Camels, Queenies & Permit

With international travel back on the agenda, Joshua Hutchins heads for the Middle East

After months of being locked down, New South Wales and Victoria opened to international travel on November 1. Like many Australians, I was looking to get out. Scanning options and checking flights, I made a few phone calls and, chatting with fellow traveller Imran Ahmed, we settled on the Seychelles and the Middle East. For many, the Middle East doesn’t conjure up thoughts of their dream fishing location. I have frequently flown in and out of Dubai without thinking twice about fly fishing. But eager to try something different, Imran and I booked our flights. We were ready for the adventure. DUBAI ON THE FLY I didn’t have a dying need to catch a queenfish in Dubai. They are an awesome sportfish, but we catch them regularly in Northern Australia. But with a day to kill, and no interest in shopping, it seemed rude not to give it a go. I had met Nick Bowles (of Ocean Active Fly) in Dubai several years back and our visit was a great chance to catch up. We disembarked our flight from Sydney at 5 a.m. as the usual 14-hours-in-a-seat daze fell upon us. We travelled to our hotel, splashed our faces with water, topped up on coffee and by 7 a.m. we were shaking hands with Nick and Ramesh as we boarded the boat. Dubai is impressive. The city, transformed from a patch of dirt, is a sight to be seen. And much like a day fly- fishing on Sydney Harbour can be the best way to enjoy the city, the same is true for Dubai. We quickly realised this was the right decision. As the sun rose, our jetlag began to fade, caffeine was on tap, and some birds led us straight to busting schools of fish. A lot of fish. Imran was casting straight into schools as the Burj Al Arab seven-star hotel emerged on the skyline as our glittering backdrop. As we travelled along the foreshore of the Dubai Palm Island, the fish were getting bigger. Several queenies in, and constantly distracted by our surroundings, Nick explained that the Dubai fishery is more-or-less a result of human intervention. ‘We often hear that humans ruin fisheries, but the introduction of all the man-made islands has created this one.’ Catching queenfish wasn’t an issue, and as always it was a heap of fun! As the jet skis and speedboats began to peak on the water, we took the cue for a late lunch. ‘I have a great spot for lunch if you don’t mind something fancy.’ Nick said. Well, when in Dubai… We docked right in front of the ‘One & Only Dubai Resort’ and like typical fishermen, felt very underdressed as we made our way to a memorable lunch by the water. The travel finally caught up with us that night, but spending most of the day in the sun helped calibrate us for the rest of the trip. THE BIG FOUR PERMIT Permit are an interesting obsession. As some might say, they are a ‘fancy dart’ so what is the big deal? That’s a rabbit-hole, and not for this article. In line with that obsession, part of our reason for hanging around in the Middle East was to tick another permit box, and so Imran and I travelled from Dubai to Oman, excited at the prospect of a new permit species. Arriving late at night to our hotel in Salalah, Southern Oman, we set up the 9- and 10-weight rods as instructed and couldn’t wait for the next day. Permit enthusiasts would know that in Australia we target two key species — Trachinotus anak and T. blochii. These two species make up part of what is now becoming known as the ‘Big 4’ of permit to target around the globe. Of the remaining two, T. falcatus and T. africanus, it was the latter that we hoped to find in Oman. We knew very little about the Omani permit and looked for some local operators to show us around. Due to availability, we booked two days with Arabian Fly Fishing, and a further two days with Ocean Active Fly, who had another operation in Oman. Brandon from Arabian Fly met us on day one and we beat the sunrise to the water. Seeing Oman for the first time as we headed up the coastline was beautiful. Dubai is an amazing place, but saturated in modern cars, buildings and culture. Oman felt and looked more like what I expected of the Middle East. From a fishing point of view, the water was clear and the cliffs that lined the coastline were rugged and breathtaking. Brandon had locations in mind and we slowly made our way into the fishing zone. And while we saw lots of tailing fish, it just didn’t happen. Australians – 0; Africanus – 2. Imran thought it was funny at this point to label them ‘Afri-can’t-us’. I was too far from home to find the humour. CAMELS & JUMPING PERMIT The Omani permit experience had similarities to chasing anak permit back home. But there were plenty of differences. I have never, for example, been casting at permit while a bunch of camels made their way along the beach in front of me. And the camels seemed to increase the more you drove around. Despite our efforts to chase them all day, we were told that these permit only feed during a small window on the spring tide cycle. Activity peaked when the tide was high and the water covered the mussel beds on the beach and cliff-edge rocks. We watched in awe as permit climbed over the rocks when the tide pushed in, aggressively tailing and feeding on the mussel beds. But after two days of no bites, it was also painful when they didn’t eat our flies. Day three we rejoined with Nick Bowles and Johann Du Preez from Ocean Active Fly. We had two days left to land our prize. Johann ran us down the coast and the cliff-lines grew. Imran and I were taken aback by the spectacular scenery. Just like the days prior, we soon found a large school of tailing permit on the shoreline at high tide. These fish looked particularly happy, I thought, unsure whether that was a good thing or not. Imran hooked up first and, not wanting to jinx it, barely said a word. Johann and I turned towards him as his rod sustained a suitable bend. ‘Are you on?’ Johann asked, already knowing the answer. ‘Yep…’ Came the nervous reply. I put down my rod and began to take photos. ‘Get another one!’ Johann and Imran gestured as the large school continued to feed in front of us. One more cast and I was on too. Now, permit don’t generally jump. But here, in this foreign land, after days with no success, my permit jumped an easy four feet in the air, mid-fight. We were astounded. After a week of waiting, Imran and I were happy to see, not one, but two permit landed in a moment. ‘Afri-can! Afri-CAN’ — jeez we say dumb things over a silly fish sometimes. SHRIMP HATCH It was our final day of fishing in Oman, and at this point we had what we came for. Johann and Nick met us early again that morning and we made our way back to the fishing grounds. Nick took us under his wing and I had the unfortunate luck to hook and lose a 10 kg permit early-on. It was all perfect until the fish went deep and found the edge of a mussel bed to cut my leader clean. The tide began to peel away from the rocks and even though their interest was low, we kept trying new things. It wasn’t that we couldn’t see any fish during low tide, we just couldn’t get them to commit, no matter how fine or long the leader. We spooked a few large schools after throwing just about every fly at them. Africanus make it very clear when they are spooked. Erupting from the water in powerful jumps, they threw our minds into a spin as their dish-shaped bodies mimicked that of a jumping trout. But then it all changed. We snuck along a clear, sandy beach where we had seen several permit schools earlier in the day. Once again, long leaders, 16 lb (down from the usual 25–30 lb they use for the rock-dwelling permit), and a small Alphlexo Crab. The fish we saw looked different, as they darted around under the surface and showed instant interest in the fly. Not so many casts and I was on. We landed it. Next cast, another on. We landed it. The day was getting late, but we didn’t want to leave. The permit were eating freely from the surface and we began to look around to see what was causing the change in behaviour. ‘Oh man, look at this,’ Johann said, as he pulled a handful of shrimp from the scum-line on the water. Shrimp were everywhere, and the permit were loving them. I quickly changed to a spawning shrimp style pattern and caught the final permit of the trip. It was perfect. We had seen the sunrise every day and, on this day, we saw it set. I can’t say it came easy, but we were certainly rewarded for sticking it out. I’ll be back to Oman again.

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