The legendary Tigerfish
by D Kenmuir
The Tigerfish (Hydrocynus forskalii) need no introduction with this species being the southernmost and second largest with the current angling record of 16.10kg. The largest species is the Goliath Tiger (Hydrocynus goliath) found in the Congo system.
“I have stated heretofore in print and am still ready to maintain my pronouncement, that the tigerfish of Africa is the fiercest fish that swims. Let others hold forth as advocates for the mako shark, the barracudas, the piranah of the Amazon, or the blue fish of the Atlantic. To them I say 'Pish and Tush'.” L. J. McCormick, 1949.
In this article I will be concentrating on the forskalii species which is mostly found in the Zambezi river system, Kariba Dam in Zimbabwe as well as many private dams in southern Africa. Other places to catch Tigerfish include The Gambia River in West African country, The Gambia.
Description of the Tigerfish:
The most obvious characteristic of the Tigerfish (Hydrocyus forskahlii) are the sharp very prominent teeth which are set in hard, very bony jaws. Other features are the reletavley small dorsal fin, the presence of the small adipose fin which is a flesh flap between the dorsal and tail fins (with no known function) and the tiger fishes attractive “rainbow” colouration.
Tigerfish belong to the family Characidae – Characids, which is a large and very diverse family of fish with over 1000 species occurring in Africa, South and Central America and into North America up to Mexico and South West Texas, with the well known Piranha of South America also belonging to this family. Characids have a chain of small bones linking the air bladder and their inner ear which enhances their sense of hearing and may explain why tigerfish and the related chessa and nkupe seem to be attracted to divers. Most fish in the Characidae family are predators but you also find some vegetarians as well as many omnivores.
Apart from the Hydrocyus forskahlii, there are three other species of Tigerfish that have been described, the Hydrocyus brevis a small species from North and West Africa, Hydrocyus goliath which is found only in the Congo River, it's major tributaries an lake Tanganyika and Hydrocyus tanzania occurring in Tanzania.
Distribution of the Tigerfish
For me growing up in Zimbabwe, the main places we would fish for tigerfish were Kariba dam and the Zambezi River, but where else can you find the Tigerfish (Hydrocyus forskahlii)? In Zimbabwe you can also find tigerfish in the larger tributaries of the Zambezi river, including the Manyame river as well as the Save and Rundle and the Limpopo river and its larger tributaries in the south of Zimbabwe. Elsewhere in Africa, they are found in the Nile river and the large rivers of West Africa as well as lakes Rudolf, Albert, Tanganyika, Mweru, Bangweulu and the river system in Zambia and the Congo including the Congo, Cuanza and the Okavango and south in the Pongola River. I have also traveled up the Gambia River where people fish for tigerfish.
When is a Good Time for Tiger fishing?
Though Tigerfish can be caught on bait or lure throughout the year, there appear to be two distance angling seasons. At the end of the rainy season, when tributary rivers or flood-plains release small and juvenile fishes back into the Zambezi river. This is usually in May and June when the water is still quite warm, the tigerfish appear to be in peak condition at this time.
May can be a good time to fish for Tigerfish as many water birds like cormorants, turns and gulls concentrate in areas where juvenile fish are forced back into the Zambezi due to the receding water levels on the floodplains. In these areas shoals of small Tiger patrol inshore in the shallower water with the larger tigerfish in deeper water. It seems also at this time of the year to be more common for the really large tigerfish to attack the smaller species that you have already hooked on your line! Apart from the bird indicators look for rapidly deepening water below a sandbank, look for shoals of small fish species, this is where you'll find small tigerfish and on the edge of that you can be assured this is where the heavyweights will be found!
After winter, when temperatures start rising, the second angling season starts and lasts until January.
Rod Fishing for Tigerfish
The Tigerfish (Hydrocyus forskahlii) is now officially classified as a game fish by the International Game Fish Association because of its reputation as one of the best freshwater fighters. The main methods of fishing for tigerfish are to spin or troll behind a boat using a lure, fillets of fish or a small whole bait fish like the Kapenta. Other methods include drifting with a fillet, bait fish and live bait, or another method known as 'doba-doba' where you lower and lift the bait slowly, trying different areas until the tigerfish is located. Most serious tiger fishermen will probably ground bait around or under the boat with kapenta.
After hooking a tigerfish, their initial run is strong and fast and is then often followed by a spectacular leap of up to two meters into the air where they will try to shake the hook and it is important to keep the line tight at this time. The tigerfish then often tries a series of strong deep runs, which will use up every last bit of strength that it has. After this you can usually bring this magnificent fish up to the side of the boat where it may try one or two final breaks for freedom. Most fights will last less than 10 minutes, but all will be completely exhilarating. I am a strong advocate for using relatively light fishing line of between one and four kilograms, that will give you a far greater sense of achievement when landing a tigerfish than the crane and cable fishermen out there!
Because of their sharp teeth, a steel trace is essential and you should also have a landing net. Popular whole baits include Kapenta, robbers, imberi, dwarf bream, parrotfish and bulldogs. Fillets from bream, chessa and nkupe as well as fish gills because they are bloody are also very popular.
In Shallower waters where large numbers of small tigerfish are found you can even use fly fishing as a much less common method of catching the fish and in 1971, an American Fly Fisherman, Ron Cordes, an authority on American trout fishing and contributor to an American magazine called the 'Fly Fisherman' visited Kariba with the intention of catching tigerfish using fly tackle. He succeeded and did manage to land a number of tigerfish, the largest of which weighed over 4kg.
How big do tigerfish grow?
Because female tigerfish live longer than males they grow to a much larger size. In Lake Kriba in Zimbabwe, the average maximum size is about 71cm and weigh around 7kg. The largest tigerfish ever caught in Kariba caught by J. H. Erasmus in 1962 weighed 15,507kg and measured about 80cm long. Male grow to about 55cm in length and weigh about 2,5kg. Female tigerfish live for around 7-8 years (max about 10 years) The Goliath Tigerfish of the Congo and lake Tanganyika apparently reach a weight of 45kg! Eating the Tigerfish
Tigerfish produce meaty but bony and slightly oily fillets, which does limit the ways in which you can enjoy the meat but for me there are not many finer meats, than the pickled white flesh of the tigerfish. Because the tigerfish is chunkier than many other common freshwater fish in Africa like the bream for example you can also use the cutlets as well as the fillets. One of the preferred methods to cook tigerfish is to finely mince the meat to create very tasty fish cakes. You can also pickle the fillets and cutlets. With smaller tigerfish (up to 1kg) you can fry them whole if you make a series of close together slits at right angles to the backbone all along the flank, cutting through the small bones. The fry them in very hot oil which will crisp the flesh. After this, split the fish open, sprinkle with salt and then smoke over a slow fire. You can then flake pieces of meat off making a very good snack during sundowners. Another method to cook tigerfish is to lightly boil the cutlets in water, then place in a baking tray with little oil and tomatoes, onions and seasoning and bake. The flesh will then easily fall away from the bones in flakes.
Are Tigerfish dangerous to Humans?
Not really, but there is a report of a well-known spear fisherman in Kariba once had to have 16 stitches after a wounded tigerfish gashed his side.
Houseboat Safaris on Kariba Dam Zimbabwe
You don't have to be a serious fisherman to enjoy a holiday safari on a houseboat on Kariba Dam. Whilst the fishing, especially for Tigerfish (Hydrocynus forskalii) and the many species of Bream (family CICHLIDAE) can be excellent, there are also many other reasons to enjoy a houseboat safari.
The game viewing can also be very rewarding and you will see large numbers of Elephants, buffalo, waterbuch and impala on the shoreline as well as Crocodiles and Hippos (sometimes at very close range) in the water.
On top of this it is an excellent place for bird watching with common sightings of African Fish Eagles (Haliaeetus vocifer), Many species of Kingfisher, Egyptian geese and many other species of water and land birds.
References and Selected Reading
From the Safari-Guide
Kenmuir D. 1983. Fishes of Kariba. ISBN: 0 908310 38 2 Wilderness Publications, Zimbabwe. Kenmuir D. 1978. A Widerness Called Kariba. ISBN: 0 7974 0379 5 Wilderness Publications, Zimbabwe.