Travel Journal: Fly Fishing for Tigerfish in Tanzania

As September 2021 approached my excitement grew exponentially as we were finally headed to Tanzania for a week of fishing for tigerfish. This trip had been two years in the making and although 2020 was axed due to Covid, the stars seemed to be aligning – our trip was less than a month out. At the end of the month we were finally going to board a plane and fly to Africa to chase a creature that boggles my mind, tigerfish. Our group from California loaded up in the truck and we started our journey. This trip isn’t just a hop to Mexico or the Bahamas, it is a true journey and involves a FULL day of travel from San Francisco to Tanzania.

Our journey would first take us to Dar es Salaam, a major city and commercial port on Tanzania’s Indian Ocean coast. We would overnight at the Sea Cliff Hotel the first day/night and would be heading into camp the following morning. We enjoyed our day at the hotel, which is quite spectacular and has everything one could need. A couple of the group even got massages that day to make sure they were loose for their week of fishing. The infinity edge pool overlooking the Indian Ocean was amazing!

We woke up early the following morning and headed to the airport for our flight to the camp. We all jumped on the Cessna Grand Caravan and were off. The flight was fairly comfortable and in less than 2 hours we were flying over a dirt landing strip with vehicles parked along the side. I knew we had reached our final destination and couldn’t wait to step foot outside the plane and meet the African Waters crew. The guides and team were all waiting for us to deplane and introduced themselves to each of the guests, 8 in total. We loaded the gear into the Land Rovers and were off to the main camp on the Mnyera River.

The 20 minute drive to camp gave us a view of what I had only seen in National Geographic magazines. As the vehicles pulled up to camp the staff were singing and happy to see new faces for the week. We were also greeted with a tray of juices (mango juice) which several of us immediately added a bit of Vodka to celebrate our arrival. It was such a wonderful greeting and you could tell that it was real, not just for show.

Of course, I immediately walked over to the cliff to check out the water we’d be fishing for the next 6 days.  Well actually, 3 days on the Mnyera River and 3 on the Ruhudji River. That’s how the week is done, groups are split into 2 groups of 4. We had a pleasant lunch with the entire group and then head guide, Brent Poultney, gave us a rundown of what to expect for the week. We then split into our groups and my group decided we’d be the first to go to the Ruhudji while the others stayed at Mnyera.

We said our goodbyes to the other group members and loaded into one of the vehicles for a 2 hour drive to the camp on the Ruhudji River. This may seem like an added pain, but in reality it was exciting to drive through the grasslands and forests looking for wildlife. With my iPhone in hand and binoculars around my neck I was ready to see something amazing. We weren’t disappointed, about 30 minutes into the drive Brent pointed out a herd of Antelope running through the trees. I was amazed at how large these creatures were since the Antelope in the west are fairly small. Shortly after this we came to a flat area and saw a family of Warthogs burrowing in the mud. The piglets were just the cutest little things.

The time flew by and before I knew it we were pulling alongside the river where two boats were waiting to take us the rest of the way to camp. We jumped into the boats, met the boatmen, and were off to camp. I started asking about hippos as I’d read a lot about them prior to the trip. Brent told me to get ready as we would be passing a small pod of them soon. Fear started to set in as I’d read how destructive these humongous creatures can be. Five minutes later the boats slowed just below a deep pool. That’s when I saw a giant head emerge from the depths, water spraying in the air. I’m sure my face said everything as Brent told me, “not to worry Terry, we will watch where they are and go around them quickly.” We were the back boat so I watched as the lead boat sped along the edge passing the pod without incident. We went next, again without incident. I looked back to see a second head emerge from the water, a bit smaller, which Brent said was a female. Onward we went, shortly rounding a corner with the camp in sight.

As we approached I could see the camp team standing on the shore and I could hear them singing. Again, they were excited to see us coming and greeted us with smiling faces and cheer. Another tray of juice was awaiting us and we had reached our final destination.

There is no fishing on arrival day so Brent and Ewan Kyle, the second guide at Ruhudji, gave us a short tour of the camp and showed us where our tents were. The safari style tents are very comfortable and quite large. They then asked us to bring our gear down to the river so they could get us rigged up for the following morning. The stoke factor was setting in as we stood/sat by the river with beers while the guides strung up rods and tied on appropriate flies.

As many of you have encountered, that first night’s sleep is a tough one as your mind is racing with excitement for the coming day. This was definitely happening to me, which worked out well. I heard the craziest sounds that night, splashing in the water by the crocs, a hyena call from a far off distance, and several times rustling in the nearby bushes. This is not the place to be wandering off or far from your tent in the night.

We were awoken the following morning at 6 am, which occurred daily, to get ready for a full breakfast and departure at 8. Everyone was up right away, dressed and at the breakfast table. We filled our bellies with a wonderful breakfast, hit the head, and were boarding the boats. Mike Michalak and I jumped in the boat with Brent and were off. Brent let us know that we wouldn’t be going too far today and would be fishing around the camp. We got about 50 yards downstream and he anchored the boat and gave us a rundown on how we would be fishing for these toothy critters.

I grabbed my rod and stripped off a chunk of fly line. I’m a visual learner so I watched Mike make a few casts and retrieves before I wet my first fly. Not many casts and retrieves later I got my first hit. I was completely unprepared! I did a trout set and definitely didn’t set the hook hard enough or enough times. Tigerfish have a hard mouth like a tarpon and you have to stick them several times with hard sets to make sure your hook penetrates and sticks. My fly flew back at the boat, sending us all ducking for cover.

The next strike had better results as I had learned some things from the first. Pointing the rod at the fish I was able to strip set 3 times and the fun had begun. The fish lept from the water with a mighty head shake. My heart was racing! I didn’t expect her to jump like that as I was expecting them to dive for cover like a largemouth bass. As I fought my first fish we slowly rowed over to a shallow sandbar to take some photos. Brent netted the fish and we took her on the sandbar for some pictures. It was a great feeling to land my first ever tigerfish, and she wasn’t small, weighing in at 14 pounds. This is why we flew halfway around the world to chase these aggressive predators.

The next few days we planned to change angling partners daily and it was a lot of fun getting to fish with and get to know everyone in our group, as well as both guides and boatmen. Our last day on the Ruhudji I got to fish with John Leonard. John is known as quite a stick and the man who lands big fish. John has been to Tsimane and Rio Marie several times and has a nose for large fish in whatever water he is fishing. I knew my day would be great with him in the boat, and trust me it was amazing. This is the day that we would be transferring back to the Mynera River, so our fishing day would end at 4:30 to give us time to drive back to the main camp.

The day started out rather uneventful with only a couple of fish touched in the morning session. John and I were ready to meet up with the other 2 for lunch and take a little siesta. Michalak told me at lunch he’d tried one of the black Pole Dancers on his sinking line and gotten a couple of hits, but none of them were landed. We had been fishing Andino Deceivers so far today and I was wanting to do something different. I had Brent tie one of my Pole Dancers on after we got back in the boat. Brent shook his head at me and I knew he didn’t have confidence in this popper fly. We started the first run (floating) through a timbered section. The Pole Dancer was the perfect choice. I was able to put it right into the structures with less concern about getting hung up and the explosions on the fly were incredible. John was also getting lots of blowups on his Andino. The action was crazy! It was a 3:1 ratio on takes from the Pole Dancer to the Andino. There was so much action that Brent dragged the boat upriver to do the run again.

The fishing day ended with several large fish to hand and an epic viewing of a hippo pod with several adults and young. What a great way to end the day!

At the takeout Bob and Mike were already loaded into the vehicle and ready for the drive back to the Mynera River camp where we would join the other group of 4 for dinner, fishing stories and some cocktails. They would be departing the following morning for their 3 days on the Ruhudji.

The Mynera is much wider and deeper than the Ruhudji, so we were all excited to fish some new water. I was actually a bit intimidated as the water was so much larger, reminding me a bit of the size of our own Lower Sacramento River. We had planned to split the days the same on this river with all of us swapping angling partners each day. Michalak and I were back together for another first and it didn’t disappoint.

The morning started out rather quickly with Mike and I each bringing a tigerfish to hand. About two hours into our angling day we were slowly floating past the camp when a behemoth rose from the depths just below the boat. I thought Mike was hooked up with a true beast, only to realize that this monster rose next to the boat for no apparent reason. What a sight to see, Mike joked that he wanted to catch that one’s mom. Quick note, the females are the larger of the species and the target for trophies.

We fished the rest of the morning and then went back to camp for lunch and a siesta. Lunch is generally taken around noon and then a siesta to follow. With as many casts as you make in a day and the heavy rod weights (8 weights), sinking lines, and large flies it is imperative that you take your rests. This ensures that you are still on top of your game at the end of the week.

The remaining days ran the same as far as scheduling and on the last day on the Mnyera we went to the rapids. This is a section of the river about an hour above the camp that you can wade and swim in as there are no crocodiles or hippos in the area. It was great to get out of the boat, walk through the grasslands and do some walk and wade fishing. This gave me the opportunity to break out my floating line and poppers. On my second cast with my brown and white Pole Dancer I got my first strike. Again, I wasn’t prepared and literally never set the hook. The fish was so close to me I just stared at it in awe. Not a large fish, but just watching the strike was very interesting. Like a true predator, this fish attacked from below and behind. The fish in this section were much smaller than those we had caught in the main stem of the river, but it was a lot of fun to see them take my topwater flies.

I still hadn’t landed a fish over the 15 pound mark, so after lunch we decided to drift the upper portion of the river. Honestly, I was exhausted from a long week of casting and fighting big fish. My casts were getting shorter and my line control was failing me. I finally got one out of the boat and into the perfect spot. That was when my line jerked through my hands, ripping off my stripping fingers and launching them into the water. I had finally hooked a true monster! Greg grabbed the net as we floated and the boatman kept us out of structure with his little paddle. I knew I had a beast, she was bigger than the net. I lifted her head again, testing the strength of the Scott Sector. I finally got the fish up and on the net and slid the tail into the net. She pushed again and almost came loose. I was ecstatic, this was the biggest fish I’d seen and I knew I was well over the 15 pound mark. Greg put the Boga on the net and weighed her and told me 16.5 pounds. I reeled up my fly and told Greg it was time to go back to camp. I had achieved everything I’d set out to do and was happy with our day.  My energy had been drained and I just sat down heavily on the front of the boat. Put a fork in me, I’m done!

What a week! What an experience! This was an amazing experience that I would highly recommend to the adventure seeking angler. These fish are amazing creatures and may be the strongest hitting freshwater species in the world. The guides were excellent with positive attitudes. The camp staff was wonderful and would bend over backwards for the guests. The boatmen were very good and knew a lot about the fishery but didn’t communicate much with the guests unless spoken directly to.

What you need:

  • 2 – 8 weight fly rods
  • 2 – Saltwater fly reels (floating and intermediate or sinking lines)
  • 1 – 40 LB spool of Blue Label Fluorocarbon
  • 2 – 40 lb. Wire Bite Tippet spools
  • 24 – Black/Orange Andino Deceivers (the most popular color as the baitfish have an orange tail)
  • 12 – Natural color Andino’s (more productive than expected)
  • 10 – Pole Dancers (5 black, 5 brown)
  • 2 – Pairs of Stripping Gloves (those with leather on fingers last longer)
  • 2 – Stripping Finger sets (wore these under my gloves for extra protection)
  • Sunscreen & bug repellent (not a lot of bugs)
  • Light jacket for morning boat rides
  • Headlamp (mostly for Ruhudji camp – have solar lights at Mnyera)

    — Terry Jepsen, The Fly Shop