This is a video I made from my January trip to Dubai to catch queenfish with Ocean Active Charters.
This is a video I made from my January trip to Dubai to catch queenfish with Ocean Active Charters.
Fishiest fly ever.
It is on an island nation in the Arabian Gulf that I find myself. Just another deployment in a career spanning three decades. I didn’t come for the fishing, I came to serve. However, I’ve been researching golden trevally, queenfish, hamoor (local grouper), barracuda, dorado, and kingfish (king mackerel) as they are what I hope to catch when I’m off duty. The only way to find out what’s in the water is to get my fly rod out of my sea bag and get to it.
Across the spectrum of writing about fishing, I find little about the Arabian Gulf (formerly the Persian Gulf), let alone fly fishing. I know this because I have searched for it. I’ve even had documents translated from Arabic to broaden my search for info. Nothing is much more than a cursory mention. There are opportunities in the region, though half the gulf belongs to Iran. It is a shallow and warm subtropical body of water with species found in the Indian Ocean, so I believe there is potential.
The waters around the island of Bahrain are heavily worked by fishermen with nets and traps. From what I can tell, there is not much regulation of commercial fishing and the fisheries are in serious decline. The fisherman are poor third country nationals who only get paid when they bring in fish, no matter the size. It is a system which will eventually implode as the fish stocks evaporate.
This winter has been very cool and wet compared to past years. It currently stands as the second wettest on record with nearly six inches of rain in February. To put that in perspective, the normal annual rainfall is three inches. This has kept water temps very cool (low to mid-60s F°) which in turn keeps the fish in deep water off shore. The normal weather pattern feeds a predominantly north wind called a shamal. The potent winds carry dust and moisture down the gulf. They are the blame for the slow fishing. Just like I experinced in Belize with El Norte. The wind sucks.
The weather will change and soon the lows will be in the 90s with triple digit highs. Even better, it is not dry heat but sweltering humididty that hangs out in the high 90s as well. But at least there is little wind to cool things down because wind means dust. Dust in clouds so thick it dims the sun and coats everything in a fine layer akin to talcum powder. It is not a destination I would choose, but since I am here, I may as well fish.
I’ve caught a few fish, mostly small black spotted snapper. The only thing spectacular about them is the coloring. But they willingly take flies and small fish are better than no fish. Some small spotted trevali and a needlefish have also tugged my line.
The water surrounding Bahrain is clear and beautiful. There is a lot of trash, but in reality it is aligned with the levels I’ve observed in most countries besides the US and Canada. Much of the coastline is private with limited access for fishing. Very litttle of the coast is natural and whatbia natural is not accessable to the public. A great deal of the north end is reclaimed seabed held in place with quarried stone. This industrial land building also has to effect the fish, compounding the problem with commercial fishing.
Arabian Gulf water
Fishing is popular with Bahrainis. The island began as a farming and fishing culture. Bahrain means “two waters.” There used to be a large inland lake in the island but all that remains of it is the countries name. While some Bahrainis use conventional gear, most use a handline on a spool or bottle, a size 4 or 6 hook baited with shrimp, and a sinker. They are certainly intrigued by my fly rod.
The culture is Islamic colored by a large number of foreign workers. The ruling family and goverment are Sunni with close ties to Saudi Arabia. The majority of the Bahrainis are Shia. The work force is a mix of Indian, Pakistani, Bengladeshi, Thai, Phillipines, and Africans. The souks are filled with shops selling everything this churning collection of cultures wants. It is racaous – not only audibly but physically, visually, and olfactotily too. People in large numbers striving to get what they need without the structured politeness we enjoy in the West. It can quickly overload the senses and cause the timid to seek the comfortably familiar modern malls.
I don’t want to paint too idealic a picture though, for it is the Middle East and there is friction. Unrest fills the poorer Shi’a neighborhoods. Protests, high lighted by fires fueled with furniture and tires, often lead to clashes with the police, who are all Sunni. Occasionally the violence peaks with gunfire and improvised explosive devices (IEDs). The hostilities are localized and limited to the Shi’a protesters against the police. Coalition forces have not been involved, except as bystanders. Still one has to be aware of surrounding, location, and escape routes. Fortunately my fishing takes place far from any hot spots.
If you’ve read this far, I thank you. Your reward is a fish tale. The weekend across the Middle East is Friday and Saturday. It has stormed almost every weekend in March. This past weekend I took a chance that a favorite spot might be in the lee. I went as the tide was rising and was right, the wind was blowing hard but the bank and buildings afforded me some fishable water. It was the power plant outflow, labled “sewer,” which doesn’t always mean human waste. Its clean water a couple degrees warmer than the gulf. A friend of mine had caught some small queenfish here and that is what I wanted to catch. Queenies are strong and agressive predators prone to acrobatics. What more could an angler want? I rigged up my TFO BVK 6wt with a sink-tip line and a bucktail. I let the first cast sink and swing in the current before stripping it in along the seam. Bang! Got a strike on the first cast but no hook up. Same for the second and third. I could see the torpedoes as they attacked my fly. It seemed seemed they were short strikes so I changed to a smaller fly. That was the ticket! The first drift ended with a violent stike that turned into a silver flash clearing the water. Soon my first queenfish was in my hand. They are not a user-friendly fish. A mouth full of sharp teeth and needle-like spines will leave an angler with wounds to remember the battle by. It was a small queenie but still the largest fish I’d caught in Bahrain.
I fished my little hot-spot for the next hour, landing four more leaping queens and some bigger black spotted snapper before I packed up. It was a great afternoon on the water, I’m glad I took a chance.
Bahrain is a small island nation. It is truly an island, its only connection to the Arabian Peninsula is a causeway to Saudi Arabia. Prior to that bridge the only way here was by boat or plane. It is home to the only permanently built US Navy base in the middle-East and serves as the headquarters for the Commander of US Navy Forces Central Command. It is hot here, no surprise, but it is not dry heat. It is wet and oppressive heat. The kind you expect in a steamy jungle, but it is hotter here without the foliage providing shade. The heat is best measured with a heat index which much like wind chill captures the feel of 15°F as feeling like ten below with a 15mph breeze. 100°F with 60% humidity feels like 129°F – in the shade! Your body tries to cool, but since evaporation fails with the air full of water, your sweat just stays on your skin and soaks into your clothes leaving you feeling like a steamed clam. The water is not refreshing either, it climbs to over 95°F and in the shallows can reach 100°F! Wading on the flats is akin to wading in a hot tub. The hot tub will also have about as many fish as they all head for deeper water far from shore out in the Arabian Gulf. To round out the delights of spring and summer, the air is filled with dust, picked up in the deserts of Iraq and Iran and carried down the Gulf. Even on a cloudless day the sun is blurred by the particles dancing in atmosphere. On the up side, sunrise and sunset can be quite stunning with all the reflection and refraction going on with the water in the atmosphere.
I did not come to Bahrain to fish. It is not on anyone’s list of top places to go for fishing adventure. I have other business on the island (called “orders” in the Navy), but as long as I’m here and just happened to have a fly rod (or four) in my sea bag, I tried out the fishing. Like any traveling angler I did my homework. The waters of the Gulf hold many game fish. Spotted and golden trevally, kingfish, tuna, cobia, grouper, barracuda and queenfish all swim in the tropical waters here.
Bahrain started as a fishing community and that is still a large enterprise herse. Possibly too large. Every shallow bay on the island is filled with fish traps and nets. Dhows and pangas ply the deeper waters with hooks, nets, and traps. It seems if it swims it is caught and soon ends up in the market. So what survives is pretty small. Fishing here is challenging to say the least, but I do not mind a challenge. I’ll make the best of my time on this desert isle.
Here is a glimpse into fishing here:
I have not had a chance to get on the water in a while. That is an itch that just has to be scratched, so when I saw a break in my routine, I seized the opportunity to wet a line.
I headed to Shelter Island and launched my pontoon off the beach just past the boat ramp. I hit the water near the top of a rising tide just as the sun peered over Mount Miguel and lit up the San Diego skyline. A good start, fish or no fish.
I had a two fly rig on my TFO 8wt with a small bucktail streamer about a foot above a Crazydad (thank you Richard!). This is my standard bay rig because it is a proven formula. I fish it on a sink tip line with the fastest sink rate I can get. I use a full sink line if the water is over 20 feet deep but prefer the sink tip for ease of line handling. I mix up the retrieve until I find what the fish like. Usually slow and twitchy, sometimes a bit more bouncy, and ocassionally a fast strip.
I let the tide take me down the line of moored boats in about 16 feet of water. It only took 10 minutes for the first tug on a quick retrieve. It was a small but scrappy spotted bay bass.
I’m often asked why I use an 8wt for fish that rarely exceed a couple of pounds. First, the heavy rod is for the weighted double fly rig and sinking line. A 7wt could do it and I have fished a 6wt, but the 8wt turns over the heavy rig much better. Secondly spotties are not the only thing to catch in the bay and any cast may find you tied into a big halibut, bonito, corvina, or even bonefish. So, I go heavy, prepared for anything.
I kept drifting, and again got a hit on a fast strip. I could tell this was a better fish than the first. Soon a nice sized spotty was puffing up for me as I removed the hook. Spotties clamp down their jaw and flair their gill plates and fins when threatened. I know halibut like to eat them but maybe this technique works to avoid being dinner as they get bigger.
It didn’t take long until another grab jolted my line. I strip set and felt the fish head deeper, but it was small and I changed its course with the backbone of my TFO custom shop 8wt. Then, the fish seemed to grow on the line and head to the bottom with twice the resolve. I increased pressure, putting a pretty hood bend in the rod. As I hoisted the fish up from 18 feet, I saw color – times 2. Spotties hang out in gangs; it is not unusual to hook one and have another jump in on the action. I’ve also had other species grab my second fly like mackerel or smelt. This time it was two spotties.
I kept drifting with the tide until I reached a flat that is 10-12 feet of water right in front of the Bali Hai restaurant. I dropped the hook here to wait for the tide to turn and take me back to my launch point. I could cast to the edge of the shelf into 20+ feet of water or just work the grass on the shore side of the flat. Its been a good spot for me in the past. Today it was great.
Second cast into the channel was a hard hit on a jerky retrieve. I felt the fish in the grass and thought it was snagged. A bit of tug-o-war made me realize it was all fish. Again, two flashes winked at me as they came up. Both were nice fish.
The bite was on and I wasted no time in getting my flies back in the zone. Two strips in and I had another hard strike. This fish however came up alone.
I kept working the drop off and caught 3 more small spotties and one calico bass, all on the Crazydad. I shifted my cast to the shallower water and had just counted to 6 on the sink when I got bit. Again that tug was multiplied a second later. Soon my third double of the day was in front of me. The bigger fish has the smaller fish wrapped around his tail, but I quickly got them both back in the bay.
I kept working the flat and caught 3 more small spotties. Then I cast back to the channel and let my flies sink deep before bringing them up the slope. A couple strips in something slammed my fly hard. It was fiesty and then it too got company with a take I felt with a fish already on. They gave me a good scrap and a surprise when I got them in. I had a spotty on the streamer but a barred sand bass or sandy had eaten the Crazydad.
The tide has turned and was ebbing out. I pulled up the anchor and drifted back, casting to the grassline. A couple more small spotties, a small calico, and another sandy took the Crazydad. I worked into 16 feet of water and then felt a stong take. The head shakes and bottom dive indicated spottie and the a second hit indicated my fifth double of the day. Indications were correct and two more spotties were between my fins.
After releasing both fish, I cleared the entrance to the boat ramp without getting run over and worked the rocks of the breakwater to the southwest of the ramp. Two more small calicos and a small spottie came to hand. I made a swing into deeper water outside of the moorings and fished in 30 feet of water. On the second cast as I was bringing it up off the bottom I got a hit and the speed told me it was not a bass. The fish move erratically and I could feel the tail vibrations. It was either a small bonito or a big mackerel. Soon I had color and the could see I’d hooked a big mackerel on the bucktail.
It was a good way to end the day. Wisdom says to leave ’em biting and end your last cast on a fish, so I did. A couple hours on the water and I’d caught over 2 dozen fish, 10 of them as doubles. Yep, it was a good day indeed. Maybe I should have gotten a Lotto ticket!
Fish on! Joel
The desert has always been a special place for me. In Montana vast areas with few people are common. Not so much here in coastal California. However the desert east of San Diego is a place of wide open spaces and not many humans. When I was first stationed in San Diego in the mid-80’s I would escape to the desert at every chance. I’d camp, explore, hunt, and enjoy the open country, despite the heat. It was and is always an adventure.
One such adventure occurred before our border with Mexico was fenced and I didn’t know I was in Mexico until I found paved roads and the signs where not English. I was pretty nervous fellow until I found my way back, given I had half a dozen guns with me. Another time I sunk my rear tires to the differential in soft sand. I ended up napping through the heat and digging my way out after dark. I had just freed the truck when Border Patrol agents found me. After they explained the canyon I was in was a highway for drug smugglers, I never returned to that canyon.
In all those adventures I saw all kinds of wildlife. Deer, coyotes, jack rabbits, rattle snakes, road runners, quail, and lizards. However one species eluded me, the desert big horn. I’d grown up with their northern cousins, but despite being their range many times, I’d never spotted one. Now to be fair, I’d never set out actively to see them either. That is until my friend Larry came to town from Rhode Island. He and his wife Debbie where visiting my wife and I for few days. The girls went to a spa and I took Larry camping in the desert. We went to the country’s 2nd largest state park, the Anza-Borrego Desert. We took our time going out along the US/Mexico border and then cut north into the heart of the park and bighorn country. Borrego is the Spanish name for bighorns and the park is home to several hundred. However, they are still elusive, so I was told, even in the safety of the park.
After checking out the visitor center, we camped out under a cloudless sky and watched the stars fill it up. Before the nearly full moon rose we saw the constellations, satellites, and meteors all put on a show while we sipped beers. Then, the moon was so bright we could almost read by it and only the brightest stars could be seen. It was quite a night. The only thing missing was a serenade from the coyotes but apparently they had the night off.
At dawn, we had coffee and breakfast before we broke camp and moved to the trail head. The day before we’d gathered some intelligence from the park rangers that did not pan out. There were no sheep in our valley, only a pair of young coyotes hunting mice. Maybe they’d been quiet the night before because they were hungry.
Plan B was to hike into Palm Canyon where some ewes and lambs had been spotted the previous day. We rolled through the camp ground to the trailhead, donned our packs and binoculars to head out. A group of four people were nearby and pointing at something. Sheep!
The elusive bighorns where 300 yards from the parking lot. No one in the group had glasses, but through mine, I counted 13 rams. Half were young half-curl or smaller but three were mature rams and three where big heavy full curl bruisers.
I set up my scope and we watched them for almost an hour as they fed and then bedded on the hill. Then, they got up and moved closer! They proceeded across the trail and into the creek bed before moving up to the north side of the canyon. How close is close? I could have hit these desert ghosts with a rock.
One photographer we talked to later said she’d been coming for years and had seen nine rams across the years, none as close as we were to this dozen. I showed her my cell phone pictures and she just shook her head. She had gone up the trail to the north of us and missed them entirely. From what we heard on the trail, most people had. For me and Larry, it was perfect.
Once the sheep had moved on, we hiked the couple miles into the oasis for which the canyon is named. In the middle of a very harsh canyon filled with boulders and cactus lies an oasis. The first clues to the hidden spring are the trunks of palm trees scattered across the dry stream bed. The palms are native to this area, growing around the few springs scattered across hundreds of square miles. Next is a trickle of water that disappears into the dry sand but increases in size upstream to its source in a grove of palm trees. In a small pocket near the head of the canyon is a lush island of green in a sea of rust colored rock. Palm trees dominate the fauna, but there are grasses, shrubs, and trees mixed into a tight thatch of life on the edge. A few feet from the water, the terrain returns to plants with thorns and bare rock. It is truly a marvel of nature that these plants found water and grew to support a micro ecosystem.
We returned to the truck and headed back to San Diego. We had dinner reservations with our wives and I did not want to miss that. The beauty of San Diego is we can go from the desert to the snow and to the beach in a little over three hours. We headed west into the mountains and the scenery changed from cactus to pines. Continuing west the pines gave way to chaparral which in turn gave way to suburbs and city.
After stowing the gear, a dip in the pool, and change of clothes we were off to dinner and winding up the day admiring the San Diego skyline. It was quite the adventure, and I’ll never forget my first encounter with the desert ghosts.