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Zambia

   

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"What elephant?"

Aerial View of the Zambezi River as we head for the airstrip.

After the ten hour flight down to Lusaka, Steve and myself disembarked the plane and stepped onto the fierce heat of the airport tarmac.

'Right. Where do we go now?' was the obvious question, and amongst the hundreds of people milling around on the concourse, we eventually located our rucksacks and rod-tubes, fought off the herds of porters vying to drag our stuff from one spot to another, negotiated customs ("There are no rules, but there are lots of rules"), and an eternity later found a sign which seemed to point to the place we wanted- the office where we could pick up the light plane to take us south over the Zambian Escarpment, to the airstrip near the Zambezi Lodge- which was to be our base for the next eight days or so.

Steve and a first evening Vundu. A good start for him.

After a bit more of a hang around (not sure why), we finally boarded the little prop-plane, stuffed the rucksacks and tubes in any void available, and at last we were airborne and on our way- with a big sigh of relief. As we passed over the countryside a few hundred feet below, we could spot tiny villages set in the bush, and soon we stuttered over the escarpment itself, which was smoking from the bush fires working their way up the hillsides. This leg of the trip coincided with some very rough turbulence in the tiny plane, and we were soon bouncing about all over the place- seomthing pretty hairy in a machine akin to a ceiling fan with planks strapped to it, and I remember thinking that in the top ten places I would not want a plane to go down, then this was somewhere pretty high on the list. Not that I suppose it's very good to go down in a plane anywhere really.

An hour or so later we spotted the scar of the airstrip in the bush, and as we circled to get lined up to land, the vast wilderness of the Zambezi valley stretched out all around us, which gave me a real tingle of excitement at the unspoiled and wild fishing we were likely to experience over the next few days. We just couldn't wait to get fishing.

But wait we had to, because there was no one at the airstrip to meet us... It was mid afternoon, the temperature was in the 40s, there were no leaves on the bush for shade... and there we stood, rucksacks at our feet in the dust and crispy brown leaves and twigs. Maybe an hour later, we heard a noise, which gradually increased in volume, and to our great relief it was a jeep to take us over to the camp. Phew! Apologies handed out (apparently they had been told a different time for our arrival, which is ironic because in Africa time mostly seems to be an abstract concept anyway!), we piled our stuff aboard and bounced through the parched landscape towards the river, the breeze of the jeep's speed giving some respite to the intense heat.

First double of the trip on the very first morning at 10lb 8oz. And a good start for me.

Ooh. Nasty.

And getting lucky again when this 13lb Tigerfish grabbed the bait.

But what a view greeted us! The silent, powerful river slinked past us, and as I looked across at the far bank, I realised that it wasn't the far bank at all, just merely an island. What a place! The tackle and equipment was thrown into the tents and we quickly assembled a spinning rod each and stumbled down to the water's edge for our first cast into Zambian waters. We managed one or two small Tigerfish before retiring for a beer and to ready the gear for our first evening session, and after an hour's rest, we were soon motoring upstream for our first 'proper' fish.

We scrapped it out with a few Tigerfish to 7lb or so, and right on last knockings Steve hooked into something a little larger- a 19lb Vundu. So we headed back to camp in the dark buoyed by our early success.

Now I had planned to use a pair of Dave Lumb 10ft 31/2lb test curve pike rods coupled with 4500 BTR Baitrunners and 20lb line for the Vundu Catfish, and some lighter spinning rods and 8010 GT Baitrunners loaded with 12lb line for the Tigerfish. But straight away we realised a problem with this...

You see, much of the fishing was carried out by dropping a couple of mudweights on the top of one of the multitude of sandbars, and then dropping strips and chunks of Chessa (a local baitfish species which looks similar to our bream, but with a longer snout- probably deformed by spending their whole life following herds of Hippos and eating their pooh) down into the drop-off on the deeper downstream side of the bar.


Followed by a monster 15lb 1oz Tiger on a morning when the magnet was on full force.


A 10ft 31/2lb Test Curve Pike rod getting a severe working over by a big Tigerfish. I love it. And that's the tackle I even caught a Gambian Tarpon on!

Perhaps the most spectacular sunrise I have ever seen.

But the thing was that the Vundu and Tigers were often inhabiting the same spots, and one had no control over what would pick your bait up next! So a heavy mono hooklength would be laid to waste in seconds by a Tiger... and the chances of landing a Vundu on fairly light spinning gear in the powerful flow would be slim. So a compromise was reached, whereby I fished the heavy rods, reels and lines with a wire trace, and to be honest, I think it made not the slightest of odds to any of the fish, what with the Tiger's being the psychopaths of the ecosystem, and the Vundus being basically daft. Another thing was that the Tigers sometimes fought so hard, and were of such a high average size during this trip, that for the most part I was happy to have the insurance of the heavy gear.

And as if to emphasise the point, I was delighted to be using the meat rods on one day in particular a couple of days into the trip. It was just one of those mornings that occurs every now and again, where for whatever reason, you just can't do anything wrong. I guess all the stars just line up or something like that.

Waking early in the morning in my tent, I remember thinking how strange the light seemed as it glowed through the material of the tent flaps. I crawled out of the pit and unzipped the door, to be greeted by probably the most spectacular sunrise I have ever seen. The sky was burning bright red and orange, broken by the silhouettes of the bankside trees and the exposed sandbars in the centre of the Zambezi. It defied description really, so not being much of a wordsmith, I'll just leave it for you to see the picture above right. Phenomenal sums it up for me...



A quick drop in at a spot for last orders... and while I was taking this picture, one of my Baitrunners started screeching! I ran to the rod, grabbed it as it nearly disappeared over the cooler... and then missed the bugger!

The Vundus did their best too...

And a 47lb 8oz Vundu just before I switched the magnet off for a couple of hours. Just to give it a rest- you know how it is.

But almost as spectacular was the size of the turd that was still steaming off it's heat a mere 5 feet from my tent door! An elephant had been by during the night, dropped a medicine-ball by the entrance, and then left merrily on it's way. And I hadn't heard a thing! I suppose it was lucky it didn't drop it in the tent, cos something that size falling from a height could cripple a person.

Anyway, coffee drank, and it was out onto the river for another morning session. We caught a few Chessa on worms by stopping as close to a herd of Hippos as we dare and casting towards them. This is because the Chessa has one of the less desirable positions in the food chain, whereby it's staple diet is Hippo poo, but while it's eating that it has to keep an eye open to prevent itself becoming the staple diet of a passing Tigerfish or Vundu. Actually, when dissecting a Chessa for bait, a slimy green mulch of half digested Hippo squits always spills out all over the boat. Something our Canadian buddy Chris Fox would just love.

During the morning, the fish tried to do their best to crawl up my rods, and Tigerfish of 8lb 9oz, 9lb 1oz, 13lbs and a chunky monster of 15lb 1oz hung themselves on my trundled fish strips, and as an added bonus a couple of Vundu at 41 and 47 and a half pounds also pulled my arms from the sockets. One of my most memorable morning's fishing ever! 

Look who's stalking. Steve gets in on the picture as our guide shows off his catch in the evening light.


The sun reflects off the oily surface of the river as it glides silently past. The magic hour in full swing. Yup. It's a dirty job... 

And yet, for some reason Steve was pulling his hair out, because while sitting in the same boat, using the same bait and almost identical tackle he just couldn't buy a bite. Don't ask me why- there was no logic to it- just pure and simple fluke. And it didn't help when on the way back to camp, when we stopped at a final sandbar for 15 minutes, just to see. Being more than content with the morning's action, I just threw out a rod with a strip of bait and a heavier lead on, and then laid back on the bow of the boat, shirt off, to soak up a few rays.

But when your luck is in, then it's really in, and ten minutes later I was awakened from my slumber by a buzzing Baitrunner, and after landing another lovely Tiger of 10lb 8oz, I thought I'd better not cast in again...

Takin' a chill in the bright sunshine.

Erm, more bait. It hit bottom and lasted about 20 seconds before something grabbed it and ripped it off the hook.

The evenings by the river really were something special. The mid-day heat was really quite extreme- although the breeze which always seemed to spring up during the late mornings made it pretty easily bearable. But by late afternoon, the breeze would just drop away, and the orb of sun would slide down toward the horizon, the heat would start to relinquish it's grip on the air, and the whole scene would take on a truly dream-like aura, with the sun trying to push the last of it's rays through the haze of bush-smoke hanging permanently over the valley. And for an hour or so, we really were in paradise. Another strange vision created by the bush fires on the hillsides was after dark in the evening, when the bright strips of orange fire criss-crossed the tops, and it was quite humbling to wonder whether any animals were up there, trapped by the intersections of the flames, with no passage of escape.

Unfortunately Steve was to fall ill the next day, when after our morning session (when I had cast out and hooked up into a 40lb plus Vundu straight away... I really wished that he had caught that one; but when the fish-fairy has visited, there is nothing you can do about it, is there?), a spot of sun stroke set in, which left him sweating and shivering in the tent all at the same time. Luckily we had some of those blackcurrant flavoured salts with us, which helped straighten him out, and we left him to sleep it off while heading for the river for an evening session.

Dead croc in the margins. One of the other guides at the camp asked us if we fished around it (which we didn't). 'Pity' he said 'I bet there were loads of catfish around that'. Obvious really. I guess we just weren't switched on!

Strangely enough, that evening was the slackest session I had, despite having the boat to myself, and apart from missing a couple of bites all was pretty quiet. Maybe it was because the productive spots were fished out to some extent after the attention we had given them over the previous couple of days, so in my mind I made a note that the next day maybe we should spend a little time investigating some more fresh spots further up river... and possibly some of the snaggy spots which seemed to proliferate the 'out of bounds' side of the river towards Zimbabwe.

One thing of note did happen though, in that the smallest Tigerfish of the trip snaffled a Chessa strip. It could only have been at most half a pound it weight... Hmmm. So the rig was quickly changed, and back out it went on a paternoster to take it's chances with its big brothers.

"Crazy-man!", said Milolo as he watched the rig fly through the air. It lasted perhaps thirty seconds before the rod bounced right over and the line fizzed from the reel. But as seems pretty typical with this kind of bite, I panicked, gave myself a whiplash injury with the strike, and then missed it completely. When I wound in, there was only the top half of the mini-Tiger left, with its body from the dorsal backwards sliced clean off- poor little sucker.


A beauty of 11lb 2oz taken on our trip up into the game reserve- and comparing dentistry!

First double of the day up in the game park, and the start of one of the favourite day's fishing I've ever had.

Fortunately Steve had recovered by the next morning- and how important was that? Very. We were offered the opportunity to head further downstream and fish in an area of the river that entered a game reserve. Now access to this zone was very restricted, and so we grabbed the opportunity with both hands, with the chance of experiencing some completely virgin Tigerfishing being simply too much to pass up!

We were up at the crack of dawn the next morning, and bristling with expectation for the day ahead, and since we were to travel quite some distance, we wouldn't be heading back for shelter and a mid-day snack. So for this reason we took a game viewing platform to fish from, and a cooler full of water, some food... and a few beers of course. As we motored downriver, I couldn't help thinking that we were only missing the brass band really, but as ungainly a fishing vessel as it was, it sure was comfortable to fish from: no squabbling about who was fishing which side, no swordfights with the rods when trying to perform any synchronised casting, and plenty of space to sunbathe and to handle the fish in. Thing is, the fishing was soooo very hot that we didn't have more than five minutes to sunbathe all day.

Steve with a Chessa taken on worms. And soon to be bait! What a life eh? You spend years following Hippos about eating their crap... and then you end up chopped into lumps and impaled on a hook.

Great fishing, great place and very happy days.


View across the river to the Zambian Escarpment.

The first spot we visited was a typical sand bar, with a huge tree some 50 metres to our left which had crashed into the river. Within minutes we were hooked into Tigers- as well as missing numerous chances, and soon I decided to up my hook size to 6/0 and go for something really big and ugly. The head was chopped off a Chessa of a couple of pounds in weight and as the gills and guts dripped out, I lip hooked the piece of offal and flicked it out over the sandy drop-off.

"Too big for Tigerfish sir", advised our guide.
"Maybe... but not too big for Vundu?"
"Oh", was all he said.

I placed the rod against the railings of the platform, flicked over the Baitrunner lever, and set about getting another Tiger or two. Some ten or fifteen minutes passed, when the spool spun into life: not the zipping, aggressive snatch of a crazed Tigerfish, but a steady, cool, calm and controlled run off of the line. I clicked her into gear and banged the rod back, and immediately was met with a solid weight. Nothing happened- the line just headed off to the left, and then back to the right... and then back to the left. Next to no line was taken from the tight clutch.

"What's going on here then?!" I asked, looking at our guide for inspiration.
"Huge Vundu sir. Huuuuge Vundu".

Returning a Tiger on a sandbar... under the watchful eye of our guide!

'What elephant?'

Great. At that point I realised I had stuck my hook into something for which my tackle was nowhere near man enough. The fish never panicked once- in fact I am sure it was still swimming up and down, left and right, behind the bar searching for food. Eventually it got bored and just swam off to our left, and irresistibly embedded itself in the sunken tree some 50 yards away, before the line cut on something.
"Thank my tits for that", I said.
"Didn't you want it then?" asked Steve.
"Have you ever heard of the phrase 'exercise in futility' mate!?"

How big? I have no idea, but our guide informed us that they are sometimes netted as big as 200 pounds by villagers in the area, so the scope for some pain is certainly there. I think we could have wasted hours on the thing and still lost it, so at least now we could get straight on with some fishing!

We contented ourselves with the Tigers for the rest of the day, and what terrific fishing we had. The sun beat down, there was barely a few minutes that passed without one or the other- or at times both of us- playing out a fish.

Ahhh. Steveo gives a Vundu a cuddle. How sweet. Only a mother could love it. And look at the state of the fish.... Boom. Boom.

Tiger Alley.

The final morning and Steve returns a serpent-like Vundu back into its home.

 We had to go and get more bait a couple of times - fresh from the Hippo's trumpton. And we even started to run out of wire for our leaders, since the horrific gnashers of our adversaries made short work of them (2 or 3 fish maximum per trace). In fact, by the end of the day the leaders had reduced from 18 inches to 6 inches to eke them out a bit, and I was twisting two or three thickness' of 15lb QED wire together which I had thrown into my bag 'just in case' (luckily this stuff twists up without becoming all bouncy), because we quickly found to our cost that a single piece was about as useful as a bit of spaghetti.

One amusing thing that happened was when Steve tried a frog as bait. I know, I know... But it was cast out, the lead hit bottom, and the line started peeling from the reel- just like that. Unfortunately the aggression of the take ripped the bait from the hook- but you heard it here first- could the new secret Tigerfish bait really be amphibious?

By the end of the day, the bait and wire supplies were exhausted, and we had been well and truly Tigered to the max, and when we counted the notches on the railing we had boated 25 Tigers, 11 for Steve up to 12lb 8oz and the rest for yours truly up to 11lb 2oz. And we had three doubles each amongst them! What a day- and one I don't think that we will ever better on the Tigerfish front. And all this goes on with hippos, crocs and dozens of elephants all around us, topped off with fish eagles swooping through a cloudless sky overhead. 

It was two very, very happy anglers who slurped down the last beers as we cruised back upstream at sundown that evening.

All too soon the final morning was upon us, and we had time for two or three hours fishing before heading back to the airstrip to begin the long haul back home.

A last knockings Vundu taken on a Chessa lump. We caught lots of them, and they are terrific fun- honest.

 So we begged some wire at the camp and went for one last try. And it was a good job we did, because although yours truly caught nothing of any note, Steve exacted some sweet revenge for my jammy day earlier in the trip by catching a lovely 11lb Tiger and a 40lb 8oz Vundu from near some snags on the Zimbabwean side of the river (where we shouldn't have been...), all after being charged by a huge male elephant as we drifted close to the shore past his harem and territory. A most excellent way of signing off.

Looking back at the trip, along with the 'medicine ball' left outside my tent, and of course that magical sunrise, probably the next most spectacular thing we saw on the trip was the size of that elephant's huge prehensile donger. It wasn't only the size of the thing, but I reckon the big fella could have picked up an orange with it- and then peeled it too. Which would have been one hell of a party trick.

When all was packed and loaded away, and we flew back over the hills again waving our goodbyes to the bush fires still crackling and smouldering away below us, we both sat grinning, with the satisfaction of knowing that we had just been lucky enough to have experienced a truly wonderful trip. Love it, love it, love it.

Smoke from the bush fires hangs above the hill tops as we fly over the Zambian Escarpment and begin the long journey back to civilisation.

 

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