In response to a widespread decline in fisheries, scientists and policy makers have constructed models outlining the biological and social drivers that cause changes in fishing intensity and methods identified with overfishing. The models also address the consequences of overfishing, namely changes in biomass, trophic structure and ecosystem resilience, as well as increased poverty and vulnerability of the fishers, particularly in the developing world. While these models have emerged from marine and coastal fisheries, they have also been used to identify overfishing in floodplain fisheries and to guide management recommendations. In this article, we critique the assumptions of a global overfishing narrative describing the serial depletion of fish species, increased fishing effort and fisher dependence, which are considered valid by various stakeholders in the floodplain fisheries of the Upper Zambezi River. We find that researchers highlight how the inherent variability of the floodplain environment defies the simple diagnoses of overfishing, based on changes in effort and methods or livelihood. However, the views of policy makers and local users on the 'problem of overfishing' are that the fish biomass is declining and intensive fishing methods are to blame, which largely resonate with the narrative. We consider how differing emphasis on parts of the narrative by stakeholders has implications for management, and what such differences tell us about the malleability of narratives.