Stats, finance reports and words by: Georgie More, Peter Baldwin, Jerry Burley
Photo’s by: Andrew Nightingale, Ross Field, Grainne Burley, Jerry Burley
The 16th annual Murchison Falls Invitational Fishing Tournament again leaves fishermen with more questions than answers
It really doesn’t seem that long ago that we were penning the article about the 15th Murchison Falls Invitational Fishing Tournament (MFIFT), which surprised and rewarded competitors with a competition record catch of just under two tonnes of target fish measured during this well known, three-days duration, catch-and-release event. I use the word “measured” advisedly, as no longer are fish weighed but instead are compared and recorded via the use of a “girth-and-length” combination table, and requiring nothing more complex or invasive than the judicious use of a seamstresses fabric tape measure to complete the process. That this can now be done alongside a boat with the hooked fish still in the water reduces stress and therefore further improves on survivability after capture. In a further attempt to reduce this stress and damage, circle hooks are now compulsory, as opposed to the old, standard “J” shaped hook. Circle hooks are designed to ‘self-set’ in the corner of the fish’s mouth and effectively reduce the risk of a ‘deep hook’; that is to say the hook being swallowed and becoming extremely difficult to remove. So, improvements in line with modern thinking and the latest techniques have now been applied. Fishing of course will never please everyone but then what does?
This year’s event, running for three days into the first weekend of March, was hung off the tail end of one of the driest spells of weather here that I can recall. The Lake Victoria and Nile River waters were extremely low, with the water temperature at the Paraa river crossing being 29 degrees centigrade, again equaling the highest temperature for which we have records. There was clearly some hyacinth or papyrus clearing going on up-stream, most likely in Lake Kyoga to try to improve the water flow through into the Sudd and on into Egypt, which made for very dirty waters over the first two days. The innocuous-looking Kariba weed (the aptly named Salvina molesta) added to the detritus in the river which soon blocked up engines, hooks and lines. Kariba weed represents a serious threat to the waterways of Uganda and will require a succinct and timely response and as such the event will be writing formally to UWA and to the Ministry of Agriculture to lodge our concerns about this new threat to our eco-system here.
It was admittedly a new moon (usually a good thing for fishing) but there was quite a bit of rainfall seen further upstream and some very strong winds blew through a couple of times that whipped the river up into a frenzy. Hey ho, I hear you all chorus, here come the excuses for not catching, in true fisherman form. So let’s be honest with hands duly raised; the catch this year was down, by a hefty 50% margin and we don’t really know why. Back to all that in a minute though.
After a thoroughly agreeable Wednesday drive north up and into Murchison Falls and on to Paraa in the Hilux, where some early birds were already launching and preparing boats, this was then followed by the short hop along the river to the fabulous Murchison River Lodge, the accommodation venue for this year’s event, again generously turned over in its entirety, free of charge, by owner Chris Higginson. Part of the event revenue is generated by selling these rooms on to fishermen, and the lodge has developed and mellowed into one of the absolutely best places to stay if you are in the Murchison south bank area. Self-camping, basic tents provision, self-contained luxury safari tents and fully equipped, two storey bandas are all available. The main bar and restaurant area overlook the river in total splendour from a height of some 30 ft and the breeze that blows off the water is very welcome in these elevated parks temperatures. This year one of our most supportive, main title sponsors, Nile Breweries, brought up a full sized, self-contained bar with no less than three different draft lagers (Nile Special, Club and Castle Light) on offer, all fully chilled to pub temperatures via large refrigeration units, as well as supplies of tinned Castle Light beers to keep fishermen cheerful on their boats as well. When you add a few gourmet dinners and full English breakfasts as provided by Equator Catering, you may be beginning to wonder why we all bother to keep going back, year after year. Well, keep wondering, because the secret is safe with us.
60 individuals grabbed a fishing rod by the butt and set forth in 22 boats each day at 7am, all seeking to add their name to the just 15 others whose moniker adorns the coveted winner’s trophy from years gone by. As ever rotating each day through the three demarcated sectors between the Falls and as far downstream as the Lake Albert delta (for the brave), all the usual challenges were encountered. Fast water, rocks, floating rubbish, tree branches, heat, crocodiles, hippo pods and tsetse flies (in admittedly slightly reduced numbers this year) all conspired to make folk work for their pleasure. The shallow waters this year had several boats stuck on sand bars and dirt in engine water galleries was a permanent pain, ending the life of one outboard motor on Day 3 through over-heating. However, the biggest headache, that was certainly largely to blame for the low catch this year, was the widespread inability of many to catch the primary bait fish species, the small, sub-2kg ‘Awaka’ that are the main food of the target Nile Perch.
On the Saturday I had a drive into the park with my wife. This was mainly to take the borrowed Toyota Hilux out on some lesser roads for a test run and to photograph it in some different environments for another job. Some 10kms up the road from Paraa we came across a UWA Cruiser pickup, pulled up on the side of the road. As I know a few of the Murchison rangers by sight, I stopped to say hello and to check that they didn’t have a mechanical problem. There were four of them, standing around a number of bergens and weapons, chatting about something or other. After the usual formal introductions I finally noticed that squatting down amidst the patrol paraphernalia was a fifth individual, not in uniform, with a pile of rusty wire rope and the longest (and heaviest) hunting spear I have seen in a long while stuck in the ground next to him. Barefoot, filthy from the soot-blackened surroundings of the recently-burned savannah, was a suspected poacher whom the patrol had just apprehended going about his believed nefarious business.
One of many that operate illegally in the park of course but today he was unlucky enough to a) be caught in the first place and b) bump into your scribe here with a Nikon camera. This story is not the appropriate forum for a rant about poaching and to the rangers it was just another day and another poacher. Lots of poachers are much more heavily armed than this man was though and many rangers have lost their lives following contacts and firefights with these desperate gangs of ruthless men. I congratulated the rangers on their result, heaved over some bottles of water and soda pop and was off again on my merry way. That night, back at MRL, a small whip round in the bar put a couple of hundred thousand Shillings into an envelope as a small thank-you from the folk there for a job well done. By noon on Sunday the poacher was already in Buliisa nick, awaiting his moment in the sun in front of the beak in the magistrates court and I presume a subsequent rapid decline in his levels of liberty, comfort and protein in his diet.
When you are next in a park, I encourage you to stop and talk to the rangers when you bump into them on patrol. They are invariably good guys, performing an oft-thankless and dangerous task in the toughest of conditions. I’ve been on patrol with them a couple of times so I have experienced these conditions fleetingly; the ever-present threat of a contact with poachers and the risk of putting your foot into a vicious wheel trap miles from any kind of help are permanently with you. A bottle or two of water, a few Shillings for some airtime so they can call home or a spare sandwich from your cold box will be more appreciated than you think.
This brief encounter also reminded me of the intrinsic value of the annual bike donation made by MFIFT via Toyota/Yamaha. In a huge park the size of Murchison, with its widely scattered infrastructure, transport is always an issue. Sure, a truck or pickup will always be needed for moving heavy and large objects around or for mobilizing people en masse, such as during a full patrol deployment, but for the little ranger posts that are found throughout the area, a bike is often the only transport option available.
Day 1 and Day 2 passed relatively uneventfully, the usual minor boat woes and inevitable cuts, scrapes, bites (fishermen can be a vicious bunch) and other self-inflicted wounds acknowledged and dealt with. However, the dark spectre of a reduced catch loomed like a low cloud over a summer barbeque and it was becoming clear that nothing short of a minor miracle on Day 3 would see the previous years’ monumental record catch challenged. And so it was to be, when the tournament referee’s final Hilux hooter klaxon closed the event at 6pm on the Saturday night down at the ferry crossing. Everyone who went out came back safely but no-one was quite sure who had actually won. The new computerized scoring spread sheet was completed and many competent fisherman were conspicuous by their blanking – not a single target fish caught by them over the three days. This of course is always a bitter pill to swallow after the anticipation, the effort to prepare, the travel and the cost of taking part but nonetheless perhaps reflects the vagaries of fishing in general and of the Nile River in Murchison in particular. I say things passed uneventfully but we were sorry to lose three Kenyan competitors early on in the event who were obliged to return home to deal with a nasty incident that had occurred during the on-going conflict in the Laikipia area.
Bear in mind that approximately USD20,000 remains in the park, one way or the other, after this event is over and the majority of this has come out of people’s pockets. Fishing as a whole In Murch contributes about USD100,000 per year to the UWA coffers.
These days the relatively modest prizes on offer at the MFIFT event have become of secondary importance. It’s simply the opportunity to take part that everyone wants, the chance to pursue one’s hobby in such magnificent surroundings and the possibility of putting your name on the winner’s trophy of what must be the greatest competitive annual fresh water fishing event on the continent. Am I biased in claiming this? No, I don’t need to be biased here, because it is true.…..it is just a shame that so few folk will ever get to find out for themselves.
The cash side of things then briefly summarized looks a bit like this. Sponsorship items given in monetary terms UShs/$ includes mixed beer and water UShs6,000,000, Nile Breweries Limited staff and equipment UShs4,000,000 and the very generous UShs10,000,000 in cash from them, the Yamaha motorbike from Toyota Uganda Limited USD4,400, donated Sonar GPS units USD1,500, accommodation/use of lodge USD4,160, safety boats and crew 2 x 3 days USD2,100. So in total UGX 10,000,000 and USD$12,160 was raised. On top of this there are the event and park entrance fees and other permits for 60 fishermen that are paid directly to UWA.
With a final vote of thanks due to UWA and all their staff, we look forward to seeing many of you back to try your luck again next year.