“This,” Guy Lobjoit says, with a sweep of the hand toward a tangle of reeds and dark water, “is where I was killed by a hippo last year.”
The time was hard dusk, about the same as now, and the trio had just pushed through the papyrus thicket blanketing the narrow isthmus between a delicious little lagoon and the Okavango River, right about over there.
The trouble with fishing this lagoon, he says, is that it only gets really good toward evening, when the African sun turns into a crimson orb and all the various bream, cichlids, and pike finally peek their noses out of the bullrushes to chow down. Of course that’s also the time the crocodiles and hippos and a lot of other things you don’t even want to hear about start prowling around.
The big cow had come up right under the boat, Lobjoit recounted. As his companions scattered, the veteran guide was taken down, momentarily trapped beneath the animal. He’d managed to avoid the snapping teeth, been swept downstream by the current, struggled to shore in a thicket of papyrus and then been given up for lost by his companions.
Up to that point, it’d been a perfectly fine hippo attack, one of those swell adventures that would make for great conversation, particularly when some snooty hunting guide started showing off the stitches from some garden-variety bout with a leopard. But his buddies ruined it all by running back to the lodge to inform Guy’s wife of his demise, which sort of took the fun out of it.
What must be said about the Okavango is that most of the other critters—excluding the odd lion or leopard—are more interesting that dangerous. The area is home to more than 300 species of birds, most resembling flying flowers. You want more wildlife than this; you’ll have to phone Noah.
But the band from stateside who’d come looking for one of the true trump cards in the angling game of one-upmanship weren’t interested in feathers. What brought them across 7,000 miles, five plane changes, and more than a couple jack-and-cokes, was a high-octane fish with a mouth like Steven Tyler. The tigerfish gets its name either from the teeth or the stripes, or both. Either way, it resembles a juiced-up striper, with dentures to make a shark blush.
Put all that together with a particular circumstance that explodes upon the Okavango toward mid-October and you have one of the most intriguing angling scenarios on the globe. Born in the Angola highlands, the Okavango flows south and east for nearly a thousand miles, through Namibia, and then into northwest Botswana, where it spreads into a 6,000-square-mile swamp before disappearing into the sands of the Kalahari Desert.
While it remains a river, winding evenly down an avenue lined with papyrus, it forms the vessel for an event that may have no equal in fresh water. Like most angling episodes really worth remembering, this one involves a cast of characters and a script. It starts with two baitfish named bulldog and Churchill, which history buffs might say are synonymous. Then, if you want a deep-dwelling tiger fish near the top of the water column on a streamer, or even a popping bug, the next thing you need is a barbel. To save a trip to the dictionary, a barbel is a sort of elongated catfish, complete with an appetite and an attitude.
In this scenario, barbels do the heavy lifting. Marching up the edge of the river in vertical schools, this bewhiskered brigade pushes noisily through the flooded papyrus, munching minnows as they go. Great flocks of birds–herons and egrets–join in the action; you can hear the chomping and squawking a couple hundred yards away. By now you’ve gotten the drift. The barbels scatter the minnows out into the edge of the current and the tigers, no fools, come streaking up to meet them.
Suffice it to say that the only thing quite like it involves anchovies and yellowfin tuna. Or maybe sheep and wolves. If you’re looking for something delicate, stick to brook trout. This calls for wire leaders, big Deceivers, a stripping glove and extra-long hook extractors.
When we left, dragging our blisters and egos, Guy Lobjoit remained alive and well. And at last count, everyone still had all his fingers.
Charlie Meyers was the long-time Outdoors columnist for the Denver Post. He was also a friend and inspiration to many of us who saw him as an example of all that is still right with journalism. Meyers—a non-smoker—died last week after a long battle with lung cancer. He wrote this piece for The Drake in 2005.