Hooked By The Hippo: Fly-Fishing Uganda

  • Gazelle Safari Africa

  • Destination
  • Jun 03, 2021
Fly-Fishing In Uganda

By Andrew Tarica

Moses Matsiko stood on Lake Mburo’s boat dock with no fishing rod in sight, no Simms outfit either; instead an AK-47 casually hung from his shoulder and the distinctive yellow patch of the Uganda Wildlife Authority stood out from his camo military fatigues. Here was the park ranger who’d be my fishing guide for the next few hours.

As I walked toward him, dressed in my button-down Patagonia shirt and safari hat, fly rod in hand, Moses must have seen the look on my face. He smiled.

“It’s for protection against dangerous animals,” he explained, particularly the Cape buffalo and hippopotamus that frequent the area. “Especially if you encounter them when they are wounded, then you have a real problem.”

I jumped into the Land Cruiser, ready for a fishing adventure, hopefully without the need for the AK-47. Welcome to Uganda Fishing Safari, where it’s more about substance and safety than style.

Uganda may seem like an unlikely place for a fishing trip – the country is often called the Pearl of Africa and is well known for its safaris, mountain gorillas, and friendly people – but after a chance encounter at the NY Times Travel Show in NYC, I was convinced that I was onto something, well, fishy, but in an exciting way.

I had wandered into the Africa wing at the cavernous Javits Center when I met Ann Kalembe, owner of a Kampala-based boutique travel outfitter called Gazelle Safari Company. She greeted me with a warm smile and firm handshake. And then she read my mind

“Perhaps you would like to do a gorilla and fishing Safari,” Ann said.

Did I look like I had fishing on my mind? Yes. Ever since my college days, when I first picked up fly-fishing on Colorado’s South Platte River, I’ve loved matching my passion for travel with a little bit of fishing. In the past few years, I’ve combined cultural and historical trips and wet my line in places like Portugal, Ecuador, Newfoundland, and Japan.

It was a match made in heaven. It wasn’t long before I signed up with Gazelle for a tailor-made, 8 Days Uganda Gorillas, Wildlife & Fishing Safari.  “We can’t wait to host you,” Ann said, “and show you our beautiful country.”

The fishing portion of the safari was divided into two main areas: Lake Mburo National Park and Lake Victoria.

Located in southwest Uganda, about 50 miles north of the Tanzania border, Lake Mburo is a compact gem, the smallest of Uganda’s national parks. It’s often bypassed by safari companies and independent travelers because of its low “big five” counts, in particular the lack of elephant and the infrequent presence of lions.

Even in the absence of the wildlife heavyweights, Lake Mburo still offers some excellent game viewing – for example on the drive into the park, along the dusty Zebra Track, I spotted velvet monkeys, baboons, warthogs, water buffalo, eland, herds of zebra and impala, and even several of the park’s Rothschild’s Giraffes (Giraffa camelopardalis rothschild), of which there are only about 800 left in the wild.

Hooked by the Hippo: Fly-fishing in Uganda

As for the fishing at Lake Mburo, it was a little slow, thanks to a couple of factors. “It would be great if we had a boat,” said Moses, stating the obvious as we fished along the forested shore one September afternoon. Fish were rising in the middle of the lake, but we had no way to reach them, sadly.

Complicating matters was a curious hippo, halfway submerged about 20 feet from where I stood casting. If I could read its mind, it was probably thinking, “Don’t make me move my 2-ton ass over there and ruin your day.” Note to self: Don’t hook the hippo’s ass with one of your casts! That could turn your world upside down.

Despite the hippo’s stinky eye, we managed to catch and release a few cichlids patrolling the mossy banks. “Black tilapia,” said Moses. “A subspecies.”

It may not have been the hugest fish, clocking in at a few inches in length, but it was the first fish I caught in Africa, and that’s something worth celebrating. With the swampy, humid air of Mburo beating down on my body, it was time to pop open the bottle of Nile Special Lager that I’d been saving in my pack. I winked at the hippo and took a sip. Warm beer never tasted so great.

*****

On my last day in Uganda, I awoke to cold rain and set off by boat from Entebbe. The fog was low, the waters were choppy, and the chill was down to the bone.

“Welcome to Lake Victoria,” said my fishing guide Dominic as we began trolling for the big boys of these waters – the Nile Perch.

The freshwater species (Lates niloticus) – introduced into the lake in the 1950s to boost the fishing industry – is the prime catch for sport fishermen in this part of Africa. Nile Perch up to 7 feet in length and weighing more than 400 pounds have been reported in Lake Victoria.

I’ll blame it on the poor weather because catching a trophy fish proved impossible on this day. However, fishing is never just about catching fish, as I’ve learned over the years. Often times, fishing is a means to an end, a way to meet people and visit places you’d never ordinarily go.

“Have you ever been to the equator?” Dominic asked as a small ferry heading to the nearby Sesse Islands passed ghost-like in the misty distance.  I’ve been once before, I answered, just a couple days ago. There is a memorial to the equator (not to mention an Instagram photo opp!) on the outskirts of the capital city Kampala.

“Well,” Dominic replied with a smirk, “now you’re going to cross it on the water.” We checked the compass: 0 degrees latitude, 32 degrees longitude. We were floating on the equator, on Africa’s largest lake, on the imaginary planetary line dividing the northern and southern hemispheres.

Minutes later, we docked at a tiny island of black rocks and were greeted by noisy cormorants, the only inhabitants. I grabbed my fly rod, hopped out of the boat and skirted the historical marker listing the equatorial coordinates. The rain finally stopped, the winds calmed, and there was even a hint of sunshine peeking through the blue-black horizon.

I found a spot overlooking a small cliff and cast out as far as I could, the line uncoiling toward the celestial sphere. Here, equidistant from the poles, I hoped my fly would veer just a few degrees one way or another.

-May 16, 2020 –

Fly-Fishing Uganda — If You Go:

Fishing: Fly-fishing is not a widely known method in Uganda, and there aren’t any fly shops in the country. So, if you’re planning to fly-fish, keep in mind it’s largely DIY. I brought along two fishing rods: a 5-weight and 8-weight. For flies (bait), my gear included a selection of colorful streamers (used previously to catch golden dorado in Bolivia) for targeting Nile Perch. For tilapia, I concentrated on woolly buggers and various wet/dry trout flies.

Lodging: Set on a massive granite outcrop, the low-key Rwakobo Rock is a logical base for exploring the nearby Lake Mburo National Park. Rwakobo entices with rustic cabins, a lovely infinity pool and hammocks that are perfect for afternoon siestas. In Kampala, the 4-star Fairway Hotel offers comfortable accommodations with a leafy courtyard and a recommended Indian-Chinese fusion restaurant. The Professor Bar in the hotel lobby attracts people from all parts of the city. Sample Uganda Fishing Safaris Itineraries

Gorillas: The trek to see the mountain gorillas in the jungles of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park is a magical, once-in-a-lifetime experience. The park in southwest Uganda, near the border with Rwanda and Democratic Republic of Congo, is home to more than half of the world’s 900 or so mountain gorillas. Treks, by permit only, can last anywhere from one to four hours, depending on which gorilla family you’re tracking. The family-run Lake Mulehe Gorilla Lodge, located 12 miles from the northern gate of Bwindi (Rushaga), offers spectacular views of surrounding volcanoes and cultural experiences with the local Batwa tribe.  See some of the popular Uganda Gorilla Safaris

Contact: For more information on all things Uganda including fishing trips, safari options and Kampala city tours, visit https://gazellesafarisafrica.com/ or contact Ann Kalembe of Gazelle Safari Company at: ann@gazellesafaricompany or info@gazellesafarisafrica.com

-AT-

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