When planning our South Africa trip I wanted to catch a tiger fish but to get to really good tiger fishing that would require more travel so when I came across a post on an African Hunting page about tiger fish in Limpopo it peaked my interest.
Bossie Mostert of Limpopo Big Game Safaris said he had a place on the Luvuvhu River that borders Kruger National Park with tiger fish in it and we could spend a few days there in addition to a hunt.
Well this is a no brainer, the man has hunting just two hours from the park and could make the arrangements for the park and the hunting. Sold!!
Makuya Park is very unique in that it is actually a part of Greater Kruger National Park but it is owned by the tribe who originally claimed it. The way I understand it goes like this, when the government started claiming land to make Kruger they included this area but the natives said no we are good we own this land we don’t need you governing it so it was agreed to let them run this particular 34,000 acres.
Now the camping accommodations that are on it were donated to the government by the man who built them so they own that but the tribe owns the land and this is a cause of much debate as I’ll tell about later.
When looking on a map of the area it actually shows to be in the boundaries of Kruger National Park and I was having a hard time finding much information at all about it. It seems most folks think it is Kruger and the same rules apply but that’s not true. In fact in Makuya you can get out of the truck and fish and walk around, this would never be allowed in Kruger.
The Luvuvhu River forms the only border between Kruger and Makuya and the animals are free to roam back and forth as they please, people are not. Anyone in Makuya is not allowed to cross the river and are strongly discouraged from entering it at all for a couple reasons, one there is a little bit of grey area on where Kruger starts and stops and two, the thing is full of crocs and hippos and pythons and all manner of critters that would like to see what you taste like.
The park itself is an outstanding place but the rules and governing bodies and the way it seems people can change their minds and make things up as they go are not pleasant at all to deal with. I learned later as my time in Africa grew that this is the case with a lot of things in Africa, money talks big time here.
After a couple days hunting it was time to make our way to the park for fishing. I had no idea what to expect and could only find a few pictures and one short video of an elephant chasing a truck in the park online so we would just have to make it up as we went. Bossie has fished the park on several occasions but each time is different with different water levels in the river and different times of year.
My goal was to at least catch one fish a piece for me and Mary Ann. I knew being a small river and fishing from the bank that this would be a little difficult but felt that we would learn as we went and I could find a way to get two fish out of it in 3 days. Mary Ann and I fish a lot for a lot of different species and I was sure if we could locate some tigers that I could make them bite something. It’s winter time in August in South Africa and the river waters temperature would fluctuate more with the air temperature than say a lake would. Mid day sun hitting shallow water will heat it up and hopefully heat up the Tigers.
Tiger fish are very aggressive and sport big sharp teeth and beautiful stripes and often have a bright red tail. These fish survive in waters with more and bigger predators than likely any other freshwater species and to survive they have to be fast and have to be aggressive. Often times attacking prey out of aggression just to see if it’s edible rather than identifying it first. Not having ever caught one my plan was to use something flashy and makes a lot of racket in hopes I could just get one to attack it even if they weren’t feeding.
We arrived at the gates after a short two hour drive through some very scenic country full of orange tree orchards in the valleys of tall mountains. There was no shortage of wildlife to see as the fruits draw all manner critters in off the hills to feed. We seen no less than 100 baboons and monkeys. It’s a constant battle with these guys keeping them away from the trees.
Something that I seen on several occasions which would become the norm as the trip went on was just a random person standing in the shade of a tree in the middle of nowhere. Miles from a house or farm as I looked through the trees I would see a person just standing motionless under a tree. I asked why and was told that’s just what they do. Well ok then.
Upon our arrival at the gate we were greeted by an officer of the park who would help us with licensing and give us our directions to the camp where we had reserved two “tents” and space for Simone and Bethuel, who are the driver and skinner for Bossie’s outfit, to sleep outside in their own tent that we brought. This was where we had our first issue. It seemed the officers wanted them to stay in a camp some 14 miles away from the main camp where we were and since most roads are four wheel drive only two track roads this was not acceptable, especially since the arrangements had already been made and they knew how many were coming. Much Afrikans was being spoken between park officials and our party and I knew right away there was a problem. In time they sorted it out.
I had learned a couple months prior that a man I met several years back who was a PH (professional hunter) had died but I never knew how. Turns out he was killed by a buffalo at the very park we were at. I think that being fresh on the minds of the officials they had some safety concerns. Either way we were on our way to camp and were legal to fish and I was happy about it. I just want to fish and not bother people and not have them bother me so all the politics and bickering was killing my mood.
Finally at camp I immediately recognize a hunting truck. I thought to myself maybe they were fishing since we were also in a hunting truck. They were not and once again some trouble was on the horizon.
We unpack, sort out our gear in the “tents” and get ready for a few hours fishing before dark.
When I say tents it’s because I guess technically they are tents but they have hard wood floors and two wood walls but canvas roofs. The nicest tents you’ll ever stay in. Hot water if you hold the right wire and use some ingenuity, running water for toilet and generated electricity for several hours each night. I loved it! Built on the top of a huge cliff and overlooking Kruger Park it was basically an African paradise.
You can see dozens of different species of game from the deck. Hyenas howling at night, baboons barking, elephants bathing in the river, crocs sitting motionless waiting on a monkey to come for a drink, all manner of antelope, from impala and water buck and nyala and kudu and even herds of buffalo, it was real wild Africa with most of the comforts of home. More than I ever expected and worth the trip even if we didn’t catch a fish but that wasn’t going to keep me from giving my best effort to catch one.
Having only a few hours before dark we stayed close to camp for the evening. Mostly exploring the river, looking at water levels, searching for pools and looking at all the game. We tried a few spots of deeper water with no luck and took our time driving back watching for elephants and other wildlife.
Elephants were abundant as was most everything else. No matter how many times you see an elephant it’s still one of the most amazing creatures you’ll ever see. Especially in the wild, free roaming, with no obstructions between you and them, you feel pretty insignificant in such a huge place next to such a huge huge animal.
We started at daylight the next day and planned on hitting all the deeper pools and making our way down the river. The deepest pool was about 20 miles away and on these roads that’s a long long ways so we thought we would just fish our way to it and if we didn’t make it we would go straight to it the next day and work our way back.
I wanted to have the full experience of fishing and wading and running around like a native so I went barefoot which wasn’t bad that day but the next day it hurt.
We all had a different lure and just started casting. The river is narrow in most places and sometimes forms some rapids. I wasn’t sure if tiger fish liked the rapids or calmer water so I tried everything. I had brought my fly rod along but with the tall reeds and cane along the edges and not being able to safely get in the river it was pretty useless which was really disappointing.
We stopped to cook a few burgers for lunch and ponder our next move. Basically the plan was to cast often and fish till dark. In this small river I felt like if we came across a tiger fish he would take one of our offerings.
Shortly after lunch we came to yet another small pool and we all got out to pick our spots. I tried the fly rod again but to no avail. Mary Ann’s enthusiasm was starting to wain I could tell by how often she was casting and admittedly it was hard to stay positive since we had four rods going at all times and after about five hours hadn’t had so much as a nibble.
I had walked down stream a ways when I heard a commotion, not knowing if someone actually had a fish or if they had been nabbed by a croc I took off over there. Just as I arrived on the scene I saw a nice tiger jump into the air and DJ was doing all he could to keep it on the line. DJ is Bossie’s 10 year old son and to say he was excited would be an understatement. With instruction from Bossie and encouragement from the rest of the group the fish was finally landed and a nice one it was.
Tigers get much bigger but for a small river in tough conditions this was a great fish in my book. The morale was up and I at least knew there were tigers here.
At the next stop Mary Ann decided to try some giraffe meat on the bottom from the giraffe I had killed two days earlier. Every river has some form of catfish and they will all eat meat so why not. The tiger fishing was not going well so we could have a bait out while we casted and tigers will eat meat like that too.
I hadn’t so much as had anything I thought was a bite so as I was reeling in yet another cast I glanced over at the bait rod and seen it twitch. Mary Ann is no rookie she seen it too and before I said hey, she had it in hand and when the line tightened again she set the hook hard. We had our second fish, but what was it!
Being as it was on a piece of meat and the take was a slow pull I assumed it was a catfish of some kind and I was right. In South Africa they call them barbels but I think it’s official name is sharp toothed catfish. This particular one had lost a race with something looking to eat it and its tail was gone. I’m guessing a croc tried to make it his lunch but he escaped with his life at the cost of his tail so the fight was short but none the less she had caught a fish in Africa.
Simone and Bethuel were not about to let us throw this fish back after we threw back the tiger fish. Bethuel wanted to know what we were even doing here if we weren’t keeping the fish. It made me laugh, these guys can’t comprehend someone catching anything that could be eaten and not eating it. I love these guys and even more for reasons like this. I’m jealous of their simple ways of thinking. That’s not to say they weren’t smart because they were but they were smart in different ways than we are, likely better ways.
On our way to the next pool we came across a young bull elephant with no cares in the world. We drove by at less than a hundred yards and he just kept breaking limbs and doing elephant things. We took the opportunity to get some nice photos.
As we rounded a bend in the road I could see a huge pool that looked deep and had a shear cliff face on the opposite bank and I knew this was our spot. There was no doubt this pool held tiger fish. Too confirm my suspicions on the depth of the pool three hippos had claimed it as their own.
This was good news and bad. Good news is there’s enough water to hold three hippos so there’s enough water to hold a lot of tiger fish. Bad news is pools this big are hard to come by and they didn’t take kindly to us being there at all.
As Bossie and I approached the pool, the others wisely chose not to participate in this argument, I asked Bossie what are the signs that they aren’t happy. He said first they will go under water like that, then they will come up blowing water from their nose like that, then they will come this way like that!! Let’s back up he’s not happy.
We went to the truck and got our gear and give them a few minutes to calm down. After awhile they moved back to the other end of the pool and I thought all was well. Somewhere along the way the big male had snuck back up on us. I heard Mary Ann say I only see two hippos and she started backing up. Bethuel and Simone were already half way to the truck when out of nowhere the big male blew up out of the water directly in front of me and I turned to run and realized I was the last one to get the news to run as everyone else was already making tracks. My bare feet made slapping sounds as I ran across the sand.
We left the hippos to their pool and moved down the river. I couldn’t stop thinking about that pool as the day passed and the bites eluded us. Finally I said screw them hippos man lets go back and try it again. Bossie agreed they may have moved on so back we went.
Upon arrival we seen they had moved a good ways down the river so now all we had to do was watch for crocs. I was getting frustrated having tried all sorts of baits and retrieves and having no results.
The main goal was to get Mary Ann a tiger fish and it seemed like it was going to be harder than I thought.
Simone had followed me all day and watched out for any danger and I think he could sense my frustrations. He says to me “my Mr would you like to try some meat” I said sure so he fetched a good chunk of giraffe meat and hooked it on the back of my single hook crank bait.
Minutes later as I was lifting the bait over some reeds to make another cast a tiger leaps from the water and nails it. I only had a few feet of line out so I had to do some fast thinking and fed him line to get him away from the reeds.
The fight of these fish is amazing!! Runs like a carp and jumps like a tarpon. This little 5 pounder was a handful and I could see why people love to fish for them so much. As the fight was wearing down I realized I had a small issue. The reeds along the bank are 4-5 feet tall in places, getting to the water would be hard but worse than that is I can’t see the crocs and with the disturbance of the fish thrashing around any croc within hearing distance would surely be on his way. Luckily my man Simone was keeping a close eye out and I stepped in the edge of the water and grabbed the fish and got out fast. My first ever tiger fish!! What a great accomplishment, a tiger fish this size from the bank in this small river, that doesn’t happen everyday. We now had two nice tigers and my hopes of Mary Ann getting one were growing. I couldn’t wait to see her fight these fish.
We finished out the day hitting a few small pools and just watching animals. Every turn was a new species, buffalo, elephant, kudu, impala, wart hogs, nyala, you name it we seen it.
We got back to camp after dark and another great meal cooked by May, Bossie’s wife awaited us. Even out here in the bush with limited supplies she put out chef quality meals every night. This woman is amazing and her culinary skills are outstanding.
After supper we were sitting by the fire and the hunters that were in camp arrived back. There was a meeting of sorts between them and the camp officials and from the tone and volume of their voices there seemed to be a disagreement. I told you earlier when I seen the hunting rig I suspected this trip wouldn’t go as smooth as I had hoped.
The man who had the hunting rights here ,who I knew, was the man killed by the buffalo. His son took over the outfit and was guiding a client for buffalo at the park. They had 3 buffalo and an elephant on permit. The problem was the client, no doubt an American, was sold an exclusive hunt that included an exclusive hunting camp. Well being that our party and another were camping there it wasn’t exactly exclusive and he threatened to leave camp and not pay for the hunt if everyone else didn’t leave.
I’m an easy guy to get along with if you are a reasonable person. This didn’t set well with me and I felt that him being an American I could speak with him and maybe at least settle him down to allow us another day or so. The park officials were put in a very bad situation because all the campers had already paid and now this jack wagon is threatening to not pay for the hunt if we don’t leave. The real money is in the hunt and of course they don’t want to lose that money but also they don’t want to give ours back and make us leave. Honestly it may have been best I didn’t get to speak to him because I know his kind, I know how they think, and he thought he could simply push some Africans around with his money, I would’ve reminded him he’s not the only American around here and his money don’t impress me a bit. I suspect I’ll see the PH here in the US and I will speak to him about it. My guess is he assumed it being a week day that no one would be camping and he just said “exclusive” camp. I don’t know who’s fault it is but I know one less guy being an asshole would’ve made the situation a lot better.
It was decided by the tribe and park officials that we would have to go to the opposite end of the park to fish and allow the hunters to take the majority of the park to hunt.
I’m a hunter I know how things work, I know how PHs operate, I know how much money is at stake here, I’m not happy at all about being moved because I know for sure now from what I’ve learned that day that I can get Mary Ann a tiger fish from that big pool but now I have to go to a new part of the river that may or may not even have water in it. All I can do is smile and hope for the best and hopefully I will see that hunter at a show or meeting here at home and we will have a discussion about his selfish and arrogant behavior.
I didn’t sleep well at all that night thinking about it and sometime in the middle of the night I got up and walked around camp to hopefully relief some tension. This probably wasn’t the best idea roaming around in Africa without a light or gun barefooted but whatever. I finally just said to myself we have to make it work there’s nothing I can do and if I show my anger it’s going to bring down the mood of everybody. We were having a blast and even without fish this was an amazing place that very few westerners ever see. Back to bed to get some rest.
I no longer got settled in when a troop of baboons started screaming and thrashing the trees down at the river. The leopards were hunting that night and there is no love lost between leopards and baboons at all. Just as the commotion settled a wart hog let out a squeal that I knew meant he had been caught. I’ve heard wild hogs in Texas make that same blood curling sound and there was no doubt the leopard would be dining on swine this night.
Morning came fast with little more than a few short naps getting me through the night. We were to go down the river the opposite way to an area that is not usually open to fishing but circumstances made it mandatory. The park officials felt they should send two guys with us that knew the area for everyone’s safety. I had no problem with this, there’s something I learned real fast about Africa, they roll out about 4-6 deep everywhere they go. The two added men brought our total to 9. Hell the more the merrier right?
The drive was long but again filled with game and I had convinced myself regardless of the outcome of our fishing adventure that the wildlife alone was worth the price of admission. I mean there are people in Kruger Park which I can see from where we are, that are paying upwards of $300 a day to see what I’m seeing for a fraction of that and I get to fish too.
Just as I suspected the pools were shallow and fish nonexistent. My anger toward that buffalo hunter was growing but I kept quiet.
Pool after pool we plodded along with no bites what so ever until we came to the end of the road.
Our two new guys Abraai and Thetshelesani, said the road stopped here we would have to walk. Before I go any further let me explain Thetshelesani. That is his given Venda name which means “listen” I made the joke to him that his mom didn’t name him that she was just yelling at him to listen. Anyway most of the native people change their name or go by another family name not their given Venda name but he had only had this name so from here on in the story he will be called T for obvious reasons. I’m not trying to write out that name a dozen times, sorry.
Anyway T, Abraai, and Bethuel were going to walk the river looking for pools while the rest of stayed and fished a small pool that I had zero confidence in since when I walked up three crocs splashed off the bank into the river. I’ve never fished Africa so I’m not certain but I have a hunch that when a large apex predator enters a small pool that most fish find a hiding place and don’t concern themselves with feeding for awhile.
The group quickly grew bored and we turned to the snack box for comfort. It was nice just sitting by the river watching baboons and eating bread but damnit I came for fish!
The boys were back with good news and bad news. There was a large pool about a half mile down but there were crocs and hippos near by. Of course there are, I’m used to it by now lets go fish.
I grabbed some gear and followed T down the trail. About half way there he slowed and said leopard. I froze, our left side was a tall rock cliff and our right side was tall grass leading to the river, I was sure this was it, if I survived I would have the story of all stories about how I fought off a leopard with nothing more than a rod and reel. I asked T where, he said no no leopard tracks. Damnit don’t do that!! Say leopard tracks, don’t stop and say leopard, I thought we were getting attacked. He grinned and continued on.
I really enjoyed all of these guys, they love to laugh, and that’s contagious. The more I laughed the more they laughed and we made fun of each other and cracked jokes all day. Happiness and laughter need no translation and despite a little bit of a language barrier we all had fun.
Finally we got to the pool and it was a nice one too. Big, but not as deep as the one from the day before but I felt like it held some tiger fish. I was getting a little more confident now that Mary Ann would hook a tiger.
An hour or more of casting yielded exactly zero strikes. We weren’t going to go any further down river as we were already a long ways from camp and I wasn’t looking forward to a walk in the dark through leopard territory. I could see Mary Ann’s enthusiasm fading and I was really feeling disappointed. I knew that this was our last chance since we were to leave the next day. We had planned on having a few hours fishing in the morning but with the ass hat buffalo hunter pulling his stunt that was out the door so this was it.
I thought the pool had some good looking places for catfish to hang out so I rigged a bait rod and got a piece of giraffe meat and casted near a huge boulder.
Bethuel had joined me and we were talking about catfish behavior and what to look for. He is very good at cooking and cleaning fish but wasn’t real knowledgeable on catching catfish. I’ve never caught these catfish before but a catfish is a catfish I knew if they were there I’d catch one.
I kept seeing some mud fish, they called them. Some form of sucker that I couldn’t get to eat anything at all so I assumed they are mostly vegetarian or feed on very small snails or larva. I asked Bethuel if he could see them he said no. I realized I had on polarized glasses so I handed them to him. I wish I’d had the forethought to video his reaction. He put the glasses on and immediately took them off and said “how? How can you see under water? I see the fish, how?!?” He was amazed, I let him wear the glasses for a few minutes and he smiled ear to ear the whole time. I got a kick out of it, he had never even heard of such a thing as these magic underwater glasses.
I told him how the river runs around the rocks and washes out holes and that’s where the catfish stay and how the fish will face up the river when it’s running to catch the food coming at them. He was impressed that I knew all this and it made sense to him but no one had ever told him before. Right on cue just as I was telling him about how to fish the big boulders my rod peeled off and I knew it was a pretty big something.
I set the hook hard and the fight was on. The fish pulled hard and slow and never broke the surface so I knew it was a catfish. The commotion brought T and Abraai running to see what was going on. I was having a hard time keeping the fish out of the reeds on the near side of the river so I stepped down to the edge to get an angle on him. T yells something that I assume translated to, don’t let that white clown get eaten by a croc, and Bethuel grabbed the back of my shirt almost choking me to death to keep me from going in. There wasn’t a croc but there had been earlier and T didn’t want me to get in the water and Bethuel was gonna make sure of it even at the expense of choking me unconscious.
Earlier that day we had seen a big 8′ python swim across some shallow water and I told T let’s get it, he said ok so I grabbed a machete but before I could make my leap Bossie yells from down the river, don’t get in that water. He was probably right and his job was to keep me from getting killed and I’m sure more than any other client he’s had he had to really make sure I didn’t do anything too stupid. T caught on that I was up for anything and I’m sure that’s what made him think I was about to go swimming.
I finally convinced Bethuel to loosen up his grip enough for me to net the fish and we landed him. A really nice barbel about 8 pounds or so.
These fish grow up to 100 pounds in big lakes but a fish of this size had to be about as big as could survive with the little food he had in this river. The whole gang joined in for pics and high fives and everyone was happy. There was never a question whether this fish was going back to camp. I wanted to eat him and I didn’t have to convince the boys of it.
Half way back to camp we stopped to cook some wildebeest sausage and burgers. Bethuel cleaned the fish and a few of the guys started a fire and we all had a good meal beside the river in the shade. It was awesome seeing the smiles on their faces. You never know what their story is or what they’ve seen or how much they get to get out and cut lose a little bit. They seemed to genuinely enjoy their day and I was happy about it.
Mary Ann wasn’t near as disappointed about not catching a tiger as I was that she didn’t. I guess now we will have to go back to Africa and fish the Zambezi on a proper tiger fishing trip, dang the luck.
Back at camp as I suspected things were tense but we were leaving early the next morning and the other couple camping who came from way down south near the cape said they didn’t feel welcome anymore so they were leaving too. I guess the buffalo hunter got his way but I’m hoping one day we cross paths. Not that it will matter but I’ll feel better about it when I tell him what’s on my mind.
Bethuel and the boys cooked up our catfish over the coals and it was delicious. Better than expected actually. The meat was more like gator than fish and flavorful, I enjoyed it.
We left early the next morning and I was sad and happy about it. Sad that we had to leave such wild untamed country but happy because we were going hunting again and you know I love hunting.
I had seen a little road side souvenir stand on the way up so I told Bossie to stop at it when we went by. All I had was US dollars on me but I suspected they could make it work and they did. I didn’t have to do as much math and I probably spent less knowing exactly what I spent. Spending foreign money is always like Monopoly money to me and I spend too much because it’s like it’s not real money. Anyway we loaded up on carvings and all types of figurines and blankets and I don’t even know what all. I bought Simone and Bethuel each a very nice carving of a rhino and a lion and they looked like kids on Christmas morning. I asked Bossie when we left how much do you think they will make this week at that stand and he said not as much as they just made off you today.
The ride back was pretty quiet, we were all tired and my mind was turning toward zebra, the reason I came here, the reason we are standing in Africa is because of those stripes. I’ll tell that story later.
All in all Makuya Park was one of the greatest experiences I think I’ve ever had. Highly doubtful I’ll ever get to return but I’m glad I’ll always have the pictures and memories of this little piece of truly wild Africa.