Niloticus--a learning curve.
Of late, opportunity has knocked on the door and I've had the chance to spend time honing my skill. By any means this article is not intended to be the bible of Oreochromis niloticus (also known as nillies) angling but what will follow are a few observations I've noted, and implemented, which have increased my success ten fold.
Before we can dream of catching nilos there are a few factors we need to take into consideration. Primarily, the fish must be in the zone you are fishing, and like any species, there are some times which are better than others. It's no good arriving at your chosen fishing spot, prepared with bait and tackle, and simply dropping a line. Sure you may be lucky enough to catch a few decent fish but the chances are you'll return home sunburnt and empty handed, or like many aspiring anglers I know, a dozen beers under the belt and a nagging reluctance to return the following morning, week or month.
The obvious angling destination for nilos is Kariba, with a few notable locations in particular, though the species are prevalent throughout the lake. I'll wager that most dams in Zimbabwe have been plagued by nilos and though the jury is still out on how good they are for our waters' ecology, there is no doubt that the introduction of Niloticus, intentional or not, has created an entire new realm of exciting angling opportunities. They're not too bad in the pan either but more of that will follow.
Wherever you choose to fish for nilos the best times are between November and May; any particular month dependent on what extremes of summer heat you're willing to subject yourself to. For comfort, the cooler months of April and May are the most productive, enabling the angler to spend more hours on the water.
From what we can glean, niloticus seem to spawn several times a year and their reproductive capability begins from a very young age. The main spawn is thought to be during August and September when many anglers catch these fish off their nests in shallow water, though the ethics of this method are questionable. The view of some Ichthyologists is that as nilos are an introduced species they must be caught and killed--'hook and cook' as opposed to 'catch and release'. This is a two edged sword as it is also thought that due to their rapid breeding cycle and growth the more fish taken out of the water, the more they will reproduce; perhaps harvesting them only succeeds in increasing their abundance. I believe this comes down to personal ethics as we don't know enough about the fish species yet to set rules in stone.
The key ingredient increasing your catch rate is baiting. For best results your chosen fishing spot should be baited for a period of three to four days before fishing it. This can be difficult considering the logistical improbability of being in two places at once, unless you can get someone else to bait your area prior to arrival. A good practice at Kariba, when utilising a houseboat as a fishing base, is to bait your desired fishing spot on the first leg of your journey, returning to it after you have gained your fill of fishing, food, drink and sightseeing elsewhere on the lake.
Game blocks are the only blocks to be used when baiting. Evidence exists that certain ingredients in cattle blocks are toxic to fish. I have tried to research this notion but as yet have found no refutable evidence (if any reader could add to this please contact the magazine). Blocks can be dropped whole, halved or quartered near structure, the base of trees being preferred, in 14-22ft of water. From experience, and having interviewed several other anglers, the general rule seems to be 'the shallower the water the smaller the fish', though at any depth your catch is sure to include various sizes. There is a theory that eel grass, the preferred habitat for smaller bream, does not grow beyond a depth of 18ft and therefore your chances of bigger fish increase beyond that.
Anglers have tried various methods to release bait, or 'chum' as it's called, at a desired depth. The easiest method is to contain your game block in a hessian or jute sack, strategically punctured with small one inch holes, lowered on a rope and tied to the waterline of a tree. This serves also to mark your chosen spot. Be sure to select a notable colour of rope, or mark the spot in another way, as these days every single tree in a niloticus fishing location is sure to bare the marking remnants of a prior fishing 'hotspot'.
The bagged block ensures a slow release of chum and protects the contents from being devoured by 'pest' species such as squeaker, silver barbel and catfish. Its other purpose is to ensure that your target species does not over indulge and therefore lose its appetite by the time you drop a line. Personally, I believe nilos are too prolific and will always be around no matter how much you feed them.
On one particular occasion we had the misfortune to lose an entire bagged block to what only could have been a hippo. On arriving at our fishing spot one morning we were greeted by the raggedy remains of rope and jute sack floating nearby on the surface.
This is a topic of much debate and has evolved since the first years when nilos appeared in the lake. In those days the preferred method of fishing for them was with a running float rig. The weight of the float aided casting, compensating for the bait used, which was one fish pellet, secured to a No.8 hook with a thin band of valve tubing. Much has changed since then and these days fishing for nilos has adopted an approach similar to European course fishing, using large bodies as bait, the ingredients of which are conjured from the most fertile of imaginations.
The simplest rig for nilos is a plain dropper rig, either with or without a swivel, the 1/4 ounce sinker hanging a foot lower than the bait (A). Treble hooks, sized No.6 or 8, are preferred, simply for holding the bait which is usually a stiff paste concoction. Even for the largest of this bream species, 12-151b monofilament or fluorocarbon will suffice as a leader, though you're sure to be in for a worthy tussle when you land specimens of three kilos and above.
Another rig, one which I prefer, is weightless, similar to the dropper rig but instead having a second hook where the sinker should be (B). When using light braid (10-151b), hugely 'bite telegraphic' when compared to monofilament and fluorocarbon, this rig out-performs any other. Nilos tend to suck a bait, so rarely are the indications of a bite the same as fishing for other species. Most similar, for those who have fished for them, are carp which tend to nurture a bait before slowly moving off with it.
I've found a further advancement to this second rig by dropping the second hook all together and tying a No.8 treble directly to my leader, which is usually a rod length or two of 151b fluorocarbon attached to my 101b braid main line (C). In this way the bait acts as the sinker which is allowed to sink to the bottom before taking up the slack of the main line. With braid, even though the bait may weigh mere grams when water suspended, if a finger is kept on the line when the bail is closed, the slightest movement of the bait can be detected. Similarly, once the bait has been removed from, or dissolved off the hook you have a slack line and immediately know it's time to bait up again.
This is another topic of debate with various experts having their own preferred recipes. Personally I find many recipes work and each is just as good as the next, so long as they contain the main ingredient of fish pellets. On my last outing to Kariba I applied an experiment with baits, mixing three different recipes to be used intermittently. I can honestly say that no particular recipe outperformed the other and whilst the bite was 'hot' it didn't matter which bait I decided to use.
I find using the simplest rig most advantageous to hooking more fish, that being the last rig as described earlier. Utilising a single No.8 treble hook tied to the end of your main line, or leader, leaves no encumbrance of additional weight in the form of a sinker or second hook laden with bait. Therefore anything you feel on the line, even the slightest shift in weight, can only be a fish and this will usually be detected with no more than a steady pressure taking up the slack line between the pitch and bob of the boat. Calm days do make fishing easier but this is likely to be during the hottest periods of the year. Bait size can vary from the size of a large grape to golf ball size. I prefer the smaller size with the prongs of the treble hook buried just below the surface of the ball. Those who use larger baits do so in order to keep the bait on the hook longer as it does have a tendency to dissolve in the water. When the fish are biting believe me your bait will not be in the water longer than a couple of minutes and you will be excluding the possibility of catching smaller fish in the 800g to 1.5kg range, and these are definitely best for the pan.
The weight of the bait will suffice to get your hook into the zone, where it must sit gently on the bottom as naturally as possible. Once the bait is on the bottom and your fishing reel is in gear, all slack line must be retrieved so that a finger, touching the line above the bale, is in direct contact with the bait. Technique is crucial here. As soon as the weight of the bait is felt, lower the rod tip so as not to disturb the bait. Rods left in holders or leaning against gunnels, whilst less taxing on the angler, will invariably catch less fish. I tend to do this until the bite becomes fast paced and furious. Then it's all hands on.
I've noticed that many fishermen, whilst bait fishing, appear to be doing all the right things but have a tendency to hold their rod in a restful manner. By this I mean at least one point of the rod, or the hand holding the rod, will be rested somewhere on the body. Particularly with braid, the rod acts as a conductor, 'telegraphing' the bite to the finger and hand. By resting the rod anywhere on the body you are 'grounding' the rod, in effect allowing the bite to transfer through. I've learnt to cradle the rod, the grip hand finding the centre of balance normally by placing the spinning reel foot between your fingers, with two fingers on either side. The rod may still be slightly tip heavy but this doesn't affect technique too much. Sitting or standing, by raising the rod-hand to belly level, elbow out at 45 degrees, and relaxing the wrist, a neutral balance can be achieved to offset any pitch of the boat created by chop or swell. Let the rod see-saw in your hand and adjust accordingly whenever there may be excessive tight or slack line. I'll warn that this method does get rather painful eventually, particularly in the shoulder supporting the rod, but the results are worth the effort.
Detecting bites has now become simple by transferring reliance to technique and equipment. Using braid, a single hook and bait, and the cradle method of supporting the rod, I have increased my success significantly. Try it. You might agree.
Follow the below recipes or make up your own similar concoction with variants of the below mixtures. A good practice is to 'chum' the area around your block zone with small pieces of bait periodically.
* Increase ingredients to scale for larger amounts of bait.
* Always soak pellets in two cupfuls of water for one hour before preparing the mixture.
Three double hand scoops of fish pellets (made by National Foods)
One double hand scoop of flour (this helps bind the bait to stay on the hook longer)
Water or beer (enough to knead the mixture into a stiff paste)
Three double hand scoops of fish pellets
One double hand scoop of cooked sadza
Water or beer (enough to knead the mixture into a stiff paste)
Three double hand scoops of fish pellets
Chibuku--the local millet beer (soak pellets and add Chibuku. knead until mixture becomes a stiff paste)
Smoked Niloticus Smoking is just one method of preparing this fine table fish. Here's a recipe for a relatively quick smoke the next time you visit Kariba or have a few niloticus fillets spare. Ingredients Enough fillets (skin on) for your pax Marmalade or jam Salt Water Wood chips (available from Freddy Hirsh, though most wood chips can be used and each variety will impart a different flavour on the fish) Method Make enough brine solution to just cover your fillets in a dish by combining the salt and warm water. General rule of thumb is one tablespoon of salt to one large glass of water. Add the jam or marmalade--one tablespoon of jam for every KG of fillets. Mix the ingredients until salt and jam has dissolved. Pour solution over fillets until they are covered. Leave to soak--15 minutes for every 1/4" thickness of fillet. Place in ready smoker for 20-30 minutes depending on the size of the fillets, (fillets from a 1kg bream will be ready in twenty minutes) If you don't have a smoker there is an easy solution. You will need an oven tray, a grill that fits in the tray, preferably free standing, and tinfoil. Place enough wood chips in the tray to cover the bottom. Arrange brined fillets on the grill with 1cm spacing between each fillet. Place the grill on top of the tray and cover the whole tray with two layers of tinfoil, tucking the foil tightly under the trays rims. Place on fire, gas or hotplate for desired smoking time. Smoked fish can be served with baked potatoes, butter or sour cream and a side salad. The perfect end to a perfect day! Enjoy.