flats and into a myriad of braided channels skirted by baobabs and 300-year-old ironwood forests clinging to the slopes. The giant, ancient baobabs stood like sentinels watching over this place, seemingly lost in time.

As we approached, dinosaur-sized crocs slithered and disappeared into their watery underworlds. Fish of all sizes and colours darted and flashed in the rapids. Hippos grunted, baboons barked, fish eagles called. My heart was full. It was pretty challenging to have to set up camp for the first night, seeing the river flowing just 15m away, along with the vivid memories of the large fish I had seen in this river system some years before.

“Crocs aside, tigers are certainly the prime aquatic representatives among the many toothy, dangerous creatures that roam the landscapes of Africa.”

We tend to get completely fixated on the Big Five and the charismatic terrestrial creatures of Africa, but if you adjust your lens to see what’s happening underwater, your mind will be blown. Our African aquatic ecosystems hold an unrivalled diversity of life and my brother Russell, a rather fishy character, has helped to reveal this world to me. He has taught me so much about the remarkable plants, insects, frogs and fish that call this liquid realm home. In my opinion, these animals make the Big Five seem, well, rather boring.

Tigerfish have always fascinated me, although I haven’t had too many opportunities to catch them. For years I have lived vicariously through other fishers’ stories. Crocs aside, tigers are certainly the prime aquatic representatives among the many toothy, dangerous creatures that roam the landscapes of Africa. They have earned their reputation for a willingness to take flies, for their ferocious strikes and acrobatics. Tigerfish also tend to be found in remote, beautiful places, teeming with other wildlife. They were the reason we were here and why I had spent months planning, countless hours behind the vice and yet more reading articles, and watching hundreds of YouTube videos.

So, let’s get to the fishing. Where do I start? Perhaps with, I’ve never fished this hard in my life before.

If largies are a fish of a thousand casts, then, at first, these tigers were fish of five thousand. Three days in, several blisters on soggy feet and hands, and fifteen gazillion casts later, I hadn’t landed a single tigerfish. One or two had, with great hesitation, mouthed at my fly, but there were no commitments and no hook-ups.

“We were fishing into the most epic runs, pools, and rapids I’ve seen in a while. But to no avail.”

Like a true fisher, I blamed the weather. Despite a promising start, the first few days saw a massive storm roll in and settle in properly, a complete surprise for this time of the year in the region. October is usually “suicide month”, with dry, convection-oven conditions the norm, and temperatures regularly soaring into the 40s [Celsius]. In concert with some extra-grumpy protests from the resident hippos keeping us away from some of the prime pools, a steady drop in the barometer gave these fish lockjaw. In between periods of being bogged down in our swamp of a camp, we would split up and try take advantage of the gaps in the rain to fling flies, serenaded by a chorus of happy bushveld rain frogs.

We were fishing into the most epic runs, pools, and rapids I’ve seen in a while. But to no avail. Every evening the fishing reports were equally grim and our spirits were sinking along with the fireplace that now stood submerged and bleak. Some were even now talking about going “conventional”. Weakness was starting to show. On the third night we got the karate juice out to warm our spirits and tied some seriously flashy flies under our mozzie-plagued headlamps. Maybe it was the brandewyn, maybe it was the flash Clousers, but something sparked a marked change in the atmosphere. Energy, excitement and hope emerged in the thick, humid air. We could feel that sunny, hot weather was on its way. Tiger weather. 

“Piet-my-vrou, Piet-my-vrou. Piet-se-p@#$.”

I rose early, partly because of excitement, the unknown, and the epic adventure that lay ahead, but also because of the incessant high-pitched cries of a Piet-my-vrou (red-chested cuckoo) calling from his nearby baobab perch. This bloody bird must have started calling at 3am. Piet-my-vrou, Piet-my-vrou. Piet-se-p@#$. The clouds cleared to reveal the first welcoming patches of blue sky seen in days, followed by a brilliant sunrise.

It was also the day of our move closer to Masende Gorge, where we hoped fishing conditions would improve. By 7am, it was already a scorcher. As they say, “If you’re not sweating balls, the tigers won’t be biting.” Our balls were sweaty. One more puncture, some jaw-grindingly rocky game paths, and we had arrived and set up camp.

Soon we were perched on a large sandy bank above the river with a view down the valley into the gorge, already spotting our fishy quarry swirling in the shallows. We split into two teams and headed off at a semi-sprint armed with fly rods, wet socks and jocks, and big-fish dreams. We did not see the other group until nightfall. 

tigerfish

“The fish were waking up from their slumber.”

I stopped buggering around. I packed away the streamers and wet line and decided to focus on bringing up a beast from the depths, fishing a large, noisy surface fly. This is what I did for the rest of the trip, and for good reason. Increasingly, large fish started to show interest in the surface flurry. Swells, fins, and boils became a regular feature behind the poppers that were thrown into deep pools and runs. The fish were waking up from their slumber. I was, however, yet to hook one. Some excitement erupted when my mate, Christian, a seasoned aquatic-bug nerd, hooked into and landed a large barbel that came out covered in fresh bite marks, likely from an even larger tiger. We then heard Frans’s screams 100m upriver as he did damage to some sizeable tigers taken on a flashy bright pink Clouser.

Read the rest of the story in The Mission Issue 43 below – free, as always.

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1 thought on “THE TIGERS OF MTSITSI GORGE”

  1. Mtsitsi Gorge sounds like the place for me! Exciting and humorous writing ✍️ where do I sign up?

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