Posted by: 1000fish | October 8, 2017

The Red Sea Trolls

Dateline: May 10, 2017 – Marsa Alam, Egypt

“My God, there really is a BFE.” – Marta, upon viewing the desert between Dendara and the Red Sea.

Exotic yes. But next time I’ll fly.

As much fishing as there was in the tourist part of the trip, the last three days in Egypt were dedicated solely to the great species hunt. The Red Sea is full of endemic species (which means that they are only found there, or that they feed their young with milk, I forget which.)  I had only fished here two days in my life – a glorious weekend in Aqaba, Jordan, where I ran up 26 species and a world record in 32 hours of maniacal fishing. (All Marta got to do was tour Wadi Rum in a jeep and meet a day-old baby camel.)

The mother camel was very protective.

That was just before I started this blog. If I had written an article on that trip, the title would have been “Lorance of Arabia.”

So back to Egypt. Through the wonders of the internet, I had found an excellent guide – Amin Abu Rehab. (You can view his website and details HERE.)  He is based on the Red Sea in very southern Egypt, about 120 kilometers north of the Sudanese border. According to my collection of fish ID books, I could expect some truly rare and awesome creatures here. (There were. But Marta caught them.)

But first, we needed to get from Luxor to Marsa Alam. Like any drive in Egypt, it took a lot longer than estimated. Things simply do not move quickly here, but as long as you enjoy endless, desolate, arid scenery, eight hours will pass by like 480 minutes. As it got dark, I stared at the side of the road, hoping to see a fennec fox, because fennecs are one of the coolest animals EVER. But I never did. Annoyingly, Marta saw several on her way to Abu Simbel.

This is a fennec. They are a travel-size fox that thrives in inhospitable places.

We left Luxor mid-morning, and after a tourist stop in Dendara – which features a super-creepy subterranean tomb and some of the very rare representations of Cleopatra that survived a thorough Roman effort to expunge them.

That’s Cleopatra and Marc Anthony. I never liked his music.

We arrived at the Lahami Bay Resort well after dark, stiff and hungry, and I still had to assemble my gear for an early start the next day. The resort was a mixed blessing. It was civilized, the food was steady, and there was amazing snorkeling, but there was NO FISHING. Luckily, I would be spending most of my time on the boat. Marta, who didn’t mind the fishing ban as much, would be there for two days. (She would spend the last day on the boat with me, which I should have avoided, for reasons that will become clear shortly.)

The Lahami Bay Resort. That bird is going to wait a long time.

Early that next morning, I took a van over to the harbor at Hamata. After all the hours I had spent emailing with Amin, it was great to finally meet him in person. He seemed as excited as I was to get out and get after the fish we had been writing about for months. Bannoura was a beautiful boat, large and comfortable, capable of taking several anglers on an extended safari. There was a big crew – a skipper, a cook, and two deckhands.

Most of the crew and Steve – from left to right, that’s Ahmed the cook, Amin the owner and host, Steve the obsessive fisherman, and deckhands Maghraby and Mostafa. Great guys.

For this first day, the idea was to pound the reefs for species, troll a bit, then anchor up and fish the bottom all night. I was positively wound up, and the Red Bull didn’t make me any less so.

This is when I noticed that the harbor was jammed full of fish. Out came the sabikis and small jigs, and I happily amused myself while the crew looked on in bewilderment and people on other boats also looked on in bewilderment. I am used to this. To the great amusement of Amir and the crew, I added a new species – the threeline damselfish.

There must have been 40 people staring at me when I took this photo. And I wasn’t even naked.

After I had spent at least an hour chartering a boat so I could sit in a harbor and fish small stuff, reason caught up with me and we were off into the Red Sea.

We opened up trolling, and this filled me with a great deal of hope. There are dogtooth tuna in the Red Sea, and they eat trolling plugs. I want a dogtooth more than I want a full head of hair – I have gone where they live – repeatedly – and been avoided – repeatedly. (Like in the Maldives.)  The lures hadn’t been out five minutes when we got a screaming strike, but as screaming as it was, I still knew it wasn’t fast enough to be a dogtooth. (Picture dogtooth hits as savage, drag-destroying violence that forces even high-end reels to make unnatural noises.) I happily boated a double-lined mackerel – a species I first encountered on the Great Barrier Reef in 2005.

These pull hard.

We then set up for the main event – reef fishing. This area of the Red Sea is dotted with coral outcroppings, each one a veritable aquarium of exotic fish. I knew that just one solid session could run up quite a score, and the water looked absolutely perfect.

The skipper – Hassan – looks out over a typical reef.

Moments after we anchored, I got my second species of the day, which was an emotional one for me. It was a Red Sea lagoon triggerfish, a close relative of the lagoon triggerfish that had brought me and Jamie so close (details HERE), and SHE DOESN’T HAVE ONE.

I never get over how beautiful these fish are.

The rest of the afternoon, on a combination of sabikis and small bait rigs, we checked off all kinds of things I had only ever seen in books.

The redbreasted wrasse. These never got quite big enough to be a record.

The Red Sea sailfin tang, with Amin in the background. We would find record-sized examples of this species in less than 24 hours.

The chiseltooth wrasse. They travel in pairs, and I indeed caught two at once. Both were safely released.

The Red Sea black unicornfish. Hard fighters, and a new world record, my first on the boat.

Blacktip fusilier. Plankton feeder, so difficult to catch, but they will eventually hit a sabiki after they annoy you for hours by swimming under the boat in large schools.

In between reefs, we trolled some more, and while the species were not new, the action was amazing. Whether barracuda, skipjack, or mackerel, I was fighting pelagic fish from the moment we started until we had almost anchored again. None of these fish were dogtooth tuna, which bothered me, but they were still fish, and a lot of them, which is always a good thing.

The haul after 45 minutes of trolling – cut baits for the evening.

The evening started very well. Casting lures and lightly-weighted baits, I got a couple of very nice gamefish – a one-spot snapper and a positively huge sky emperor. Both were new species and both were world records, so I was suddenly running up quite a score on both ledgers.

The one-spot. 

The sky emperor – the best fight of the day on light tackle.

Dentition reminiscent of the Mu.

Sunset over the Red Sea.

As it got fully dark, I pulled up a crescent bigeye, part of a nocturnal family found in seas worldwide. I prepared a bag of REI freeze-dried beef stew and set up two eel rods. The Red Sea is full of eels, and morays are usually an open world record, so I looked forward to a long, caffeinated evening.

The crescent bigeye.

My luck ran out a bit after the bigeye. I lost one big eel, and that was it for the evening except for dozens of squirrelfish. The score for the day was 10 species and 3 world records, so I was thrilled and even got a few hours of sleep. Amin mentioned that he had never seen anyone fish for 19 straight hours. I told him I was worn out from traveling or I’d have gone longer.

The following morning, We pounded the reefs again, and while I didn’t get anything new, the fishing was spectacular. Snappers, grouper, emperors, assorted reef fish – everything was biting nonstop. I switched off between lures and bait, and I was either fighting or unhooking fish so often that I forgot to eat until around two.

Yes, that’s a small Mu – bigeye emperor. Now that I finally got one in Hawaii, it seems I can catch them anywhere.

Sailfin Tang, this time in record size. That’s four so far.

Then came a record coral hind – a type of grouper. This was my fifth record on the boat, and my sixth in Egypt. This boded well for the IGFA competition this year.

As the sun began to go down and we headed for port, it occurred to me that I had not added a single new species for the day. Amin anchored the boat on some shallow weedbeds outside the harbor to try for small stuff, of which we caught loads. Months later, due to the patience and expertise of Dr. Jeff Johnson, I discovered that I had added one new critter – the dark damselfish.

It’s a damselfish. It’s dark.

I had been fishing for 36 straight hours, so it was good to get a break, have a meal that didn’t come out of a foil pouch, and see Marta. She had spent her time enjoying the resort and snorkelling, but she did end up with an impressive sunburn.

Marta assured me that she graciously refused some Marcello Mastroioanni look-alike’s offers to put sunblock on her back. I think she just forgot.

The next morning would be our last day in Egypt, the end of an unforgettable two weeks. Foolishly, I had invited Marta to spend the day on the boat. I say foolishly because Marta tends to repay my generosity in cases like this by catching species I don’t have. This hurts. (Examples HERE.)

We got to the harbor just at dawn, and Marta was the least surprised person in Hamata that I wanted to fish around the pilings before we headed offshore. It was a good thing we did, because I got two new species.

The Red Sea toby – a type of puffer.

Dusky damsel. I was pushing my luck on identifiable damsels.

Striped humbug – not a new species but so cool I thought I’d include it anyway.

As soon as I started catching the small fish, we heard a piercing meow. A small cat came right up to the back of the boat and gave that expectant look only a hungry cat can give.

The source of the meows. We initially christened her “Bottomless Pit Cat.”

I threw her a fish. She ran off for a moment and then reappeared, meowing again. I threw her another fish.

There is no focus like cat focus.

She took it and ran off. And again. And again. When she reached 10 fish, we realized there was no way she could have eaten them all herself. So Marta followed her, and there was quite a surprise.

 

The video isn’t that good after the first 10 seconds, but the executive summary is that she had two kittens safely stashed under the pier and was feeding them. We renamed her “Mama Cat.”

If Marta won the lottery, she would likely adopt every stray cat in Egypt.

We headed offshore, and after a bit of trolling, anchored up on a reef. I noticed some bright yellow fish below us, and tried the most minuscule of my sabiki rigs. Instead of the yellow tang I expected, I came up with another new species – the sulphur damsel.

No, they do not smell like rotten eggs. That was me.

This is when things started to go sideways. Marta was getting an interesting assortment of reef fish, but suddenly, all I could catch was an endless parade of Klunzinger’s wrasses.

They’re beautiful, but I got over 50 of them in two hours.

Marta showed me everything she landed and asked “Have you caught this one?” I would tell her I had, and she would raise her eyebrow and cast again. Now and then, she would spitefully snag up in the rocks just so I would have to take precious time away from fishing and retie her rig. Shortly after 1pm, the inevitable happened – she got something I had never even seen. You would think I reacted kindly and maturely and congratulated her on a fine catch. Well, actually, you would think that only if you’ve never met me and had never read this blog before.

The broomtail wrasse. Marta had now gotten seven species I had not.

Tell me that isn’t a look of sadistic joy.

Amin thought this was very amusing. Once this was explained to the crew, they also thought it was one of the funniest things they had ever heard. But it gets worse. Less than five minutes later, Marta reeled in a Red Sea ring wrasse.

You have to be %#$&ing kidding me. Two in five minutes? She was up to eight, and I was ready to leave Egypt.

Amin and the crew burst into laughter. I took a deep breath and kept casting, but these creatures would elude me, at least for the day. After I had a quiet hissy fit, I began throwing a minnow lure over the reef and had some fun. And while I continued to eat my REI freeze-fried camping food, Marta enjoyed the culinary expertise of the onboard chef. She still claims it was some of the best Egyptian food of the trip. In fact, she has agreed to a return trip, solely to visit Ahmed’s galley.

The goldspot goatfish – which has quite a range. I have the record on this – from Hawaii. 

A relatively small estuary cod – great sport on light spinning gear.

Marta decided she wanted to throw a lure, which I suggested would be a disaster, but she persisted, and wouldn’t you know that she somehow managed to catch a lionfish. I had gotten these before, thank goodness, but not that easily.

 

I briefly thought about telling her to hold it by the spines, but Amin probably would have said something.

Late in the day, we were fishing over a deeper reef structure, and I was just hoping to finish up without Marta getting another weird species. She was catching a variety of bottom fish, and then she hooked something that buried in the rocks for a few minutes before she ripped it out and up to the surface. I was sort of thrilled to see a big coral hind – I knew immediately it was the right size to tie the record I had set yesterday. In this case, I could live with sharing.

Marta’s third world record. I shamelessly broke her first two, but this could take a while.

In the same spot, I landed a couple of smaller coral hinds, and then brought up a fish that was the same basic colors – orange with blue spots – but I was suspicious. A quick look in the book – and I always have a book – revealed that it was a vermilion hind, a different type of small grouper. This was my 15th new Red Sea species, my 21st overall for the trip, and would would be the last new one on what had been a spectacular expedition.

The vermilion hind. This made me feel slightly better.

As the sun started to set, we headed for port.

Marta with the crew – Amin called her “The Queen.” Hassan the captain was busy driving the boat, so he did not get in the photos.

Hassan with a sailfish they got on the Bannoura. Note how close they are to the reef. Note – I have no idea what this says in Arabic, so I’m trusting Amin. It would be just like me to put something rude in the caption if the tables were turned, but he’s a much nicer person than I am.

We were greeted in port by Mama cat, and we fed her sumptuously as we put my gear away. The crew was sad to see Marta go, and I couldn’t help but think there were quite a few species left for me to get in the area. I am certain there will be a return adventure, especially because Amin also guides trips to Sudan. (Less than a hundred miles south, and yes, the fishing is supposed to be excellent.)

The following morning, we did something Moses never managed to do. We departed the Red Sea.

Steve

Random camels we saw in the desert. I smelled them before I saw them.

 

 

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Categories

%d bloggers like this: