Tigerfish in Southern Africa

By Scotty Kyle

The best known and most targeted freshwater game fish in Africa is undoubtedly the African tigerfish Hydrocynus vittatus. This charismatic fish is well known for immediately leaping out of the water on being hooked and then repeatedly jumping to try and dislodge, often successfully, any hook in its mouth. Its mouth displays a mass of sharp pointed teeth and there is very little soft flesh around it. Africa has many splendid freshwater fish, like the Nile perch of the north, the nembwe of the middle and largemouth yellowfish in the south but most experienced sport anglers would agree that the African tigerfish is in a class by itself.

tigerfish head with teeth
The teeth of the African tigerfish are a fearsome weapon and a danger to fingers.

About tiger fish

There is only one species of truetiger fish in Africa and it is to be found from the Nile in the north to the Pongola River in the south. The only similar species is the goliath tiger, Hydrocynus goliath, a monster that can grow to about 50 kilograms, which is found in the Congo River Basin as well as Lake Tanganyika. The common tigerfish is smaller, but can still attain respectable masses of around 15 kilograms in Zimbabwe, and the current angling record in South Africa is about 6 kilograms. 

Tigerfish are warm water breeders, and spawning is usually associated with summer flooding. On some rivers dam development has interrupted the natural flooding regime and thus their spawning. Eggs are laid in vegetation and the young usually remain in weeds or around cover to avoid predation from birds, crocodiles and other fish including their own species. No parental care has been reported and introducing a small tiger fish to a populated domestic aquarium or small pond usually ends up with a single large tiger fish. 

Young fish eat voraciously, anything from insects to fish and tadpoles, and males grow rapidly reaching a spawning length of 200-300 mm fork length in about three years. Females grow larger and start spawning at about 400 mm and great numbers of eggs may be produced. The main prey of this species are other fish and specimens of up to 40% of the length of the predator can be caught and consumed. Few fish anywhere in the world can compare with the rapacious appetite and aggressive feeding of the African tigerfish. There are confirmed records of them following flying swallows and then leaping out of the water into the air and successfully catching them. 

An angler with a tiger fish
A good specimen of the African tigerfish from the Pongolo River in South Africa.

This species requires well oxygenated waters and, in some rivers and dams where tigerfish used to be plentiful, it is now dwindling in numbers due to pollution and increased nutrient loads resulting in depressed oxygen levels. Other recent growing challenges are improved and increased fishing by local populations for food or commercial sale. Rod and line fishing is rarely able to markedly reduce fish stocks but monofilament gillnets, especially those carefully placed to target spawning aggregations, can become a serious threat and reduce breeding stocks substantially. 

Competition has arisen in some places, such as Jozini Dam in South Africa, where an illegal gillnet fishery catches large numbers of sizeable fish which negatively impacts the local sport fishing industry. Heavy predation and capture rates have led to declining maximum size in some areas but there are still many locations that regularly produce trophy tigerfish. Local knowledge is, as usual, vital in choosing the best places to locate, entice and land good specimens of this species. 

Fortunately the internet now provides fairly easy access to information on fishing for African tigerfish and sites like BairYourHook.com can be excellent starting points. Fishing lodges with rates/packages/deals to fit most budgets have sprung up along many of the rivers and dams in southern Africa where the species may be found. Lodge or resort operators will be able to assist with specialist requirements either for the angler or the type of fish to be targeted.

Where and when to catch tiger fish

Tiger fishing has developed rapidly in the last few years and there are now many good guides and destinations which are fairly readily accessible. In southern Africa the fish is found in Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia and north-eastern South Africa. The best known destinations in southern Africa are around the Zambezi and Limpopo Rivers and the Okavango Delta in Botswana. There are, however, excellent alternatives on other rivers where good fishing may be obtained.  

A flyfisherman with a tiger fish
A nice African tigerfish caught on fly in South Africa

African tigerfish are basically a summer sport species. In the winter the fish probably eats less and spends a lot of time in the deeper water and away from the shores. While it’s best to target them in the warmer months, anglers who come in the winter can also achieve some success during a warm spell, although more finesse and time may be required. In warm weather in summer the fish usually feed readily and often and the best success can be achieved around the margins of dams, pans or lakes or in the shallows of large rivers. 

As with many species, in summer the best fishing is usually not during the heat of the day but in the mornings and afternoons. Similarly, as a general rule, fishing is better in early and late summer when the fish feed well to replace lost winter conditions or to prepare for the cooler months. Tigerfish can be caught during most of the year but the best methods change rapidly throughout the year, and only the knowledge of a local guide can assist you with optimising your chances of catching a good fish.   

a young angler with a tiger fish
A young tiger caught on fly by a young angler

Due to the rapid rate of human population growth and development in Africa many wild populations of this species are under increasingly heavy pressure and finding pristine populations is not easy or within the range of many people. In southern Africa, however, there are now places where fisheries are, to a greater or lesser degree, managed and many fishing lodges and resorts are sited to facilitate game fishing for tigerfish.

Home grown knowledge is extremely important and obtaining a local or specialist guide will usually markedly increase your chances of catching a fish, especially a trophy fish. Anyone of any age can, however, catch a tigerfish and great pleasure can be had in the capture of smaller specimens of this species and, as time goes on, larger fish can be targeted.

How to catch tigerfish

Tigerfish are the top fish predators wherever they are found, and their greatest competition is usually other members of their own species. They can be caught on almost any artificial lure as well as most live and dead bites. As a rule, natural baits are more productive in winter, while the fish is more willing to take lures in the warmer months. Bait fishing is, however, probably the most productive overall and almost any style can be used. Fish fillets cast out into deep water or trolled rapidly across the surface can be very successful while suitable live baits are often very effective where and when conditions are right. 

Fly fishing can elicit many strikes but actually hooking, never mind landing, a sizable tigerfish is not easy on light tackle, especially a fly rod. It is often best to keep the rod straight when retrieving so that when a tigerfish strikes it immediately pulls against your hand and not a flexible rod. 

When using artificial lures, the angler must remain constantly alert and ready for the strike. Setting a hook in a tigerfish’s mouth is never easy, as this species rarely sets the hook itself.  Then the fish often explodes into the air where it vigorously shakes its head trying to lose the fly or lure.

An angler with a tiger fish
An African tigerfish caught on light tackle “dropshot” in South Africa

This species’ teeth are extremely sharp and, if a hook is swallowed, can easily cut through even strong nylon. Some people use very strong traces or wire leaders, but those have their drawbacks. The African tigerfish has huge eyes and excellent eyesight and may spot such materials. 

Fishing means many things to many people but, while some forms are basically relaxing and fairly passive, targeting the African tigerfish is not for the faint hearted. Between hooking a tigerfish and landing it there is no time at all for anything other than focussing entirely on keeping the hook in the mouth and bringing the fish to the bank. 

Although the flesh of the African tigerfish is very palatable, the fish is bony and it is usually best to simply catch and release your fish as rapidly and carefully as possible. When such a fish has given its all for your pleasure it seems only right to let it go back into the wild. 

No one has fully explored the diversity of world fishing experiences until he, or she, has landed an African tigerfish. The challenge awaits!


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