Fly fishing travel has become my newest passion within the industry. It sounds cliche but simply learning to fly fish and having the means to propel yourself where a fly rod could lead you is endless. My imagination begins to live an alternate life as I picture myself in every possible situation from chest deep in jungle waters landing a golden dorado to praying a school of 80lb plus GT’s don’t take me out at the knees as they scream across a tropical flat in the Indian Ocean. On occasion the ultimate dry fly presentation to a trout sneaks its way in and then the culture of these surrounding trips takes me off on a tangent, sealing the deal. I must do, see, flat out experience more!
One of the latest on this was a dream trip to the east coast of Africa in pursuit of a species that has been atop my must do list for over a decade. Fortunately I have spent the past 20 years in this sport creating new, legit friendships through this machine we call social media. On a short notice whim, Keith Clover of Tourette Fishing in Africa sent out an invitation I couldn’t pass up…come see the holy grail of tigerfish as our friend and guest. Well, allow me just a second or two to think this over meaning let me make sure I have nothing going on around it. Nope, nada, calendar is clear or has just been cleared, looks like I am Africa bound!
While this is a fly fishing trip as nearly all my travels are anymore, I feel it is essential to include some degree of cultural immersion into these trips. I simply can’t imagine not meeting the people, seeing how they live, eating their food, learning just a small tidbit of their language and hearing their history. It is one thing to read this in a book or watch on television but to live it first hand, nothing will shape you more than this. At the end of nearly every fishing trip I have ever been on, the most quickly told and rarely revisited stories are of the fish caught but rather the thrills of getting there, close calls in land, air and water based vehicles or close encounters with wildlife or other unexpected interactions. THIS is why it is called adventure travel!
Catch a plane from Seattle straight to Amsterdam where I spend a night near the Van Gogh Museum which also happens to be the Vogue Night Out on the same block as my hotel. So 6ft tall female models are everywhere, each boutique is serving up free drinks with a live D.J. and basically I could go home now consider this trip a success but no, I grab a space at the bar next to a fashion icon, share a few laughs, pay up and head onto the packed street with camera in hand to see where the evenings activities will take me. I return to the hotel about 5am, catch an hour of sleep then up and back to the airport for my 8 hour flight to Dar Salaam and feeling pretty good about it.
I arrive in Dar late, enough time to meet my driver and head to the hotel, check in and hit the bed but had to sample a few African beers first. Rising early I catch my first glimpse of the Indian Ocean in daylight and while I know other dream destinations lie amid those waters, I am here for another, one of freshwater sorts and fish bearing wicked sets of teeth!
Off to catch the small charter flight to fish camp and meet the rest of the anglers joining me for the week. One of my favorite aspects in traveling to far off locations is the methods of travel used to get there. Camels, horses, ox carts, rickshaws, helicopters, boats held together by duct tape and in this case a comfortable 4 seat Cessna. As we fly for hours, the landscape is splattered with small fires, a few large rivers and small settlements I suppose are reached by some sort of road though some don’t seem to have one coming in or leaving, makes me wonder what those people do, how fun it would be to meet them.
To my surprise I am sharing the week with a gentleman named Hakan from Sweden, gem of a guy who has fished all over the world as well. I tell Hakan I am keen to catch a few tigers but I really want to photograph the trip so he should be prepared to fish a lot. Hakan insists I fish as much as he so we can already see where this is going…Greg Ghaui our guide will have to referee this match the entire week. The plane begins to drop in altitude and off in the distance is a strip of land resembling something I have landed on before…yep, that is our airstrip. A couple of well outfitted Land Rovers driven by game guides and trackers from the camp, we have arrived at the Rujudji Camp!
A welcome song from the staff is always a hearth warming way to arrive at any lodge or camp. Greetings and a drink, unload bags and check into our very comfortable accommodations for the first half of the week. WAY nicer than I had ever expected, going to be living quite comfortably here especially with only a couple of us in camp.
Hakan and I begin the diagnostic of piecing together equipment for the fishing aspect of the trip. Personally I try not to over think or over pack for these trips. I find it far too easy to bring the kitchen sink and everything surrounding it only to realize a fork and spatula would have sufficed. It is big flies tied to 40lb wire for these fish and knowing they reach upwards of 25lbs I choose my new Winston B3+ 10wt. Nothing like tossing a 10wt around as if on the Madison during a caddis hatch, am sure my arm will hold up fine!
We hop in the boat with Greg for the afternoon, Hakan and I are chomping at the bit for our first encounter with a tigerfish and thankfully we are introduced shortly after our first stop. Nice work Greg and Hakan, shutters fly, beers are cracked and we can all now relax…the ice has been broken!
So enough about the fishing, let’s get to the more exciting part of what it is like to fly fish knowing around every corner there could be a lion, elephant, crocodile or hippo. It makes focusing very difficult at times. Greg knew pretty well where the hippo’s would be as we came through the various parts of the river. Typically they would be visible from down stream as they were curious as to what we were doing. Heads up and snorting as we fished our way their direction we would reel in our flies and sit in the bottom of the boat then motor as fast as possible through their section of the river. The two dangers here are one of them coming up for air under our boat as we motor over them and the other is ending up in the water with them if they did. Forget the croc’s, pretty sure I could take one of those hippo is another story.
Greg was always on the look out for them as we motored along just in case as we did on occasion see them in different locations at times. At first crocodile’s were an exciting thing to see but then you see so many of them in a single day, especially being the only boat on the water that they become a bit like seeing sea gull’s on a river around here. They would every now and then launch themselves off a high bank opposite of where you were looking and it would startle you for sure till you realized, oh just another croc.
Between the engagements with wildlife the fly fishing was a blast. As one might expect these Tigerfish are top predators in their home waters and act as such. Nearly every one of the attributes one would want from any fish are present. Aggressive takes, spectacular jumps and then a toothy smile upon landing them. We didn’t have clear water and I am not sure it would ever be clear enough to sight cast for them here but it might be possible. I tried fishing for a spell with a surface fly but after watching Hakan catch fish after fish after fish, I threw in the towel and went with one of my heavy tuna flies on a floating line which worked exceptionally well. Had I had the energy to do so, probably should have gone back to the surface fly in the late evening as they were, like many other species of fish, extremely active in low light especially in a couple of places where the water was moving quickly and was fairly shallow. Hind sight sucks!
Just as we become quite comfortable at the first camp, it is time to pack up and head across the game reserve to a more remote camp for the rest of the trip. We hop back in the Toyota’s for our “ferry” ride across the river. I want one of these vehicles so bad, would look like such a bad ass driving around Seattle in one of these! Our ferry is a thoughtfully woven together mix of empty oil barrels, wood planks and thick branches run across the river by a small boat while on a cable strung across the river…o.k., I assume we aren’t the first and when in Rome or the African bush.
When you come to Africa, you just inherently expect or hope to see the standard wildlife associated with this continent. Lions, giraffes, elephants, hippo, crocodile, cheetah, water buffalo and so on. In some parts of the continent these animals are protected and are very easily visible, maybe too much so according to Greg and others, they become so accustomed to people and cars they are almost like pets. Here on this game quadrant they are a little afraid of humans as they are capable of being hunted so glimpses of them are at times quite rare. Hakan and I are hopeful but not holding our breath as we realize the size of the game reserve and our very small presence in it.
As luck would have it, we come over a small rise and BOOM, on the road is a herd of elephants! Driver shuts down the engine and stops, rolling silently forward to get a bit closer. The herd stops and the big males and females get trunks in the air in an effort to catch our scent. I hope out of the car camera in hand and snap off a few quick shots before they are off and running. We get about 5 good minutes of just watching them stand and then disappear into the dusty horizon. So brilliant, Hakan and I pretty much agree that made the trip right there.
We arrive at our new camp which has literally been carved out of the bush. Rather than plus cabins we are staying in bush tents which here again, want to bring one of these home for myself and plop it on a piece of property somewhere, I could live in one of these no problem. Comfortable bed, separate room for the bathroom and shower and a view of the river…I would just have to become single again, not sure my wife would completely go for it but am positive my daughter would.
Going down my shot list for the trip, I let Greg know that Keith had promised me monkey’s in trees, some exotic birds, a lion and some water buffalo with maybe some orangutans thrown in. Just a friendly reminder! Birds are everywhere, of all shapes and sizes. Eagle, King Fisher, Stork, Heron and so on, any birder would have a great time tracking the wide variety of species we see daily. My daughter being quite fond of them, I am trying to capture what I can and again luck is one my side. As we come around a corner early in the AM we come across a giant stork just lifting off…so awesome.
Greg casually keeps track of everything I have mentioned I would like to see or experience on the trip, basically everything I want to capture images of and as we have moved through the week he has brilliantly given a heads up with as much notice as possible to what might be coming around the next bend. “We often see monkey’s down this way.” he says, might want to keep an eye out for them. Sure enough, several trees begin thrashing as if a giant was trying to shake the leaves off it. The boat slows and several trees full of inquisitive monkey’s begin playing and chasing each other around. One or two of them come out to the end of the branches and fake charge us, making us laugh out loud, they are so cute these curious little guys. We drop about 20 minutes just watching them go from tree to tree, time well spent.
Saving the best for last we spend our last day as far up river as the boat can go. As we approach shore I ask Greg if it makes sense that as humans being well down the food chain and only armed with a single machete to get out on land and walk up river. He seems to be alright with it and he is the guide so here we go. As they move into the dry season, locals burn the grass to help facilitate fresh grass growth so as we hike, the bush is on fire around us. At first quite unnerving but as we walk among the small flames it is obvious the grass burns fast and then the flames are gone.
Beyond here we take to foot and hike up stream to one of the most beautiful places I have ever cast a fly. Water is coming off the side of a mountain from every direction. Even as a photographer, it is nearly impossible to capture this place from ground level and do any justice to it. It is simply incredible with waterfalls and parts of the river flowing through the trees, I could spend way more time here than we we have unfortunately. It is rare that I care too much about myself being in a photo but in this case, I ask Greg to snap a few with my camera because I am blown away!
Hakan has put in a request of his own with Greg, nothing like waiting until the last moment. “I would like to see a 20 pound Tigerfish if possible.” Greg takes this in stride and continues to guide us through the myriad of small pools and runs in this stretch of the river. You know, we only have a few hours of fishing left, anything can happen. Sometimes you just have to not care, take what comes and move through time and experience accepting the fate of events mostly out of anyone’s control. By doing so I believe you almost invite serendipitous interactions with those things you hope for. Hakan gets a Tiger nearing 20 pounds and is ecstatic, the ride home is one of Kilimanjaro beers and quiet observance of what has been our home and our new roommates for the past week. Croc roll off the sandy banks, a wild boar eats some grass, some monkeys chase around the trees and a group of hippo provide us with one last good bye snort.
My last request is a clear night to shoot our dinner on the beach. As the clouds roll in and we hear thunder in the distance, I am not holding out much hope. This trip has been nothing short of amazing. Exceeded expectations in every respect. Greg and Hakan are now friends I hope to see again either in Africa or somewhere else on the planet. I have witnessed enough to come back home and be an ambassador to this region and these fish. Grateful for time spent with great people in an amazing location.
Dinner turns out to be under the stars, on the beach with just myself, Greg and Hakan, the 3 amigos. We share a bottle of whiskey Hakan had saved for just this occasion and revisit the week. Perfect ending to this adventure. Tomorrow we climb on the Land Cruiser enroute to the ferry back to base camp. Not 500 feet before the ferry it all comes together. Off in the distance you can see the herd of elephants, in the foreground is Hakan’s last request, the herd of water buffalo and with the engine off, we could hear a lion yawning out a roar. One last evening with the staff then on a small plane to catch a couple bigger ones to our respective homes. I awake about 6am to the sound of elephants and the lion across the river knowing he has the herd of water buffalo in his sights, the same herd we came across on our way to the ferry yesterday.