catfish

Camping in Kenya. Mara River fishing

Although I do not like eating fish, I am what the British fishing community know as a “coarse fisherman” and I have been engaged on this activity all my life, although I do not fish much these days. At the time we were in Kenya I was already returning the fish, unless someone would be interested in eating them. Tobias, Paul’s camp hand, was such a guy and if he was around there was no way that a fish would escape his attentions and invariably it would end up in the sufuria[1]!

Tobias was from the Luo ethnic group that dwells around lake Victoria both in Kenya and Uganda and, naturally, they eat fish in contrast to the Kikuyu and Maasai that very rarely, if ever, consume them. The rare event of a Maasai herdsman fishing with me was described a while ago in this blog[2] although whether he would have eaten the fish or not will never be known!

As only driving with your eyes closed would stop you from seeing animals while traveling through the Maasai Mara area, sometimes, for a change, we decided to just chill out around camp and on occasions, try our hand at fishing in the shadowy Mara River. We were able to do this as, by virtue of being outside the reserve, we enjoyed freedom of movement within the limits of common sense and/or lessons learnt!

In the area we regularly camped there were a couple of nice grassy spots from where we believed that fishing could be attempted. The problem was that we knew that crocodiles were plentiful in the River and there was no doubt that they were lurking anywhere under the muddy waters. We had already seen them in action snatching wildebeest during their river crossings. Clearly in this setting, fishing would be a hazardous sport.

After careful consideration we chose a nice opening in the riverine forest that not only offered a good view of the river but also towards our back, an important consideration in the Maasai Mara as dangerous animals were also around us inland! As there were no trees nearby we could handle our fishing gear without major mishaps. I have the innate ability to get carried away with the fishing and end up “hooking” a few trees! Although there were lots of hippos cruising up and downriver, we did not consider them a major problem.

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A view of a Mara River hippo pool to show the colour of the water.

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The aftermath of a wildebeest river crossing.

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The Mara River bridge on the way to the Transmara. A lorry and us wait for a herd of Maasai cattle to cross.

So, one of the trips to the Transmara coincided with Paul doing some work with wildebeest on malignant catarrh, a viral disease that affected cattle, and we decided to try fishing. I brought fishing gear and cow liver so we were ready to try our luck. Our intended target was the common and ubiquitous African catfish (Clarias gariepinus). Immediately a worldwide event was born as we represented three Continents: Europe (Britain), represented by Paul, Africa (Kenya, Luoland), represented by Tobias while I was the America representative from Uruguay. Similar to the spear throwing competition earlier[3], it was an intercontinental fishing tournament!

The river was at its normal and flowing gently so that was favourable. What was not were the abundance of submerged trees and branches that poised great difficulties to a normal line recovery. The consequence was severe loss of equipment and we were soon running out of hooks and our lines were getting shorter! In addition, I spent lots of time disentangling my line from the trees that seemed to jump towards me every time I would try to get my bait in the water!

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The Mara River from the DC3 when it did regular flights between Nairobi and the Maasai Mara.

A fish bite was invariably followed by frantic efforts to recover the line in an attempt to get it out while avoiding it getting entangled in the various branches and water plants. However, if you were lucky or perhaps unlucky? and hooked a large fish, the task would become much more difficult as the fish would try to escape by getting inside the branches. In addition, there was the “crocodile problem” as the reptilians would be alerted by the fish splashes and immediately come to “investigate” and get our fish so fast recovery was a must to avoid losing our trophies as those lost “en route” to anything such as snags or crocs would not count.

Paul did quite well and caught more than me. However, Tobias was the star and clear winner. He probably knew things we did not, through years of fishing “for the pot” during his early years near lake Victoria. His technique was simple, almost too simple. He chose to use a hand line and threw it very close to the shore. In this way, he avoided a lot of the snagging and did not suffer too badly from line and hooks losses like us wazungu[4]. He will then wait a short while and pull them out, almost unfairly easily!

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Tobias and the Bushsnob with some of the spoils.

Tobias was delighted, not so much for having won the contest but, much more importantly for him, for having the possibility of feasting on fish for a few days! Although later on we tried the catfish, Paul and I agreed that they tasted like we imagine the Mara River mud would do and, luckily for Tobias, we declined further offerings.

 

[1] Saucepan in Kiswahili.

[2] See: https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2016/12/13/memories-a-fishing-trip/

[3] See: https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2015/11/05/javelin-throwing-almost-olympics-games/

[4] In Kiswahili, white man. See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mzungu

Carnage at Long pool

In the morning, as expected, we failed to locate the lions again but, driving over a small bridge nearby we found about twenty marabou storks (Leptoptilos crumenifer) congregated by a pond of green stagnant water. That was all that remained from the stream that flows there during the rainy season. As soon as we stopped they slowly moved away to what they considered to be a safe distance from us, away from the water. We moved off to a bend in the dry riverbed to watch them undisturbed. As soon as we withdrew they returned to the pool and resumed their activity.

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The first group of marabou storks we saw.

The storks were feeding on stranded fish, probably catfish judging by the frequent rises they made to breath on the surface, opportunity immediately taken up by the storks that would rush towards the water movement ready to snap one up. We left them undisturbed and continued with our drive. A couple of hours later when we returned they were gone but there were still fish there. The African sharptooth catfish (Clarias gariepinus) are special in that they can bury themselves in the mud when the water evaporates and they can also survive in muddy water as they have a special breathing system that they can use in addition to their normal gills.

However, I am sure that despite their toughness the catfish days were numbered as the next rains will only come in December if the rains are good, far too late for them. At that time the ground would be bone dry. It was surprising that the marabous had abandoned what looked like easy food but we are used to Nature’s ways!

We soon forgot about the storks as we continued with our quest for new sightings. Our hopes of finding the lions seemed to revive when we found their fresh footprints. Judging that they had been left there during the early morning we tracked them for a long while, trying to guess what their aim was, only to lose them when they moved away from the road. Following lions on foot through the bush and without an experienced ranger is not recommended so we decided to leave them alone. As it happened, they eluded us for the rest of the trip.

We normally do not see large elephant herds at Mana Pools. Some family groups come together at the height of the dry season while staying near the river. At the time of our visit, although the rains had not been abundant, there was still water inland and the elephant population was still spread out all over the park. The few elephants we saw were the usual resident bulls that seem to hang around the shores of the Zambezi. It was one of these that we found that morning and we derived entertainment watching it stretch for the apple-ring acacia branches and leaves. The pods, their favourite food later on in the dry season, were still small and immature so they were not the elephants’ target at the moment.

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A bull elephant stretches to feed under the special Mana Pools light.

Returning to camp at about eleven, we saw a large number of yellow-billed storks (Mycteria ibis) in one of the smaller segments of Long pool that usually dries up during the dry season. There was clearly something special going on that attracted such large number of birds so we decided to go and have a look. Getting closer we saw that there were also African spoonbills (Platalea alba), a few herons and also a few marabou storks. “So here they are”, I thought while stopping the car to get closer on foot.

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We saw a large number of storks congregated at Long pool.

The pool was full of birds and it appeared that mostly the yellow-billed storks were -again- catching other shoal of stranded fish.

They seemed to be alternatively “driving” the fish towards one of the narrow and shallow ends of the pond and, once there, they would pounce on their victims. Both the yellow-billed and the marabous seemed to be on the same wavelength and after fish. The few African spoonbills present, however, continued wading in their usual fashion as individuals and they did not seem to take any notice of the other birds.

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The yellow-billed storks chasing the fish in a coordinated fashion.

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Marabous waiting for the right time to join in.

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African spoonbill.

At first we assumed that the prey were catfish as we had seen earlier at the small bridge and on other occasions in Kenya (Maasai Mara) and Mozambique (Gorongosa). We soon saw, however, that this time the victims were silvery fish of 5 to 15 cm that were being picked in large numbers by the birds. Whether they were immature Chessa (Distichodus schenga) or Nkupe (Distichodus mossambicus) both common inhabitants of the lower Zambezi, or perhaps some other small fish I could not be sure. It was interesting to note that, as the pool was dry last year, the fish must have come in during the wet season through a connection between the pool and the Zambezi.

The yellow-billed storks outnumbered the marabous about 10:1 and they strode in groups following what looked like a cooperative fishing strategy. They would wade together towards one end of the pool driving the fish in front of them and then they will pick them from the reduced area they had created. They fished in their usual fashion; by placing their half open bills inside the water and snapping them shut when feeling a touch through a very fast reflex. They frequently caught fish but if they missed they would do a short chase that soon ended with or without a fish being caught and back to their feeding posture.

While this would take place, the marabous watched like smartly dressed supervisors. The moment the fish were trapped they would lose their bogus formality and join in the feeding frenzy with gusto! They would jump or fly in spreading their wings to make room for themselves submerging their heads under water to catch the fish. Often their feeding enthusiasm would be such that they would plunge almost totally in pursuit of the fish. Many of them had their gular sacs[1] inflated and probably their pouches full of fish. Many of them were also flashing a bright red bubble-like sack at the back of their necks, probably a consequence of their excited condition!

Although we witnessed the occasional confrontation between the two stork species, these were minor incidents and we saw no physical contact.

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A brief stand-off or “don’t step on my toes”

Conversely, there was a lot of interaction among the yellow-billed storks in the form of bill clattering, chasing and jumping facing each other. Occasionally the opponents would interlock their beaks as if involved in some kind of courtship. All these encounters were of short duration and the temporary “rivals” quickly got back to feeding. The grey immature yellow-billed storks congregated at the periphery of the pond, not taking part of the adults’ activities but trying their fishing technique as best they could where there were clearly less fish and I did not witnessed any catch.

While the collective fishing took place, a pair of fish eagles, perched on a tall dead tree, watched the storks attentively. They called regularly and, from time to time, they would swoop down among the alarmed storks and, at least once, one of them managed to snatch a fish although we could not see if it caught it itself or it robbed it from one of the fishing storks.

 

The following video gives a dynamic view of what we witnessed.

Note: I recommend that you watch it first as it is and then you use the cog wheel at the bottom right corner of the screen to slow it down and see things with more detail.

 

 

[1] Later, reading about marabous, I learnt that the large sacks that hang under their heads are not crops but gular sacs. The latter are cooling devices as well as used for displaying purposes.

Note added on 3 July 2016. One of the pictures above shows what I thought was a confrontation between a Marabou and a Yellow-billed stork. I saw that the Marabou was rather indifferent but I thought it was because of its size. However, looking at the picture again, I realized that the Yellow-billed stork was swallowing a fish! Additionally, the fish looks like a young Tilapia so the birds may have been feeding on these rather than on the other possible species I mentioned. Bushsnob

A new five

Kruger National Park in August was busy and we just managed to get a couple of cancellations that matched with our son’s visit as well as our annual medical check-up in Nelspruit, a hang up of our days at Maputo.

The park, even with low occupancy rates, is normally busy as it offers a large number of beds to the visitors in the various rest camps and other available facilities. For this reason, it is extremely difficult to find a corner where you can be on your own. Imagine how it was in August when the park is full!

It is interesting to note that visitors move a lot within the park and its roads are busy. Some entering or leaving the park, some moving from one camp to the next and most of them looking for animals, mainly for the big five! The consequence of the latter is that, once you find one of them, there will be a constant flow of cars that would watch the animal in question for a few minutes and then move off, in search of the next one! I have already covered this issue (see: https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2014/08/07/kruger-national-park-report/)

We were aware of this situation and decided to leave the big five for the next visit and focus on exploring a few less used roads and to improve our bird watching skills. In this department, I am pleased to inform you that we managed 99 species, about one fifth of the total number of species of the park!

Fishing was not in our plans as this is forbidden in the park. However, we crossed many rivers where wildlife can be observed! Normally this includes water birds and other creatures that come to drink or nibble tender grass associated with water. So we always stop and watch at river crossings!

One of the best places is the bridge over the Letaba River on the H1-6 road where you are allowed to get out of the car and have a look around while stretching your legs.

The Letaba River from the bridge.

Waterbucks drinking by the Letaba River bridge.

We have seen many interesting things in this place so it is an obligatory stop where we usually spend some time. You just need to be patient, unlike most motorists that drive past, some of them quite fast!

Green-backed heron fishing.

Green-backed heron fishing.

We surprised this pied kingfisher from the bridge.

We surprised this pied kingfisher from the bridge.

As soon as we got out we were literally hit by the pungent smell of bats, stronger than we remembered. The stink seemed to be emanating from the bridge’s cement joints, together with the bats’ high pitch calls. Although we tried hard, we failed to see them through the cracks so we investigated the outside of the bridge, also unsuccessfully. We were engaged on this task when we heard splashes in the shallow water so we forgot the bats that were not cooperating and went to look for the fish.

The area preferred by the fish.

The area preferred by the fish.

These were shoals of tilapia feeding on the water plants. There were many fish of various sizes. While watching the tilapia feeding we came across a lone and slender fish lying immobile a couple of metres away from the tilapia. It was a tiger fish sunning itself but clearly waiting for prey. Further watching revealed a few catfish as well. The latter were more abundant when we looked at the river on the other side of the bridge. There we saw several catfish of various sizes lying at the bottom of the river, all pointing in the direction of the current and being disturbed by the occasional terrapin passing by.

Interestingly, having polarized sunglasses helped me to see the fish clearly while my companions needed to strain their eyes until I decided to share my glasses with them (just before they tossed me over the rails!). Photography was, however, another matter as we did not have a polarizing filter and our attempts at taking pictures through my sunglasses proved fruitless!

Despite the bad results, we did take a few pictures that were forgotten in the memory card until we returned to Harare. Then, when sorting out the photos of the journey I saw a bunch of what appeared to be uniformly brown images. They were our “fish pictures” and the fish seemed to be immersed in murky water and only just visible! I tried a few of the options that Picasa offers and failed. I was about to delete them when I pressed the “I am feeling lucky” option and then as if by a miracle the fish became very clear as if the command would have sucked out the water!

I present you with an example of a non processed cloudy picture to show you what they really looked like as well as some of the processed ones as I believe are worth viewing as they are a demonstration that not only the big five are worth watching.

The fish to the naked eye.

The fish to the naked eye.

The picture above after the "magic" of Picasa!

The picture above after the “magic” of Picasa! Catfish are seen at the top while the tilapia are on the bottom left.

A large catfish.

A large catfish.

Catfish disturbed by a terrapin.

Catfish disturbed by a terrapin.

The tiger fish stalking.

The tiger fish stalking.

Before I end this post I would like to propose a new group of animals to be seen in Africa: the “Slippery Five”. I propose the crocodile, the hippo, the python, the catfish and the terrapin as its members in an attempt at persuading visitors to pay more attention to the water courses and its inhabitants -both outside an inside the water- in the national parks!