I’m not really into fishing. I have too many traumatic memories associated with it, not least of all my first (and last) boyhood excursion with my late departed Oupa.
It was my 5th birthday and as a gift the old man took me out on his boat so that I could pass into early manhood by killing something with him.
But I failed.
The rocking of the boat made me vomit; the eternity onboard became boring, and when at last a fish took the lure, I dropped his rod into the sea.
It was an accident of course, but it was oupa’s favorite possession; his ‘Slayer of trout’, and as we rowed back home in sullen silence there was sadness in his eyes.
I never did get to fish with granddad again because he died shortly after that.
I hope I wasn’t to blame.
It took me almost thirty years before I picked up a rod again, but when I did, it was in one of the most fantastic angling spots on the continent during one of the most incredible fishing events on earth….The barbel run on Botswana’s Okavango Delta panhandle.
Fishermen, at least those in the know, speak of this affair in hushed and reverent tones, for it is during the barbel run that the mighty tiger fish amasses in such vast numbers as to almost beggar belief.
‘It’s an anglers orgy of unprecedented grandeur’ I once read in a fishing magazine “A fest of such enormous proportions that even the hardiest of anglers will have their wrists and tackle put firmly to the test. Amateurs are likely to have their arms wrenched out of their sockets”
It didn’t really sound like my cup of tea to be honest, but Dave, Brian, Graham and Frank (a fraternity of large and hairy friends) had been planning the trip for decades and, thus, talked me into accompanying them.
So there I sat, wedged onto a small tin boat with a bunch of fish crazed wild eyed men, all of whom were swishing and waving their rods around with gay abandon.
Rods clattered like swords in battle, beer bottles rolled down the isle like grenades, and hooked lures sailed through the air like deadly artillery.
I spent most of the time cowering at the bottom of the boat like a shell shocked soldier with Wagner’s ‘Die Walküre’ playing through my mind.
“Get one of these Tigers on the hook, and you’ll be battling for your life,” cried out Brian with spittle frothing from the corners of his mouth.
“They’ll pull you overboard and then the crocs will get ya.”
I gave the men a wilting look, but in unison they all nodded sagely.
“Its true,” they said, and with that, went back to war with their ‘krakens’ and ‘demons of the deep’ .
The Barbel run (so named after the barbel catfish that take part in it) occurs every year when the waters of the Okavango river recede from a wide-spanning floodplain into the relatively confined narrows of the panhandle.
Here, amongst a partly submerged forest of tightly packed papyrus stems, hides a world of snaking clear-water channels and lagoons of every size imaginable, where little fish (the majority of which are less than 10cms long) cower and do their utmost to remain concealed from predators. And predators there are… Great big slimy skinned cavernous mouthed catfish, that writhe and wriggle at the margins of the reed banks and push through the water like a black wave of death.
There are thousands of them. More like millions if truth be told (and remember, I’m not a fisherman and therefor not prone to fits of farcical exaggeration)
For those poor unfortunate minnows who feature on a catfish’s menu (which is just about everything barring crocodiles, hippos and fishermen) the sight and sound of an approaching horde of them can mean but one thing….. certain DOOM!
The water boils and seethes as countless rubber lipped predators tumble over one another, mouths agape; popping and snapping like mouse traps. It sounds for all the world like a bush veldt fire, which I suppose it is of sorts, for just like a fire, a barbel run flushes out everything in its path.
Little fish break from cover in order to escape the advancing wave but they often find they have leapt from a frying pan into a fire.
Herons, fish eagles, storks and terns follow the anarchy as does a throng of mighty tiger fish.
There were many other boats anchored in the narrow channel in which we were stationed, and all of them were piled high with mounds of semi naked men whose flesh had turned pink from the sun. Unified, they stared at the surface of the water as if it were a wide screen TV airing the rugby world cup final, and every now and then a loud gasp of surprise would spring forth from one of the boats as a line went taut.
Sadly though, the tigers weren’t biting, and the most I saw anyone pull out of the water was a giant slimy catfish.
“The Tiger is intelligent,” Frank told me as I ducked beneath a barrage of barbed and deadly artillery. “And one must be smarter than he.”
I nodded solemnly at these words and glanced around at the masses of men who were, judging by their lack of success, not up to the task of outwitting a fish. But then, from the corner of my eye, I noticed a little boat tucked coyly away from the crowds on which two gentlemen of tranquil composure sat flicking hairy flys into a channel.
Tiger fish were biting there, and these men serenely reeled them in, smiled demurely and then let the fish go back into the water with what appeared to be a respectful farewell.
That night back at the crowded Swamp Stop Campsite I sat around a fire with a bunch of red faced and irritated men who were all drowning their failures in vast quantities of brandy and coke. Very few of them (including my four hairy friends) had caught a tiger that day despite investing in sophisticated and highly expensive lures, and many of them were obviously feeling despondent.
But I couldn’t join in with the misery. I had very much enjoyed the spectacle of the barbel run for what it was; one of natures great events; and it didn’t really bother me that I hadn’t caught a fish. So rather than spend the rest of the evening sat slumped at the braai in readiness of a call to suicide, I took a walk through the campground and was duly attracted by the soft and happy tinkle of laughter coming from somewhere near the bar.
That’s when I found Henkie Altena and John Van den Burg, the two chaps I had witnessed earlier that day having great success with the tiger fish.
“Pull up a chair,” said Henkie amenably. “Please have a whisky.”
As we sipped and chatted about the wonder of the Botswana Delta and the fish that live in the panhandle at it’s rear, Henkie’s hands deftly twiddled and spun at a cluster of what looked to me like armpit hair but was, I was assured, artificial hair extensions.
“What you are looking at,” said Jon with a note of pride in his voice, “is an accumulation of twenty plus years of fly fishing experience. Henkie’s famous fly. An invention of unparalleled success here on the barbel run. The Tigers can’t resist it.”
He then went on to explain to me some interesting facts as to why some lures and fishing styles work, whilst others don’t…
“Most lures are designed to look very accurately like a species of prey fish,” he continued, “But in nature, prey has evolved to be as hard to see and catch as possible. This leads to the possibility that very accurate lures may in fact be rather difficult for the predator to see.”
Henkie’s fly looks and moves a little like a bait fish, but if it were a real species (rather than a lure), it would have become extinct a long, long time ago.
“It looks a little like a baby cat fish with a disability,” continued Jon. “Metaphorically speaking; a crippled wildebeest trying to hobble past a pride of lions.”
The rest of the evening went by in pleasant discourse, as Henk and Jon prepared a fresh batch of flys for their fly-fishing clients and continued to offer me their opinions on what it is that makes fishing so great.
“The fly; the lure; the equipment is only part of what will make you catch a fish,” said Henk. “Confidence is the most important thing. Don’t ask me how or why, but if you don’t have confidence whilst out there on the water you aren’t likely to succeed.”
“A fisherman, when the strike occurs and the fight is on, has now found his place in nature,” said Jon, waxing philosophical. “And that’s something which, as a guide, I like to share with others.”
“It’s the same for me also,” said Henk whilst putting the final touches to his last fly of the evening. “ It’s exciting when you know what you are doing and it works and you can help someone else to feel that excitement. I still feel it every time no matter how often I fish. It is most probably an addiction. But I’m not sure. I haven’t tried to go without.”
The following morning my motley crew of silverback males joined forces with Henk and Jon, who were (unbeknownst to me) already quite good friends.
“We have fished together on many occasions,” said Frank. “And these ‘Os really know what they’re doing.”
And so we slipped out onto the meandering channels of the panhandle in the very early morning light and quietly drifted past the assemblages of peanut brained ‘primitives’ who were already out there, nosily brandishing their rods and beating their chests and drinking their beers.
Suspicious eyes peered at us from beneath thickly sloping foreheads.
“Where are you going?” one grunted at us as to which we smiled and said
“Oh, somewhere else.”
A few kilometers upstream, Jon killed the motor and an anchor was dropped
“This will be the place,” said Henk, and although it looked like any other bend or confluence I had so far seen on the panhandle; it wasn’t, and within moments I had got my first strike.
The fight had been all that I’d been told it would be (short of the fact that I still had both my arms attached). A titanic battle had ensued; an exhausting test of balance, stamina, strength and determination, and by the end of it my arms were shaking and the veins on my forehead look fit to burst.
That’s when I understood what it was to be a fisherman…..
We gently unhooked my tiger fish then and put him back into the water, and as it slid away into the depths I thought I detected a familiar steely glint and rock hard glare to its eyes. One I had not seen since the last time I had gone fishing.
Well, if that was dear old granddad there, reincarnated as a fearsome fish, I do so hope that I made him proud.
To find out more on the Panhandle barbel run or join one of Jon and Henkie’s fishing trips visit: