Fly Fishing With An AK47 – Jamie Melvin


When Iolaus first started, we wanted to find some new and intrepid fishing. To do this we had to get off the beaten track. But where would we go to seek this wild untouched nirvana we were dreaming of. Having both grown up in Kenya and knowing about most of Uganda and Tanzania’s fishing, we looked to Ethiopia.

Ethiopia you say? Land of wild coffee, injera (a soda pancake eaten with every meal), drought, famine and dry arid soil -or so the media has taught us over the years. When you think of Ethiopia, water doesn’t jump to mind but with a closer look through google earth you begin to see sections of mountains, lush forest, lakes and rivers.

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We booked our flights, hired a car for 28 days, packed the fishing gear and our tent and off we went into a country unknown to us. We first went to where we knew there were fish, the Bale Mountains. A tame environment by Africa’s standards but still full of beauty, wildlife and big rainbow trout. What a place for trout fishermen, and it should certainly be on every fly anglers’ bucket list.

Leaving Bale, we drove to Western Ethiopia. The drive took 4 days on a rutted dusty road through the central highlands. We crossed the Omo River, fished some of its tributaries, entered lush rainforests full of wild coffee, met some Israelis (they are somehow everywhere) and made our way to Gambella.


A family friend, Sanne, was there running a project to create a national park in the area because there is a huge migration of white-eared cobb, a type of antelope that move into the region in their millions. It was through him that we learned of the rivers and lakes in the area.

Gambella is a very different region of Ethiopia. Being Nilotic, the people are much darker skinned and much taller, they reminded us of the Turkana from Kenya, where some of them had moved to or from, a long time ago. The environment is hot and humid, a cross between swamp and savannah and everything wants to eat you; mosquitos, snakes and crocodiles, to name a few.

Being very close to the Sudanese border and due to the ongoing unrest in South Sudan, it is a refuge for people fleeing the violence of their homelands. With such huge tribal diversity, unrest is common but controlled; there are guns in the hands of soldiers on every street in the town.

Arriving at Sanne’s compound, we unpacked and opened up the map to see what rivers we could access on foot and began to make a plan to explore them. We had crossed a river on the way down which was crystal clear with boulders, pools and runs, the kind of river that gets any fishermen’s mouth watering. We decided we would start there. 

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Sanne said he would help us explore if we could assess the sport fishing potential of the area in order to create a revenue chain for the national park and protect the rivers from agriculture and over-fishing. Fishing for conservation is what Iolaus is all about so we of course signed up and the deal was done.

On the drive to the river, Hapte, one of Sanne’s colleagues (a short amusing man from one of the Omo tribes who quickly became our good friend), mentioned we had to first go and pick up some armed soldiers to escort us up the river because of the possibility of bandits in the area.

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There we were, miles from any town or village, on a crystal clear river in the hot sun, surrounded by Africa’s ruggedness in absolute peace (minus the four AK47’s, the crocodiles and the rock pythons of course). We worked the river hard and had a great day catching tigerfish and barbel, seeing a rock python maybe 15-20ft long and without any encounters of bandits or crocodiles.

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Back at the house, we got the map out again. The river running through Gambella had villages all the way down it and agriculture to the bank – not very appealing to a fisherman or a fish. Six hours south of us was another river surrounded by dense forest – this was what we had been looking for. This river, as well as looking perfect on the map, had its own issues; bandits, and bad ones.

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The Murle tribe are a gang of gun wielding cattle rustlers who believe that all cows on earth belong to them and that it was their mission from God to recapture them all. Mercilessly, they frequently cross from South Sudan into Ethiopia, killing the men, raping the women and stealing the children and cattle.

It wouldn’t be easy to go there and having liaised with the military, we had to wait for the go ahead. For the next few days we explored the area around Gambella town while receiving daily security updates. Eventually we were given the green light. We loaded up the car, attached the boat and trailer and off we went. The journey was long and went well except for when one of the wheels came off the boat trailer and bounced past the car window! But we fixed that.

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We arrived in a town close to the river and picked up our military escorts, launched the boat and drove up river for about 20-30 kilometers, the engine bumping into crocodiles as we went. We had arrived in the nirvana we had set out to find. A quiet river surrounded by lush forest and the only signs of humans were the charred remains of logs and nile perch skeletons. We set up camp on a sand bank that would become our home for the next five days.

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During the days we fished hard, catching all sorts of incredible species we had never encountered and at night cooked with our companions and gazed at the stars and the abundant fireflies. When reminded of the possible dangers around us on a daily basis by our escorts cocking their guns at the sign of any other human existence or when we moved past huge 20ft crocodiles, you remember that every environment has its drawbacks. The hairs on the back of your neck began to tingle, and sitting alert you feel every whisper of the air moving past you, your heart thumping in your ears.

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After the five days, we headed back to Gambella and then Addis and we left that place knowing we are the first two people in the world to have cast a fly into those rivers. What a feeling. Everything had gone according to plan and the story shows the length fishermen are prepared to go to find fish; even gun wielding bandits won’t stop us.

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The Gambella region is not one of our destinations yet because of the security and logistical difficulties of the area. We will go back there though and if this kind of adventure is up your ally and you’re prepared for the risks email us. We offer similar trips throughout East Africa, less the guns and bandits, check out our home page for more details.

** This story was originally featured on the Iolaus blog. Be sure to check out their website for the amazing guide trips they host throughout Africa.

6Jamie’s take on fly fishing in Africa’s wilderness comes direct from his childhood. He grew up fishing the wild rivers of central Kenya’s mountains and he uses his depth of experience to really put you in the situation with his writing below. He now runs Iolaus with his partner Sven, and together they specialise in taking clients into Africa’s magical waterways. Drop him an email to chat about fly fishing Africa,


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