15th annual Murchison Falls Invitational Fishing Tournament – MFIFT
Fishing into the Future
by Georgie More, Jerry Burley and Pete Baldwin
6.30am and the river’s edge is a-buzz with activity; boat engines idling, fishing rods and tackle boxes being loaded onboard and references made to antics the prior evening as old friends caught up. Flasks of coffee sit ready to wash away the fog and last minute panicking is the norm. “Did you remember the tinned sweetcorn?”……..“You said you’d bring it, hello!??.”
February of this year saw Murchison Falls National Park and the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) play host to the 15th annual Murchison Falls Invitational Fishing Tournament, or MFIFT as it’s now known, won this year by Paul Bartman of Nile Breweries, South Sudan. Started in 2001 by Peter Bowser and a ragged bunch of fishermen, the event has morphed into a successful charitable event that attracts participants from around the angling globe. The first competitions were based out of the campsite above the falls owing to the fact that private boats were not allowed due to the Lord’s Resistance Army terror activities in the area. Thankfully those days have passed and anglers are not only permitted but now encouraged to bring their own boats into the park.
The MFIFT takes place over three full days in late February or early March in order to avoid the rains, when water levels rise, water clarity lessens and fish become significantly harder to catch. The river between the Falls and the delta is divided into three sections and the opening night sees anglers’ boats drawn at random for sectors. Each boat fishes a different stretch of river daily and this aspect alone creates huge debate amongst the fishermen, as the merits of starting the event in a particular “beat” are routinely and loudly argued in true fisherman form.
Murchison Falls National Park (MFNP) represents possibly the last protected area in which to target Lates Niloticus or the mighty Nile perch. Coveted by anglers the world over, the perch must surely be in the top 5 freshwater species to catch. Kenya, Tanzania, Egypt and Nigeria also hold stocks of Niloticus, however the protected status of Uganda’s flagship national park and resulting stocks of fish, when added to the incredible scenery, create arguably the most spectacular place on the planet in which to fish for these giants.
Opening night sees UWA guests of honour arrive at the venue to officially declare the MFIFT open. The support given by UWA has been remarkable and a sport which was once seen as a bizarre activity practiced by ‘muzungus’, has gathered fantastic momentum and support over recent years. Being a strictly “Catch & Release” event (meaning all target fish can only count for points if successfully returned to the river alive), there was naturally some resulting incredulity on the part of non-sport fisherman here in Uganda.
This is perfectly understandable in a country where land pressures, a rising population and subsequent food insecurity are all very real. The stakeholders and organisers have supported UWA in their bid to show the value of sport fishing as a revenue generation source. Put simply, a 50kg Nile perch renders circa 35kg of usable flesh with a current market value of approximately Ugx 600,000. That same fish, caught and released just once and having been pursued by sport fishermen for only 10 ‘fishing days’ (we wish it were so!) generates for UWA Ugx 2,200,000 in fishing and entry permits alone. Released alive, it then continues to generate money through tourism.
Whilst it is important to note that recreational angling will never and must not ever exist at the expense of artisanal fishing, having a protected resource that complements the more mainstream tourist activities can only be of benefit to the economy. Moreover, whilst a small sector in comparison, sport fishermen contribute on average $50 per day more than other regular tourists through fishing permits and boat launch fees. Indeed, with the support of UWA and their anti-poaching activities, fishermen in this year’s event were able to catch and return over 1.4 tons of target species plus some species not previously identified!
However, we digress…….
7am and the horn sounds for the start of the day’s fishing. Boats pull away from the jetties and head off to their various sectors. The first order of the day when on site is usually to secure live bait, which will be used later to catch the perch. This aspect of fishing can either set the tone for a relaxed day with rod in hand or cause enduring headaches if live-wells remain empty after the first few hours. A key rule of the tournament is that live bait must be caught within the park and within the hours of competition. This means that on Day 1, all fishermen must catch one of the many species used for this. However, in order to reduce the impact on the stocks and free up valuable time in pursuit of the target Nile perch, any live bait caught can be kept alive overnight for use the following day.
The event began as – and still remains – an invitational event. Furthermore, there are a controlled number of boats permitted each year. Both factors help minimize the environmental impact, ensure the entrants all share the MFIFT ethos of this charitable event and help with safety issues that might emanate from overcrowding. The ‘invitational’ aspect of the competition means that it is not open to tourism companies wishing to enter boats and charge individuals money for the pleasure of competing, again safe guarding the charitable side of the event. In a location that boasts large numbers of crocodile and hippo alongside serious water currents and submerged rocks, safety naturally weighs heavily each year. For these reasons each boat must have a minimum of two competitors onboard and various items of safety equipment but it remains testament to the competitors and sponsors alike that to date, no injuries have been sustained beyond the small cuts and bruises that complement the ever-present threat of dehydration. As to the split in causes of dehydration cases, be it the brutal heat and sunshine or excessive imbibing, in election terms it remains ‘too close to call’……..
MFIFT went through a rocky patch during the middle years of its existence, when it became international in nature, large prizes took over and the spirit of the event was diminished as a result. After a lot of soul searching, informal chats with present and past competitors and consultations with sponsors, it was agreed in 2011 to completely reinvent the MFIFT as a purely charitable tournament. Gone were the large prizes and gone as a result were some competitors. But like anything, life moves on regardless and through consultation with both fishermen and sponsors, we have hopefully reached an appropriate balance of competition, fun and fundraising, whilst still respecting and supporting the environment in which the event is staged.
Working with the UWA, MFIFT has supported numerous organisations and entities over the last five years, including Soft Power Education and the Uganda Conservation Foundation. The focus currently is on the direct support of the UWA through the provision of new motorbikes, anti-poaching patrol boats and the continued revenue generated from entry fees. Paraa Primary School, where the majority of pupils are rangers’ children, is also now a firm priority for competitors and sponsors and for the second year running they have received books, paint, sports equipment, musical instruments and computers. In total, the MFIFT has generated for the park and its stakeholders in excess of $100,000 over the past five years (including 4 motorbikes and a boat complete with Yamaha engine) and we hope to maintain this level of support year on year. All participants are mindful of what a privilege it is to fish in this fabulous conservation area and that this privilege must be earned and respected.
Needless to say, the event would not be possible without the support of the many partners who turn up, put up and support it year on year and it would be completely remiss not to mention them at this point. Murchison River Lodge has for the last three years hosted the event and the owners of this fantastic venue donate all proceeds from the fishermen staying with them straight back to the event. Nile Breweries Limited (SAB Miller) consistently lead-sponsor the event with product and a sizeable cash injection; the cold bottles of beer in the well-stocked bar being truly welcomed after 11 hours on the river! Wild Frontiers take time out from their regular guided fishing trips to provide safety boats and staff in order to ensure a quick response to fish caught and to address issues that might arise regarding competitors boats. Equator Catering provide the logistics, food and general order to the event and Toyota/Yamaha regularly donate motorbikes and vehicle services. Special thanks must also go to the following for their unwavering support: Keltron, Expedition Outfitters, Uganda Oxygen Limited, Mutoni Construction, Classic Africa Safaris, East African Underwriters, Sadolin Paints, Terrain Services Limited & Goodyear.