Freshwater Fishing Offshore

  • Sam Mossman

Five Fabulous Freshwater Fish

I am a conservative person by nature, and, at the moment, you would have to use a crowbar to get me out of the country, but I hope the good times will come again. I have done a lot of travel fishing over the years, targeting specific salt and freshwater species. Sometimes it was a particular fish or fishery that attracted me, but often there was a country I was interested in visiting for cultural, scenic, or historical reasons and I usually also wanted to have a crack at whatever their local sportfishing icon was.

The list of possibilities is long, so for the purposes of this article I will narrow it down to a handful of particularly interesting foreign freshwater fish. From a long list I have chosen Australian barramundi, African tigerfish, Amazon peacock bass, Egyptian nile perch, and Indian mahseer, because these fish were particularly interesting to catch, and their home countries were wonderful places to visit.

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Barramundi – an Aussie icon

Found as far afield as the Bay of Bengal, Thailand and parts of Indonesia, the barramundi are the iconic freshwater fish of tropical Australia, where they are usually just called ‘barra’. They are a member of the perch family with big shiny scales. I say ‘freshwater’, but they also run to sea and are commonly found in estuarine systems as well in rivers, lakes, and billabongs.

In Aussie, barra are found in the northern half of the country and have been recorded up to 50kg, although fish of half this size are rare trophies. I have caught barra from Northern Queensland, throughout the Northern Territory and down through northern West Australia. My advice: fish for barra in the Northern Territory. There, a scheme to buy back commercial fishing licences has been hugely successful and fish numbers are highest.

Barra are suction feeders, opening their big bucket-like mouths to create a vacuum that sucks in feed items like baitfish (mullet are a favourite), frogs or whatever else is available. This can create an audible ‘chop’ sound if they are near the surface.

Lure fishing for barra is very popular, although bait and livebaits work well too. Casting lures around cover or snags is successful, as is trolling. Baitcaster or spin rigs are usually used. Successful lures include diving minnows, soft-baits, surface lures and flies. The best part about catching barra is that they look gorgeous – and they jump!

Typical barra habitat with lots of cover provided by the waterlilies.

Tigerfish – with teeth to match

One of the most famous of African freshwater fish is the tigerfish. There are a several species spread around Africa, most of them similar and lumped together under the generic name ‘tigerfish’ for their stripes and teeth. The standout of the family is the goliath tigerfish which has a growth potential of 70kg, compared with its more common relatives, where a decent one weighs four or five kilos.

Goliaths are mostly restricted to the Congo River catchment of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, an area widely considered to be very hazardous to your health.

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My more achievable target species was the standard tigerfish of the comparably safer waters of the Zambezi River in Zambia. There were only hippos, crocs, and elephants to watch out for. A specimen tigerfish in this area is a ten-pounder (4.5kg), and while not as rare as a ten-pound trout, they are a lot harder to hook and hang onto. Although aggressive predators which strike well when in the mood, they have powerful jaws heavily armoured by bony plates, making it very hard to set a hook. Their outrageous teeth are replaced throughout their lives as full sets and fit into sheaths in the opposing jaw. These fangs also allow them to hold lures so tightly that it is near impossible to strike the hook home.

When hooked, they are extremely fast, changing direction swiftly and erratically, jumping, and headshaking repeatedly. They are held in high regard as a sportfish, but it is no wonder that they are so hard to hang onto. The various statistics I had read stated that only about one in six fish struck is landed. This proved to be fairly accurate.

Tigers can be caught on cut baits or livebaits, but we stuck with lures and flies rigged on wire traces. It was a steep learning curve for our party of three but we were ultimately successful, all catching ‘specimen’ tigers of over 4.5kg from the Zambezi, as well as lesser fish. Diving minnow types around 5-7cm long proved to be the most successful but often came back radically perforated!

A ‘specimen’ tigerfish from the Zambezi River. Check out those outrageous teeth.

Peacock bass – pretty and powerful

Peacock bass are from the Cichlid family and are predatory sportfish of tropical South America. There is considerable debate as to how many distinct species there are as colours vary throughout their range and spawning stage. Estimates range from seven to fourteen species (the IGFA recognise four) and they are the iconic sportfish of the region.

Peacock bass have also been introduced into the Florida region of the USA, but their spiritual home is in the mighty Amazon and Orinoco basins of South America. The Amazon is easily the greatest of all rivers. Its flow is greater than the world’s next eight biggest rivers combined, and it has the largest drainage basin in the world, 40% of South America – an area the size of Australia. The mouth is over 325km wide, and at sea, out of sight of land, the water is still fresh. The Amazon basin, at any given time, contains 20% of all the world’s flowing freshwater, and (depending on who you believe), 2000-3000 species of fish – the largest freshwater population in the world. What better place to fish for peacock bass?

Peacock bass are gorgeously coloured, powerful, cover-hunting fighters that smash surface lures and will jump (you may be starting to notice a theme here). Standard tackle was stiff baitcasting or spin rods and casting reels loaded with 15-24kg braid. This relatively heavy gear was matched by what were, for freshwater, massive surface lures up to 250mm long mounted with multiple heavy-duty treble hooks and fitted with sets of propellers which kicked up a ruckus when ripped across the surface in bursts. The main species where I fished was the speckled (AKA three bar) peacocks and anything over 4.5kg (10lb) counted as a nice specimen, and a 9.5kg (20lb) fish was a real trophy. There were also smaller butterfly peacocks to be had, and on a later excursion to northern parts of the massive catchment, I caught a couple of what I think were Orinoco peacocks, along with many other Amazon sportfish.

Amazon peacock bass colours vary from species to species and spawning stage. This speckled bass is changing to the three-bar stage in readiness for spawning.

Nile perch – complete with their own goddess

I had been fascinated by the ancient Egyptian civilisation for many years. Artifacts there date back 10,000 years, although it was around 5000 years ago that the desertification of formerly fertile lands concentrated people along the only decent water source in the region – the Nile.

Although they are found in some other parts of north Africa, where else would you want to fish for nile perch but in the Nile itself? The great river’s iconic fish, the nile perch, like most things in Egypt, has a history lost in the dawn of man’s beginnings in the region. In ancient times, nile perch were worshiped, even having their own goddess: Neith.

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More recently, nile perch still attract their devotees. Finished in 1971, the Aswan High Dam was built to control the flooding of the Nile and has its plusses and minuses but one thing the resulting 400km long Lake Nasser created was a huge habitat for fish native to the Nile, including the nile perch, which, like barramundi, are members of the perch family. In fact, they look a lot like barra, but with much smaller scales. However, these fish have a growth potential of around 150kg – getting on for the size of a decent striped marlin! That is a maximum of course, and these days, a 50lber – 24kg – is considered a nice fish, and a 100lber (45kg) is the trophy everyone hopes for.

It was amazing to be fishing in a lake in the Sahara Desert. It was bright, clear, and calm every day and although it was damn hot (over 50 degrees C) the desert air was dry. We camped in our boat and trolled giant diving minnows or went ashore and cast with similar, but smaller, lures around the shoreline. The perch we caught were up to about 40kg and, you guessed it, jumped repeatedly! Imagine trolling lures for hapuku that then come to the surface and jump, and you are close to the mark.

Nile perch are related to barramundi but have much smaller scales. This one was caught on a minnow lure cast from the shoreline of Lake Nasser.

Mahseer

India is a fascinating place to visit in many ways, but what is the iconic sportfish of the subcontinent? Mahseer! It appears that there are seven different species of this monster member of the carp family. The main ones, as far as size and angling interest goes, are the humpback mahseer of southern India (a heavy-shouldered, thick-bodied species), and the golden mahseer of the north, made long, lean, and powerful by battling the swift currents and powerful rapids of its mountainous habitat. British anglers first pursued these fish in India with rod and reel during the days of the British Raj.

Both ‘big’ species have a growth potential of 50kg, but such large fish are rare these days. The mahseer is now in much-reduced circumstances in India with habitat loss from hydro schemes and irrigation, pollution, and constant poaching. Although sportfishing is not a common thing in India, a few visionaries see that the only way for these spectacular fish to survive the intense pressure they are under is to develop the tourist sport fishery and show the local people the value of these fish, alive.

There are areas where fish are consistently fed by fishing and tourist operators and are pretty-much on tap. These (mostly humpback) mahseer can be fished for with baits of ragi, a paste made from millet flour and water, flavoured with various spices, and boiled until rubbery.

The other option, the one my buddy Rick and I chose, is to get out on a mountain river to target golden mahseer where the fish are still wild and cautious. If you are in the right place at the right time the fishing can be full on, but the rest of the time it is often a matter of persistence, patience, precision fishing, and hoping the fish will show an interest.

Although golden mahseer are commonly fished for with spoons and diving minnows, the guide company we used, Himalayan Outback, specialized in flyfishing for the smart, moody, and long-lived golden mahseer, making catching one even more challenging and difficult.

The first few days fishing in a clear, warm upper tributary of the Ganges in the Himalayan foothills were hard going and we caught only a few juveniles, but then a day or so of rain saw the river start to rise and become discoloured. This started the fish feeding and we finally caught – and released a number of representative golden mahseer on fly and diving lures. The best was a pretty fish of about 10kg. Golden mahseer fight powerfully in the fast, mountainous river waters and look wonderful, although they only rarely jump.

In the Himalayan foothills as the river rose, the golden mahseer came on the bite.

Travelling, mixed with fishing, has spun my wheels in the past. I hope we all have the freedom of movement and the chance to explore the world with a rod and reel again in the foreseeable future, so those that put the effort in can say: been there, seen that, caught the fish…

 


April 2022 - Sam Mossman
New Zealand Fishing News Magazine.
Copyright: NZ Fishing Media Ltd.
Re-publishing elsewhere is prohibited

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