I first caught one of the smaller species of Tiger Fish, (Hydrocyon Lineatus), on the Zambezi at a place called Chirundu. I was also fortunate enough to catch a 17 lb fish there, and from that moment, I began to wonder what it would be like to catch a Goliath Tiger Fish, (Hydrocyon Goliath). Since it was a Belgian doctor who had written the chapter in the book in about 1936 and had done his fishing on the Congo River, which was unreachable to most outsiders, I had doubts as to whether I would ever know.
Fortunately, or sometimes unfortunately, my work takes me to some inaccessible parts of Africa, and because of the war in Congo Brazzaville, I found myself based in Kinshasa for a while. Driving down to the ferry terminal, one morning, to cross the river from Kinshasa to Brazzaville I saw a Congolese on the street trying to sell an enormous head of a Tiger Fish mounted on a wooden board. Of course, I was fascinated, and immediately stopped with a view to buying it – maybe passing it on to Gerry’s of Wimbledon to whom I had once before loaned a stuffed Tiger Fish. When I found that it was actually a relatively fresh fish head, which had not been properly cured and had been merely smothered in a coat of varnish and nailed to a piece of wood, I was at once disappointed, and quite pleased. Disappointed because there was no way that I was going to buy this trophy, but pleased because there were obviously Goliath Tiger Fish still in existence to be caught. Crossing over the river that morning in a pirogue with a small outboard, despite all the fighting going on in Brazzaville, I was totally preoccupied with looking at the river and wondering where the best taking places would be.
However, how to set about catching Goliath Tiger Fish when you’re based in a crumbling city, recently taken over by a new regime and suffering from the devastating effects of war – that was the problem. Enquiries amongst a few expatriates eventually led to the door of Tass, a Greek who was still running his business in Kinshasa. He just happened to be probably the world’s greatest living expert on fishing for Goliath Tiger Fish, having caught hundreds up to 43 kgs, and having lost a few that were even bigger. He took me round to the back of his supermarket where he opened a deep freeze to reveal his latest catch – three enormous Goliath. I thought that my 17 lb fish from the Zambezi was big but these were amazing. Fishing enthusiasm knows no shame and it wasn’t long before I had persuaded Tass to take me along on his next expedition. The problem with this was that it coincided with a visit from ‘Mission Control’ (my wife, Belinda), who was coming out on holiday from England, and an expedition to go fishing for Tiger Fish was probably not high on her tourist agenda for the Congo. I had to implant the idea quickly as she got off the plane, and when she was still pleased to see me (which she was – mainly because it is a relief to see any friendly face amongst the pandemonium of Kinshasa airport).
On the Friday afternoon, we drove to a place, about an hour and a half upstream of Kinshasa, called Maluku. The road trip might have been a bit quicker but negotiating the various military road blocks took up much of the time. Maluku is an old Belgian expatriate weekend resort on the river, where Tass had a boat and also a very comfortable cabin. That evening we enjoyed an excellent meal prepared in advance by his mother – her homemade taramasalata was the best I’ve ever had.
Early on Saturday morning we were up and ready to go, with Belinda wondering what she had let herself in for. We loaded up the well-appointed boat with beer, picnic and fishing tackle and then set off in search of local fishermen to buy bait from. Tass’s boat boy knew exactly where to find them and remarkably quickly, bearing in mind the love of the Congolese for interminable bargaining, we had enough baitfish to last us for the day. Top of the menu for Goliath Tiger Fish are a type of small catfish, which resemble what in East Africa, are called ‘Squeakers’, so called because when you take them out of the water they make squeaking noises – so, too, will you if you wrap your hand around their sharp spiky dorsal fins.
We then set off on a high-speed ride up the river, dodging in and out of clumps of one of the greatest ecological curses of that part of Africa, the water hyacinth. Some of these clumps floating down the river are so large that they can support small buck (and always plenty of snakes). The river was low, which is how one wants it for Tiger Fishing, (that is why July and August are the best months), and one had to be wary of hitting barely submerged rocks or sandbanks. Tass knows the river well, though, having fished it for nearly 30 years, and soon we were at one of his favoured spots for Goliath, setting out the baits. It looked to me, from my previous experience of ordinary Tiger Fishing, to be a perfect place – a drop off from a sandbank into deeper water, where the current was quite fast flowing.
His fishing techniques were unconventional and different to the strategies that I had used previously for catching Tiger Fish, but they were aimed at optimising our chances, bearing in mind that we were fishing near the end of the second largest river in Africa, and at the place that we were fishing, the river was about two miles wide. Starting with the end tackle; this was all the same consisting of a Squeaker as bait mounted on two extremely large, and specially reinforced treble hooks, attached to a wire trace that you could probably have towed a tank with – but all necessary to stand a chance against the huge teeth and bony jaws of a Goliath.
It was the next bits of tackle that were different. Four squeakers and end tackle were individually attached, by snap clips (and this was going to turn out to be a critical piece of equipment), to four 10 litre plastic jerry cans, which acted as floats. These were positioned in likely spots, and held in place by means of a length of light nylon, attached to a rock that was then dropped to the bottom of the river. If a Tiger Fish took the bait this length of nylon would snap and the Tiger Fish would swim off dragging the float behind it. These floating rigs having been set up, we then took the boat to the bank, which in this spot mainly consisted of a sunken barge, and set up three big game fishing rods and reels, to which we attached a large polystyrene float, and the same sort of end tackle that we had used with the plastic jerry cans. These rods were firmly fixed into rod rests. Altogether, we had seven baits out, all swimming near the top of the water, all of which required careful watching – for the strike of a Goliath. This, according to Tass, was usually obvious, and normally consisted of the float suddenly disappearing down the river at high speed, or the squeal of a reel releasing line. In the meantime, Belinda had set herself up in sunbathing mode and had a large book – so she was happy.
In order to keep us, fishermen happy whilst we were waiting for a Goliath Tiger Fish to take, we set up two lighter rods. With worms as bait, we started to fish for some of the other species with which the Congo abounds – on this occasion, mainly a fish called ‘Mbutu’, which grow up to about 30 lbs and which are hard fighters and very good to eat. They also have sharp teeth and so we used wire traces fishing for them. It is such a pity that the Congo is mostly inaccessible to sport fishermen because it is so prolific and would be fantastic fishery. Tass showed me a photograph of a Catfish that a Belgian fisherman caught in 1962, in Stanley Pool, which is the large pool between Kinshasa and Brazzaville. The fish weighed 444 kgs, which according to my calculations is 978 lbs. It was so large that, although he got it to the bank with a normal rod and line, a crane was requisitioned to lift it out of the water.
Although we were catching a few Mbutu, Catfish, and other species that I had never seen before, action on the Goliath front was slow, or more accurately non-existent. I was, to a certain extent, prepared for this. Tass had already told me that if you catch two Goliath in a day you have done exceptionally well. It was, anyway, a place where I could happily spend a day without catching many fish – there was so much to see. As well as the fine view of this majestic river and all the traffic going up and down – mostly large colourful barges full of people, goats, chickens, and anything else you can imagine, there was abundant bird and animal life.
At approximately 11 a.m. the four helicopter gun ships which were flown by Serb or Ukrainian mercenaries, started attacking Brazzaville. This was a fairly normal routine; I was told by some well informed person that they couldn’t start much earlier because they usually had such late nights drinking the bar of the Kinshasa Intercontinental dry, that they couldn’t get out of their beds earlier. It did all seem a bit surrealistic concentrating on fishing whilst a war was going on at full tilt just a few miles down the river, with rockets flying, buildings crumbling, and, regrettably, people being killed.
We were just reaching that stage of a fishing day when you begin to resign yourself to a blank day. Of course, it was by no means a blank day, but it was rather like a day when you go fishing for salmon and, inadvertently, catch a few trout; if you haven’t caught a salmon, the trout don’t really count. It was the middle of the afternoon and the hottest part of the day, when the Tiger Fish don’t seem to take. Even the other fish were not biting so well, and I had put down my rod for a moment to talk to Belinda and to have a cold beer. Some instinct or just luck prompted me to lift my head and I suddenly saw one of the plastic jerry cans disappearing rapidly down the river, just as Tass said it would if a Goliath took the bait. I shouted – then pandemonium. Tass and I put down our rods, whilst his boat boy had already leaped into the boat to get it started. It started first go, and off we went at full throttle, swerving around the islands of water hyacinth, skimming the edges of sandbanks, dodging the local fishermen in their pirogues, but all the time keeping the jerry can in sight. But, disaster… we soon realised that the fish was heading straight for a barge that was coming up the river – it was on a direct collision course. We slowed the boat down or else we, too, would have collided with the ferry, and watched with a mixture of fascination and despair as the course of the Goliath and the ferry intersected. It looked as inevitable as a torpedo homing in on a large aircraft carrier.
Tass shrugged his shoulders philosophically and, definitely, sorrowfully told me that we had lost that fish. We scanned the river, without seeing anything, and were about to turn the boat around to head back, when Tass spotted the jerry can several hundred yards down the river. Our high-speed chase resumed, and after a few minutes, we drew up level with the float. Then came the ‘moment critique’, and this is where the snap swivel took centre stage, because what we had to do next was disconnect the snap swivel from the jerry can and connect it to the rod and line that we had in the boat. This is the moment when many fish are lost. It is an operation that has to be carried out smoothly and quickly, and we did it. I was connected by rod and line to a Goliath Tiger Fish, and although it was obvious that Tass was showing huge restraint in not grabbing the rod from me to play the fish himself, so worried was he that I would lose it, I now felt the amazing power and strength of a Goliath. Even though it had done an 800-metre sprint down the river, dragging a jerry can behind it, and dived under a ferry, it still had a lot of strength left.
The fish seemed to sense that there was a new force at work and immediately leaped out of the river still some distance away from us. Using the same pumping technique that one applies to big game fish, I recovered some line but this was soon pulled out again when the fish made another run. This happened several times but eventually we got it closer to the boat where, for a while, it became dogged in its determination to remain deep. I could seriously hyperbolise about how powerful this Goliath was and what a superb fight it gave – suffice it to say that I thought I must have hooked a record fish. Thirty minutes later, we finally gaffed the fish and pulled it on board. To me it seemed a magnificent fish, deep, powerful and beautifully silvery, although lacking the stripes of the Zambezi Tiger Fish, but definitely not lacking in the dental work. To describe them as teeth would not do it justice – fangs is what it possessed, in profusion, although a couple of them were broken. It was, however, a mere baby; only 33lbs – nothing to write home about in the Goliath Tiger Fishing fraternity.
There are a few fishing landmarks that are prominent in my memory; my first fish; my first trout; my first salmon; my first fly-caught salmon, my first Tiger Fish, but my first Goliath is one of the most prominent. Not only was this my first Goliath, but, so far it is my only one, and, frankly, although I only had a minor part in its capture, I’m now determined to catch more. With a war still continuing, and with its lack of infrastructure, and lack of accessibility, fishing the Congo river system, which is the only system that contains Hydrocyon Goliath is supremely difficult. But… part of the Congo river system leaks into L. Tanganyika via a single river called the Lukuga, which enters L. Tanganyika at Kalemie, and I’m told that some very large Goliath have been caught in the Southern end of the lake…