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Targeting North African Tigerfish (Hydrocynus brevis) in the Volta Lake, Ghana.

A couple of years ago I was fortunate enough to be offered a position as farm manager on a large tilapia-cage farm based on the shores of Lake Volta in Ghana. Having a similar fishing background to, I expect many fellow readers of this magazine, my experiences with tigerfish thus far had been with the species common to the Southern African region-Hydrocynus vittatus, so I was intrigued at the possibility of targeting a different species of tigerfish; indeed, I was also led to believe the lake was also inhabited by a further species of tigerfish--the Slender tigerfish or Hydrocynus Forskahlii.

I went out to Ghana virtually blind in terms of having gathered any specific knowledge of the North African tigerfish, as there was and still is very little published information relating to sport fishing for this species, other than a few references to people's experiences in the Gambia and Mali, where the species is also present. Furthermore I could find no information on fishing in Ghana or the Volta system in a freshwater context; the only references to Ghanaian sport fishing were in the Hey Days when a number of rather famous boats such as Karma and the Hooker, were capitalising on the very good Blue marlin and Bigeye tuna fishing to be had out of Ada Foah.

That said, I did fully realise that I was in a potentially enviable position, in that I had uninhibited access to fish as close to our tilapia cages as I so wanted, and as many have come to realise in a Lake Kariba context, they do act as an attractant to big tiger for obvious reasons!

My initial experiences were not hugely successful, although part of the reason for this was that time did not allow for many hours to be spent focusing purely on fishing, although I did wet a line on numerous evenings for 45 minutes or so before the sun would set. Initial successes were limited to catching a small number of very modest sized tiger on smaller Mepps spinners. Looking at the lateral line on these fish and the fin coloration, especially that of the caudal fin, I was convinced these were the smaller Slender tigerfish species (H. forskahlii).

One evening however, I was fortunate enough to get my first decent tiger. I had already caught a 2-3 lb Slender tigerfish specimen, and a few casts later, I had my spinner inhaled by what was evidently a better fish--I was not using wire trace, and given the often 'soft nature' of the original treble hooks on the Mepps spinners, I had to try get the fish in fairly quickly without applying too much pressure. Luckily I prevented the fish from going aerial at all, and a few minutes later I had my first decent Ghanaian tigerfish safely landed--a fish of a touch under six kilograms, or 13 pounds, taken on Sib mainline and a medium action Bass Pro Extreme series rod paired with a Stradic 2000 series reel I had purchased many moons ago from the 'Master Angler' in Harare.

Following that initial success, I managed to land a small number of good fish in the following months when time allowed--all were taken spinning with the same aforementioned outfit, and surprisingly all on Mepps 'Black Fury' spinners, with the original trebles in situ! Yes, I realise a great many people must be mumbling and wondering why I did not change to a strong single hook set-up, which would also allow for arguably improved strike rates by tipping with filet; however, the honest truth is I was very fortunate in that I did not lose any of the first three or four good sized fish I hooked, thus I was given no reason to change the rather crude and last set-up I was employing. Secondly, by using smaller spinners I was also targeting not only tigerfish, but another very sporting species--the True Big-Scale Tetra, that would also readily attack spinners. Of course, I was now using a single strand (Malin Hard Wire, 431b test) trace with ball bearing swivels on either end as standard. I would also always use a small worm or egg sinker of 1/8 ounce in weight ahead of the trace, to get the spinner down, and I would often work different depths in the water column by 'counting down' before starting my retrieve.

After these initial achievements, my success seemed to diminish for a few months--part of this was, in my mind, due to water level and resultant water clarity, as well as a reduced effort on my part, as I also was out of the country on annual leave for a month. However, I was soon richly rewarded upon my return. On this rather fortunate evening, I was employing my usual tried and trusted Black Fury, spinning from the shoreline, and upon what was literally my fifth or sixth cast, I connected with a good fish. She went on an initial long and purposeful run, and upon going aerial--the only occasion during the entire fight--I soon realised that this was an enormous fish with which I was now fortunate enough to be fighting. I eased off a little on my drag, given the 81b mainline, and gently tried to guide her towards the shoreline. Of course, she had other ideas and there were more than a few anxious moments, not least of which was when she tried to go around and under a submerged tree close to the shoreline. Lady luck was however on my side, and six or seven minutes later, I was shaking having finally got her on the Boga-Grip. I had never seen a tiger of such proportion, and she pulled the scales down to just over 291bs--a 13 kilo fish--which was far bigger than any published scientific literature pertaining to the maximum size of the species! Although I have never been one for chasing records, I realised that this fish was worthy of such, and has since been approved as the new IGFA All-Tackle record for the species--the previous record was a fish of under 6kg. It does make one wonder as to what the growth potential of the species is, given favorable conditions.

After this rather special experience, I did not manage to get any more good specimens using the spinning methods I had thus far enjoyed success with, the evidence of the constant presence of tigerfish around the cages was always confirmed by the half-eaten catfish which I would see on a regular basis around the cages--still breathing for the most part, but evidently these feature prominently in the tiger diets in the Volta Lake, not least due to the fact that they are incredibly common around the cages. In part my efforts had also been directed at some other, more readily available species such as tilapia in the evenings.

A change of approach was called for, and I started to focus on targeting tiger at greater depths, using small tilapia livebaits--it is very much a case of things going 'full circle', as my understanding of how to rig livebaits and so on was initially gleaned from the pages of Zimbabwe Fisherman magazines--it made me smile!

I chose to fish off the edge of our harvest cage, which would normally be that located closest to land, attached to a number of land-based jetties which allows easy access for feed/fish transport. The reason behind this was generally because I did not want to disrupt feeding in the other cages, as we will feed the tilapia until dark in the evenings. This approach yielded almost instant success--the initial difficulty was the procurement of the livebait, and once I solved this problem, I had a number of very good evenings fishing. I did use a stronger outfit and 151b mainline, and similar to the spinning approach, I would add a little lead, as this would often assist in slowly taking the livebait into the 'zone' in which the tiger seemed to do much of their feeding, which at a guess would be about 20-30 feet under the surface. This was perhaps a function of the thermocline or the tree cover present within the lake; similar to the experiences in Lake Kariba from what I understand, although I do not profess to knowing a great deal about tiger behavior and feeding patterns. What was clearly evident by now was that the North African specimens were of a very good average size--on livebait the smallest specimen I have taken has been 91bs, and I have, apart from the very large record specimen, had another three fish between 15 and 171bs, which are not bad fish by any standards. I generally never used a particularly big tilapia livebait--most commonly in the 7-10cm range. The vast majority of the specimens I have taken were released, although I would take a small fin clip sample for genetic/DNA analysis, which will hopefully provide further insight into tigerfish distribution patterns within an African context, as part of a wider study undertaken by Dr. Woody Cotterill et al.

Strangely enough, once again after a period of sustained success, my catch rate declined rather markedly--or rather, the bigger North African tigerfish were less prominent, and I would catch far more of the smaller, Slender tigerfish, which would also readily take a smaller live-bait. Whether the change in water level had contributed to this, or perhaps my sustained fishing pressure in the same spot had played a part I simply don't know, but once again I was left trying to figure out how to once again catch quality specimens. Perhaps here I am being a little unfair to the Slender tigerfish species, as they are in their own right very sporting, but the fact that they grow to a far lesser size than their cousins does detract from their sporting prowess.

I must confess that I am currently at this juncture in my evolution of tiger fishing in our particular location, and I hope soon to be able to achieve my next target which is a second 201b plus specimen. I have yet to do any boat fishing, so that is an obvious progression--drifting a live-bait--although one has to appreciate that there are a great many anchor ropes/buoys etc in the immediate vicinity of the cages, which does present problems. Unfortunately targeting tigerfish outside of the farm boundaries is likely to be greeted with very little success, given the widespread local gill netting practiced almost everywhere within the lake. I do consider myself fortunate in that I have access to a little 'oasis within a barren wasteland', and have had an experience of what fishing perhaps used to be like in the Volta Lake before sustained population pressure, and the need for fish protein within the country. Perhaps it gives us all an opportunity to realise that some great fishing options do still exist, even though they are created out of a perhaps semi-artificial environment.

Tight lines to all.
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Author:Towers, Marc
Publication:African Fisherman
Geographic Code:6GHAN
Date:Aug 1, 2013
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