Dateline: February 20, 2011 – Dubai, United Arab Emirates
Yes, I know the title stinks, but only other thing I could thing of was “I Bream of Jeannie,” and that was worse.
Who the heck goes fishing in the Middle East when the whole place is in open rebellion? (The answer should be fairly obvious.) I was on a business trip to Germany, and figured I was so close I might as well drop into the UAE and do a bit of fishing. I grant you that’s a bit like deciding to run to Miami from Los Angeles, but it’s still just one flight from Frankfurt and I had the frequent flyer miles. My other option was dropping in on Egypt, but one of my three critical travel rules is “No gunfire.” (The other two are “Bugs are not food” and “No one that tall is really a girl.”)
I could only wrangle a couple of days away from work, so the trick was to get into Dubai late on Saturday, find a guide for Sunday and Monday, play a bit of tourist on Tuesday and take a 2am flight out of Dubai on Wednesday, arriving back in Frankfurt at 6am to then catch a 2pm flight home to San Francisco, arriving there at 5pm to then go play a 9pm hockey game. WHEW. I got winded even writing that sentence. Travel experts refer to that as a “long day.” The fishing part of the plan was relatively easy to pull off – the guys at the IGFA got me in touch with the local rep, and he found me Wayne Guthrie, a South African expat and tremendous fisherman. I figured I could handle playing tourist by myself.
The flight over was a bit weird – the only available mileage seat was first class on Lufthansa. I don’t usually fly first class, and it was flat-out strange seeing Germans try to act French. But they couldn’t help themselves – one of the meal choices, in between the gourmet offerings, was sauerbraten. (But with a side of foie gras.) I don’t eat foie gras because somebody told me what it is. Of course, if anyone told me what was really in a Cheese Whopper, I wouldn’t eat that either, so please please don’t say anything.
My first impression of Dubai – a massive line for customs, at midnight. Perfect to spike the blood pressure for someone like me, but once I got in the cab, the view became interesting. Dubai is a lot like Las Vegas: architecturally over-the-top buildings popping randomly out of a desert. It’s as if no one mentioned how much might be too much to these guys – there is a man-made island in the shape of a palm and my hotel bathroom had a nude statue in it. (Which was NOT holding a stingray.) But there is very limited booze and no gambling and the cab drivers speak better English than their Vegas counterparts. Before I went to sleep, I wandered a bit around the marina area – there was architecture ranging from ultra-modern to Roman to downright fanciful … all right next to each other. It seemed like any space that didn’t have some sort of wild-looking building on it had one under construction. The downtown is vibrant – simply sparkling with high-end shops, hotels, and restaurants. The culture does take a bit of getting used to for an American. For example, public displays of affection are frowned upon. Now, I was by myself, so I grant you that one-person PDAs are actionable almost anywhere, but a married couple I know who live there were stopped by the police for standing too close together at the mall. Not holding hands, standing too close together. And they actually had to produce documents proving that they were married. Still, their country, their rules, and as guests, we should respect them.
Apparently, it had been windy as heck in Dubai for the past 3 weeks. The day before I fished, the wind had laid down but the water was still sloppy enough to make a couple of Wayne’s clients impressively seasick. (Although there were no photos to rival the fabled Half Moon Bay “plumber shot.” See https://1000fish.wordpress.com/2010/08/07/im-a-sole-man/) On Sunday the 20th, there was light chop and a touch of breeze, so all systems go. Wayne and I motored out into the hazy early morning sunshine, and I was primed to add country #67.
The Dubai Skyline at dawn. The really tall building in the middle is called “The Really Tall Building.”
Of course, after three weeks of bad weather, the water was roiled up and colder than normal, so the fishing started slowly. I always tell myself, “I’m going to be happy as long as I catch SOMETHING.” Because no matter how miniscule that something might be, at least I added the new country to my list and the trip was worth it. But as soon as SOMETHING hits the deck, then I start thinking about more esoteric topics, like new species and world records. But first, I needed to catch SOMETHING.
The SOMETHING I got first was an Ehrenberg’s Snapper – on the small side but a new species. As we worked from spot to spot, I also got two other newbies, the Black-Streaked Monocle Bream and the Orange-Spotted Trevally. Still, I wasn’t going to be pleased until Wayne stopped saying “Oh, those make great bait.”
“Those make great bait.” I don’t think Wayne had any idea how much it hurt every time he said that.
But these make even better bait. See below.
We kept exploring, working our way well offshore. A lot of guides might anchor up on one spot and hope, but this guy was constantly moving, running all over the place, trying new locations, new bait, new tactics … we drifted, we anchored, we trolled. He was clearly pained that we weren’t getting anything beastly, and even though he usually only hunts gamefish like jacks and barracuda, he started down the path to that disturbed “species hunter” mindset. “Oh yeah, there is that red thing we catch on the bottom sometimes,” he volunteered. “Oh, and there’s this jack we get, and this white thing – I have no idea what it’s called.” That’s a sign of a great guide: someone who can adjust to what the client wants. But it still must pain a professional like him to think about purposefully trying to catch 8-inch fish. Except if it’s for bait.
Wayne had said it was shallow off Dubai, and he wasn’t kidding. We were 30 miles out, and the depth was under 90 feet. (30 miles off San Francisco, the ocean is thousands of feet deep.) We poked around looking for rocky outcroppings, not reefs really, just small high spots here and there. More small fish, nothing else wild or new. But I figured I was in the Arabian Gulf and the next thing I hooked could be REALLY weird. So I kept at it, keeping a leery eye northward – I wanted to make sure we didn’t wander too far toward Iran and get arrested as spies. Those backpackers from Berkeley who were accused of espionage might have gotten lots of support, but I can just see my mother on CNN declaring “I have never seen that man in my life.”
Most of the action in a good day of fishing usually happens in one relatively short period, so I always keep a positive attitude because things could turn around at any minute. On bad days, I always hold out hope that the last hour will be when things go crazy. I knew we were on overtime, but Wayne, bless him, was determined to try a few more GPS marks. And on this last stop, the Fish Gods smiled upon us.
I was soaking a piece of squid on the bottom on a medium pike-type rod when I got a strong hit and a violent, side-to-side type of fight all the way up. About 20 feet down, I could see a broad silver flank flashing in the depths. Whatever it was, it looked to be that lovely combination of big and strange. Indeed, when I swung it into the boat, I had no idea exactly what I had gotten. It was clearly a species of seabream, strongly compressed with a very steep forehead, with a mirror-silver and red color. Just to be safe, I measured and photographed it in case it was an “underrepresented” species and had a vacant world record. (The beast later turned out to be a King Soldier Bream, both a new species and a pending world record. Thanks to Dr. Kent Carpenter of Old Dominion University for the identification.)
The King Soldier Bream – pending world record.
Just as I was putting the seabream in the cooler, one of the bigger live bait rods in the rod holders slammed down and started peeling line. I wrenched it out of the holder – always a challenge against a tight drag – and started pulling back. It was a grouper – powerful surges downward, scraping on the bottom, big thumping runs into the rocks. And I knew that this was the trophy-sized thing that would make a great photo if I could only get it up off the bottom. I sweated like Charlie Sheen’s PR guy during a live press conference, but we finally dragged the creature on board. It was 20 pounds of steaming Estuary cod – a type of grouper that lives throughout the Indo-Pacific region. And I did the dance of joy and took photos and then did the dance of joy again. Wayne smiled patiently, clearly relieved that we had done well and that I had stopped dancing.
Grouper therapy. Ironically, it was caught on one of the orangespotted trevallies, so they really do make good live bait. Wayne wasn’t being sarcastic, he was just being factual. I guess I’m just sensitive from being constantly abused by Jaime Hamamoto.
For about the next hour, the groupers kept hitting, and I lost a few other solid bites in the rocks. What a great finish, and an above-average day no matter where it was. I watched the Dubai skyline slowly come in to focus as we motored the 30 miles back, in an increasingly flat sea. This gave me time to think, and that is never good, because when I think I have ideas, and when I have ideas, strange things happen. And what I was thinking about was … well, tune in for the next episode, in which a carefully-guarded geographical secret leads to an unexpected fishing adventure.
If any of you make it to Dubai, let me know and I’ll get you in touch with Wayne – he was an outstanding guide and made the very best of challenging conditions.