Nile Perch have always held a deep rooted fascination for me, these prehistoric looking fish have been around for eons, portrayed in Egyptian hieroglyphics along with crocodiles and falcons, all highly respected figures in ancient Egyptian life. These well distributed fish occur along the length of the Nile River and subsequently the Great Lakes system. A super predator, taken at depth on huge trolled lures, capable of reaching over 200 pounds in weight.
Well, anything that eats anything else living can be caught on fly and it’s been something I’ve wanted to do as long as I can remember. After a lot of research on the internet and talking to my well travelled clients, I began to formulate my strategy. Lake Victoria, Tanganika and Turkana are logistical nightmares to reach. Not that distance ever came between me and the challenge of a respectable fish on the fly, it’s just that there is no reliable information on the state of these fisheries. Rumours of the devastation of extensive commercial fishing is rife – so that was out. The river itself was an option, river fish are always more challenging but ultimately their habitat limits their attainable size and the turbid nature of the Nile certainly eliminates the possibility of sight fishing. That left lake Nasser in Egypt, Africa’s largest man made lake. This rich body of water was created when a dam and hydroelectric plant were built in Aswan in the 1960′s, flooding 6200 square kms of the Nile valley.
The original fish inhabitants of the river thrived in their new stillwater environment most especially the tigerfish, tilapia, large catfish and the Nile Perch. Being a large stillwater impoundment means the Nile drops much of its sediment load and clarity, although not gin clear, is a good 10 ft or so of green tinged depths – and the perch get big, very, very big. The modus operandi on the lake is slow trolled deep diving Rapalas and rubber baits kept at about 30ft depending upon the time for year. Now, while I am not one to look down upon cruising around in a boat with lures out the back and a healthy cooler box in attendance, this was not the way I wanted to get my perch. In the spring, Nile Tilapia, which attain impressive weights of over 10 pounds, enter the shallows to spawn, and guess who follows them up from the depths? For the past few years May, June and July has seen me guiding in Russia, so things had to be put on hold – until now. I was fortunate to be offered two places on a dedicated exploratory 10 day flyfishing safari with well known American author and angler Jeff Courier who has caught Nile perch before on fly.
My self and good fishing friend, Craig Smith were about to embark on the biggest piscatorial learning curve of our lives. The safari was with renowned operator The African Angler, run by Tim Baily, by far the longest standing and best known operator on the lake. Tim was born in Kenya and bases his fishing trips on the colonial safaris of days gone by. A fleet of 3 or 4 fishing boats are based around a larger mothership, where meals are prepared and taken and showers and toilet facilities are available. This enables anglers to cover vast tracts of water, meeting up at lunch time and evening times for meals, ice cold Egyptian Stella and chance to swap stories of encounters with some of the planets largest freshwater fish.
The fishing boats are solid 24 footers with reliable Yamaha 55 HP engines, of very unique design. They have shaded cabins that allow a permanent breeze, in which there are two berths complete with comfortable mattresses and bedding. Ample storage space allows you to sleep out in the open, while having all your gear on hand while you’re on the move and fishing. It’s a novel set up that I thoroughly enjoyed – never a case of “damn – I left my sun block/stripping glove/spare spool back at the lodge/mothership” it all comes with you!
We did most of our fishing from the shore, but if it wasn’t too windy and one could set up a good drift parallel with the shore, the boat came in handy when using very fast sinking lines. Nile perch are both aggressive and inquisitive ambush predators. Their eyes are situated on the top of their head and not unlike crocs and lions, have the same translucent orangish glow characteristic of all predators that hunt efficiently in low light.
The sandstone ridges and hills that have been flooded by the dam produce impressive overhangs, drop offs and boulder piles, and it is in these that the perch lay in wait for unsuspecting tilapia . By far the most effective way of catching these fish was for the two anglers and the guide to work as a team, clambering over the cliffs, spotting cruising fish and pointing out likely looking submerged ledges. This involved a lot of what became known as ‘mountain goating’ – scrambling over treacherous rocky terrain and sliding down hot sand dunes.
Another two methods I was keen to try out both worked extremely well. One was ‘dredging’ very much the norm for offshore fishing Mozambique and the Seychelles. Here depth finders are used to identify underwater structure and submerged islands, drifts are set up with fast sinking lines, heavy mega clousers are thrown ‘up drift’ then stripped back as they reach the required depth. I was given some new prototype 500 and 750 grain mono core lines by Gareth Jones, owner of Airflo lines in the UK. They were so sensitive you could feel the fly pulsate in between strips and when the fish hit, I would nearly have a heart attack as the solid take went through me like an electric shock. This technique was fairly successful but its appeal limited as it was just chucking, counting down and stripping back with very little visual stimulation. If one hung up by not correctly calculating the amount of line needed, the boat would have to be restarted and manoeuvred around the target area to free the line. I often felt that overuse of the boat, although convenient, put the fish down – bearing in mind, apart from crocodiles the perch are the top of the food chain and only really have humans to fear, especially with a permanent population of between 4 and 6000 local Bedouin fisherman around the lake. My other successful saltwater adaptation that worked very well was ‘teasing’. Throwing hookless, diving Rapalas and carefully working them up from the drop offs or across the entrances of underwater caves. Teasing for Nile perch was effective, but had to be well thought out. The best looking ledges and overhangs were first covered with a fly, and then as we walked on, one person would make short casts with the teaser while the ‘rod man’ watched from slightly higher ground. The minute a fish was seen the trick was to make the ‘switch’ as quickly as possible. If the fish got to mouth the lure it would be put down and ruin any chance of it eating the fly. The lures I used for teasing were the standard floating lipped Rapalas recommended by the African Angler to their conventional anglers. I purchased a handful of these and then left them with talented flytyer David Butler, owner of Cutting Edge Flies in Johannesburg. David produced exquisitely accurate replications of the lure’s profile, size and colour.
The local Nubian guides (the local Arabic people that had to move away when the dam flooded the surrounds but whom Tim Baily brought back to the area and trained as guides) were sceptical to say the least. They thought two South Africans marching the shores and throwing lures with the hooks removed had to be about the funniest thing they had ever seen. This however changed once a number of 6 – 12 pound fish had been taken teasing.
On day three, we moved an obscenely large fish on the ‘fire tiger’ Rapala. I positioned Craig so that his 5/0 Cutting Edge green and black Tilapia would cover the same water. The fish ate in spectacular fashion right at our feet and was on for a good couple of seconds, jumping three times only to come ‘unbuttoned’. Not long afterwards the very same thing happened to me. Our veteran guide Rumadan, whose weight estimations we would frequently test against the Boga grip, put both fish at over 60 pounds! Lets just say from that moment Rumadan was the biggest convertee to teasing, each time we put to shore he would anchor the boat and then eagerly grab the teasing rod galloping off into the distance. Although enthusiastic, his teasing left a lot to be desired, often casting my costly Rapalas high into the rocks, smashing their plastic lips. He was sometimes too slow to whip the lure away from the fish and one afternoon a 60 pound plus fish ate the lure and broke off the 45 pound shock tippet, disappearing into the depths with a pending case of indigestion!
On the subject of teasing I must state we only teased periodically, when fishing was slow or fish couldn’t be seen and blind casting a 12 wt with a fly the size of a Hadeda Ibis would be a no brainer. Teasing inshore predatory fish is controversial and on an ongoing basis has a detrimental affect on a fishery. Fully grown predatory fish are at the top of their food chain for a reason, they are well evolved and clever. Constant teasing them in from great distances then feeding them a mouthful of 5/0 steel results in a definitive learning curve to say the least! On Alphonse Island in the Seychelles, it was common practice, but numbers of large fly caught GTs landed began to decline. Vaughn Driesel, long standing and well respected manager of the fishery curtailed teasing 2 or 3 seasons back and now cruising GTs are less ‘gun shy’ and fly caught trophy fish have increased every season, especially the last two seasons my wife and I have been privileged enough to be involved in the magnificent fishery.
Flyfishing for Nile perch was sometimes a double edged sword; some of the most challenging and frustrating fishing, yet two minutes later the most exhilarating I’ve ever experienced. Cruising fish are often 4 or 5 ft below the surface. To intercept them you have to make a quick and well presented cast and get the fly down fast – finesse is never easy with a 12 wt, fast sinking line and heavy fly. Mostly fish would eat readily, sometimes they would just flare their gills and reject the fly. Once hooked there was no guarantee of the fish coming to hand, an impressive series of jumps often saw the fly thrown. If the fish could not be controlled quickly they would rush into an obstruction. Craig’s fish of 22 pounds dived and wrapped itself in a drowned tree. With night fall approaching, Craig not wanting to lose his fish and me even more not wanting to lose my new Airflo line, I donned mask and flippers, put the Boga grip leash around my wrist and went overboard to settle the score.
My lasting memory of the trip was trying to keep up with Rumadan high up on a sandstone cliff one morning, in an instance he froze, pointing far below. Something nosed into the rocks in the shallows below, its back and tail exposed not unlike a bonefish tailing on a finger flat. As I watched, my brain began to register the proportions, my brain clocked in ‘large crocodile’ but I was looking at a fish. “150 pounder” Rumadan stated with quiet authority.I’ve seen big fish, 100 pound GTs cruising the flats, but this was freshwater – a lake for goodness sake! Before my brain short-circuited anymore, instinct kicked in. Crouching low, sprinting ahead dropping down the whole time, jumping from one precarious rock to the other I started to get ahead of the fish. He was now cruising parallel to the bank, 20 feet out, maybe 6 feet below the surface. I eventually clambered down to water level well in front of him, the memory blurs, I never made the cast and he never saw me, he just gave one push of his slatey grey, paddle like tail, the size of a coffee table and slipped into the depths out of sight. I turned and looked up to Rumadan in desperation to see if he could give me a fix on the fish, he just shrugged his shoulders and put his head into his hands.
Guided trips 2012
For readers who’d like a fix of Nile Perch, I’ll be hosting a series of dedicated 10 day safaris on Lake Nasser. Through late April and mid May of 2012, you will have the opportunity to hook some of the largest freshwater fish on the planet. Remember however, it is some of the most extreme fishing imaginable with dry desert temperatures of 40 °C plus, where conditions make fishing the flats of the Seychelles seem air-conditioned. The terrain is steep sandstone outcrops with loose, sharp rocks. You are casting 10 -12wt rods all day, needing to move often and cover lots of water. To embark on this hunt for Nile Perch you should consider yourself fit, mobile and a very competent angler. And remember these are not exploratory trips, the research has been done!