Posted by: 1000fish | April 19, 2019

Land of Origins

Dateline: January 26, 2019 – Lake Zway, Ethiopia

You would think Ethiopia would be an unlikely place for me to visit a relative, but we could actually all visit a cousin there. Her name is Lucy. At 3.2 million years old, at the time she was discovered, she was the oldest known human ancestor, just edging out Joan Collins. Lucy’s skeleton was found in 1974 in Eastern Ethiopia, and in the ensuing 45 years, she has been studied more than any other 12 year-old on the planet. And somewhere in the complex pea soup of human origins, she is all of our cousin. I am sure this is going to get some hostile comments, likely from the same people who went nuts when I hinted that Custer wasn’t exactly an American hero, but deal with it.

She has had an enormous influence on science, even without her own Instagram and YouTube channels.

And what, you are already asking, does this have to do with fishing? Because, you are thinking, even Steve is not dedicated enough to make a trip to Ethiopia just to go fishing, because, you imagine (correctly) that there is not a lot of fishing there. But this is what separates the casual from the pathological species hunter – the willingness to go to increasingly esoteric places in the hopes of adding just one or two more fish to “the list.” Plus, it was on the way to other destinations in East Africa, but that is a tale for the next blog.

When I was figuring out my first trip of 2019, sometime last winter, Ethiopia kept popping up. I had flown through there on my way to Kenya in 2018, and it always bothers me when I visit a country and don’t go fishing there. I actually keep a small kit of handlines in my carry-on, just in case an airport has something swimming around a decorative fountain. But Addis Ababa lacks such a feature, which bothered me. So, on my way back into Africa, I decided to make a brief stopover in “the land of origins” and somehow find a way to catch a fish there.

A geography refresher on where we find Addis Ababa.

This is where the internet can be such a wonderful thing. After 20 minutes of online searching, I found Biniam Taye.

The first photo I found of Biniam. There is water in the background. Bingo!

Biniam runs a tour company in Ethiopia, where there are actually loads of things to see – ancient monasteries, archaeological sites as old as time, rugged scenery, and wonderful, warm people. As you all know, I didn’t see any of these things. Instead, I took a perfectly good tour guide out of his comfort zone and asked him to find me some endemic Ethiopian fish. (Because some genius has also put rainbow trout here.) In an email stream that never seemed to lose enthusiasm, Biniam designed a two-day adventure in and out of Addis Ababa that would give me a shot at getting some kind of fish and at least putting Ethiopia on my country list. But first, I had to get there.

I had to be in Europe for business, so I was already more than halfway to Africa. After a thrilling week of company “kickoff meetings,” where hopelessly out-of-touch “leadership” explains increasingly confusing “plans” to consistently fewer “employees,” I was winging my way south. It’s about eight hours to Addis Ababa from Frankfurt, and Ethiopian Air, despite the recent tragedy, has always been nothing but on time and reliable for me. (And I’ll bet you a steak dinner that the Addis Ababa crash turns out to be Boeing’s fault.)

I arrive in Addis Ababa.

Biniam, a slight man with an irrepressible smile, met me after baggage claim and whisked me off to the Hilton downtown. Nobody said I was roughing it, although the pancakes at the buffet were a bit lukewarm.

And I know at least a few of my more hipster friends looked at the dateline and said “Oh, yay! Ethiopian food!” No, no. no. It’s like you haven’t paid attention for nine years. I am not culinarily adventurous, and this didn’t suddenly change. I subsisted the entire time on REI freeze-dried camping food and the aforementioned Hilton buffet, much to Biniam’s quiet disappointment. I am sure many of you would love the local cuisine, and I certainly encourage you to visit, but if Marta tries to drag me to one more “fun” restaurant that doesn’t serve things I recognize, I will eat Burger King for a week just to protest.

The next morning, Biniam and Alemayehu the driver picked me up early and we headed south. Addis Ababa is a giant city, and we worked our way through traffic for close to an hour, but when we got out of the urban sprawl, we were suddenly in wide-open high desert. Less than an hour later, we pulled over at our first fishing stop – the Awash River.

My first look at the Awash.

Traffic jam on the bridge.

I got out and looked at the conditions – shallow, cloudy river, bridge pilings, plenty of vegetation – and I was fairly confident I could catch something. Lucy had lived in the Awash River Valley, a few hundred miles upstream.

The locals here don’t see a lot of tourists, and they certainly don’t see a lot of tourist fishermen, so I attracted quite a crowd. They were very polite, even the kids – they just wanted to see what I was doing.

I didn’t put on much of a show. I ran a float and bait in all the likely shallow structures and got nothing. Biniam then told me he had rented a boat for us – one of the local wooden skiffs. I boarded carefully, although the things are much sturdier than they look. The boatman rowed us out to some current breaks a half mile downriver.

Biniam enjoys the boat ride.

I watched some other fishermen pulling up some of the thousands of nets that line the river, and all of them were full of sharptooth catfish. This made me feel better, but after an hour out there, it was clear the things weren’t going to hit any of the baits I had. We still had an afternoon of lake fishing ahead of us, so I did not lose heart, but it was clear that this was not going to be easy. My inner pessimist started saying things like “You’re fishing in ETHIOPIA. What did you think was going to happen?”

Once we got back to shore, I couldn’t help but run my float and micro-rig back though some anchored boats and pilings. About 10 minutes later, out of the corner of my eye, I saw the float dip under the water. I set and missed, but as Martini can tell you, once I see a bite, it is difficult to get me to leave. I stuck it out without repeating the bite for at least an hour, but just as my resolve was waning, the float dipped again. Despite the fact that my inner child was screaming “OHMYGODOHMYGODOHMYGOD,” I managed to remain outwardly calm and let it swim for a moment. I then gently set and had a fish on. It pulled reasonably hard, and with a delicate tanago hook on, I had to be careful. A long minute later, I landed a small sharptooth catfish and added Ethiopia as the 92nd country where I had caught a fish.

Biniam may have been more thrilled than I was.

It was also nice to catch an African sharptooth catfish in Africa. My only other one was a random catch in a pond in Thailand with our old friend Jean-Francois.

We headed for the lake a while later. We went through a few small towns, but the scenery was mostly open scrub.

And the occasional marabou stork blocking our way. These birds are four feet tall and fearless.

We arrived at Batu Town mid-afternoon, and after a quick check-in at the hotel Bethlehem and a bag of REI beef stew, I was ready to hunt the lake for species. We met a local boatman and his son at the launch, and I couldn’t help but marvel at what a big place lake Zway was.

The son was an incredibly serious kid. 

I could see a few islands and some hills in the distance, but I couldn’t make out the other shore. We motored out onto the lake – it was shallow, but it looked like it had enough structure to hold a good population of fish.

Lake Zway.

In researching the topic, I had discovered that there were seven species of fish living here, and I hadn’t caught five of them. So I had high hopes. But I always have high hopes, whether reasonable or not.

We pulled up on a scenic island about five miles out. Biniam pointed out the ruins of an ancient monastery, where it is alleged the Ark of the Covenant once was kept, although I could see no signs of Indiana Jones. He even asked if I wanted to go look at it, which means he doesn’t know me all that well – of course, I was going to fish. I set up a couple of rods with decent-sized baits in hopes of catching one of the endemic cyprinids, and then got my micro-rig out. The group marveled at the tininess of my hook. Now I know how Jim Larosa feels.

The shoreline we fished.

The big rods were suspiciously quiet, but I kept busy working the shoreline rocks. After about an hour, I had no hits, but stuck stubbornly at it, because I didn’t have any better ideas. Somewhere in hour two, I worked my way to some rocks under an overhanging tree, and my teensy float finally dipped. I missed it completely. I cast again. After a few tries, I got hit again, and hooked up some sort of micro. In my excitement, I set the hook a bit too hard and fired the thing 10 feet up onto the bank, but after a brief chase, I cornered it and took photos.

I had captured a Garra – which is sort of an African stoneroller.

And with that, I exploded with joy, to the great astonishment and barely-concealed amusement of my companions. But there is no room for shame in the species-hunting world. I had gotten my first species of 2019, and I had done it very far from home.

A closeup of the beast.

The big rods stayed quiet. Late in the day, we moved to another spot on the island and gave the bigger fish another try.

The back side of the island was mostly cliffs.

The group – me, the boatman, the serious child, and Biniam.

The fish didn’t cooperate, as often happens in places where there is tremendous fishing pressure and nets everywhere, but this is not a sport fishery – this is what the people eat. Ethiopia is a poor country, and I was glad to have gotten what I did. We motored home into a beautiful sunset.

Heading home.

It was a quiet evening. After a bag of REI chili, I did a few emails, downloaded my photos, and took a short walk before I went to sleep. The fields behind the hotel opened onto miles of empty space and empty sky, not much changed since Lucy was looking up at it a few million years ago. I wonder what she would think of us now.

The same view in the daytime. In hindsight, I should have been worried about scorpions.

Random donkeys nuzzling by the water.

We gave it another shot in the morning, moving to a spot on the far north of the lake. For someone who has never fished, Biniam did a great job of maximizing our opportunities. If your travel plans include Ethiopia, you can find him at or reach him directly on

Heading out on day two.

Another marabou stork. These birds are awesome.

We got an assorted tilapia here and there, but nothing new to report. (I am done trying to tell the difference between a blue tilapia and a Nile tilapia. Any ideas out there?)

Again, the local kids were very interested in what I was doing. That’s Biniam and Alemayehu the driver (holding my rods) in the background as well.

We finished up back at the Awash River spot, where I got a few more small sharptooth. It had been a good trip – a country and a species, and there are supposed to be even more endemics in Northern Ethiopia, so you never know when I might return. Just as we started back on the main freeway, we were interrupted by a camel caravan.

They are really cool, even if they smell worse than my socks.

Looking toward the mountains.

I had also planned to pay Lucy a brief visit, figuring she was going to be at the National Museum of History in Addis Ababa. I had a few free hours the next morning before I would fly to Tanzania, and I couldn’t think of a better way to spend the time. The night before this was supposed to happen, however, I made a shocking discovery. Lucy’s actual remains are displayed in Cleveland, where the scientist who discovered her was based. I was saddened to think I would never meet her, as there are some places even I will not travel.




  1. Custer was a hero of Virginia.

    Sent from my iPhone

  2. Hope next trip is better for new fish.

  3. […] timing. Since I was already in Europe for meetings, I had decided to make a swing through Africa. Ethiopia had been a success, by the modest fishing standards one would expect of Ethiopia, but Tanzania has some big-time […]

  4. […] African Sharptooth catfish, quite a bit larger than the examples I caught in Ethiopia. That’s Emerson on the […]

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