Big-Game hunters in Africa have always had the utmost respect for the Cape buffalo, a shrewd quarry with keen eyesight and acute sense of smell. The slightest slip-up, a shot pulled a little high, and things can go very wrong – the hunter suddenly becomes the hunted. It’s no coincidence that the Nubian fishing guides on Lake Nasser in Egypt refer to a Nile perch upward of 50lb as jamoos – the buffalo. Hook a buffalo without the utmost preparation and be sure things will go south. That fish will open up the metal split rings on lures with greater ease than bending a paperclip. Shredded leaders and smashed rods will leave the angler feeling as if he has just had a near-death experience.
Nile perch inhabit the Nile river system and Africa’s Great Rift Valley lakes. The largest fish recorded in The Guinness Book of Records was 232kg and the largest landed on rod and line, caught by Irishman Tim Smith, weighed 259lb. This fish was at last subdued after an epic battle not far below Murchison Falls on the Victoria Nile in Uganda, which nearly resulted in the angler being taken out of his boat by a man-eating crocodile during the tussle. As you will see, Nile perch fishing never was for the faint of heart. Anglers pursue these monsters using hardware and tactics that would not be out of place in the deep blue sea. Large multiplying reels and stout boat rods troll large, deep diving lures behind a boat at depths of 30ft or more on the lakes of Nasser and Victoria. On the river’s more turbid waters, such as below the breathtaking Murchison Falls, large livebaits up to 21⁄2lb are suspended under brightly coloured balloons.
Nile perch are efficient eating machines with cavernous mouths and eyes looking upwards on top of anvil-like heads. Their eyes have a distinct orange glow caused by a tap-etum lucidum, which reflects light that passes through the retina back into the eye, increasing sensitivity to dim light, as in crocodiles, lions, leopards and hyenas. They conceal themselves in deep caves and rock piles, ambushing unsuspecting prey and swallowing them whole. On Egypt’s Lake Nasser a common cause of death of Nile perch is choking on another perch. I have long fantasised over pictures of anglers grimacing under the strain of holding a freshwater fish of farm-animal proportions. Even more so, in a twisted way I obsessed about taming one on a fly-rod.
After a lot of research it appeared that the huge, man-made Lake Nasser in Egypt offered the best possibilities for this. Lake Nasser is over 6,200sq km of flooded Nile valley with remarkably good visibility. Warm water in the spring months brings shoals of Nile tilapia into the shallows to spawn. The big perch rise in the water column following the food and for a few months Nile perch cruise in less than 10ft of water or hide in overhangs and boulders along the shoreline, offering excellent opportunities on the fly. In 2006 I headed off with a fishing friend on my first exploratory fly trip and have been back each year since then.
The traditional tactic of the guides on Nasser is to troll or spin-cast from a boat drifting around submerged islands. However, I felt nothing over 10lb was stupid enough to eat the fly with the boat above. Like any creature en-joying a great view from the top of the food chain, Nile perch have very little to fear. Only humans and crocodiles compete for this podium spot, and hieroglyphics in the pyramids show man has hunted perch for a long time. The biggest fish are hooked from the shore. This presented many challenges, with little space to back-cast while wielding heavy #10 and #12 rods with sinking lines, and flies with the aerodynamics of a wet tea cosy.
Even in early spring, in the heat of the day, the temperature can creep over 40°C. In search of cruising or holding fish, great distances are covered over rough terrain. Rocks loosened and sharpened by years of rising and falling water levels and baking sun are a serious test of one’s agility and sense of humour. If there are cruising perch, about the most effective way to fish is for one angler to scramble along the shore above the other, spotting fish and calling the distance and depth to his friend below. If there are no fish in the open, the best tactic is to try to identify overhangs and caves and then present the fly across the opening where a potential lunker might be holding out.
The take is always breathtaking, and more often than not it’s right before your very eyes. It is an unforgettable experience to see a monstrous perch inhale your fly.
Every year since that inaugural trip I’d lead groups of intrepid anglers to the lake; we’d hook fish of legendary proportions but never got a jamoos to hand – lunch-time tales of broken leaders or flies thrown after violent head shakes but never a tamed buffalo, well not until April this year.
After a fruitless walk down a wave-beaten shore in Wadi Allaqi, a massive, ancient riverbed on the eastern shore of Lake Nasser, I came across a spectacular-looking structure: a submerged, eroded rock that jutted out from deep, inky water like the lid of a grand piano, creating an area of shade that looked too good to be true. I sat out of the way, checked my 60lb leader and changed fly. Up to now we had experimented with various sizes, tied on circle and J hooks, and although there is no doubt that the larger patterns often resulted in larger fish, the flies’ size and weight often meant that a large hole wore in the mouth during the fight, with the fish lost on the jump if you managed to keep your flyline and leader intact.
I carefully tied on a smaller 1/0 Olive and grey SF baitfish. I stripped off no more than three rod lengths of line and cast as gently as one can cast a 400-grain sinking line across the shady labyrinth below me. As the fly sank towards the opening I stripped up, ensuring that the fly came across the opening and not the flyline itself. I was very happy with where I had got the fly to hang enticingly, twitched it twice and let it drop in the water column once more. In an instant a chrome-metal flash engulfed the fly and sped out and downwards simultaneously. I jabbed my left hand down in a proportionately violent strip strike and as the hook sank home the fish rose back up, barely managing to get a third of its truck-door-sized torso out of the water in a spine-chilling jump and head shake. In an instant the loose line snapped on to the reel and the fully locked drag did nothing as I battled to lift the #10 fly-rod above the horizontal.
I looked down to locate the drag knob and see if I couldn’t squeeze another half turn of resistance out of it when an audible scraping and shuddering through the rod and line made me look up. The fish had made a run 40 metres or 50 metres out into the bay and then turned back on itself, wrapping the line around a submerged pinnacle. Some mental geometry immediately told me where I had to be – on or around that rock island – or the flyline would part. Without another thought I leapt into the water after the fish and all manner of physics laws suddenly came into play. Firstly, I was not quite as buoyant as I might have hoped, with heavy walking boots, a belt with a BogaGrip, Leatherman pliers, a knife and waterproof camera on. Secondly, the fact I was now attached to a large, speeding fish with a fully locked drag and not standing on terra firma resulted in being dragged unceremoniously through the water at quite a lick.
At the idea of being drowned by a Nile perch I had the presence of mind to spin the drag knob the other way and free-spool the reel. This slowed my imminent collision with the submerged rock pile on to which I managed to scramble, follow the path the fish had swum with the rod tip, and crank down the brake once more. For the first time I regained some line and as the flyline came back through the guides I could see the split-coating and the furry appearance of the dangerously frayed core. The impressive fish made two more runs and two more jumps, each time getting less of its body out of the water. As it breached and rolled for the first time in defeat I changed the rod into my left hand and lunged at its bottom lip with my right hand, pushing my knuckles into its mouth and gripping down as hard as I could. The big fish calmly righted itself and stared back at me with its prehistoric eyes.
By now, the guide, Mohammed, had scrambled down to his boat and picked me off the island with a smile across his usually sullen features. I leant over the side as we dragged the fish into a sheltered bay where we measured it and took some pictures. As we watched the fish slip back into the lake, I felt a wave of accomplishment like never before and reeled up the fly on to the rod. Mohammed still had adrenalin coursing through his veins, “Mr Jon, Mr Jon – you try again here. Good place for jamoos,” to which I replied, “No, I am happy. Maybe I don’t fish again for today – or ever – let’s just go back for lunch.”
More fishing in The Field