We had just sailed from Mutrah, the ancient Arabic port adjacent to Muscat the capital of Oman, and now the MV Strathardle was making a steady 12 knots as she followed her southerly course down through the Gulf of Oman towards Aden, the Red Sea, The Suez Canal and home. Leaning against the stern rail I watched as the stark, desolate, yet remarkably beautiful rocky coastline on our starboard beam slowly slipped by, shimmering in the late afternoon heat haze.
Dozens of dolphins played through our wake, slicing cleanly through the glassy calm surface film, and as I watched a huge school of extremely large fish suddenly joined the dolphins, that now were harassing a shoal of smaller baitfish at the surface. A keen angler even then, I longed for the opportunity to fish for those fish, even though at the time I had not the slightest idea what they were.
That was back in 1977 when I served as a navigation cadet in the Merchant Navy, and thirty years later I discovered that that wonderful unspoilt coastline is still there, and that dolphins are still very much in abundance. And those big fish that made such an impression upon me three decades ago? Yes they are still plentiful as well, only now I know they were almost certainly yellowfin tuna, one of the hardest fighting and most sought after species of sports fish that swim in tropical seas.
It’s a little after seven in the morning yet as we leave the sanctuary of the air conditioned mini bus that has transported us from our hotel to the ultra modern Marina Bander Al Rowdha located a few miles to the south of Muscat, we do not need to be told the temperature is already in the very high twenties. Within a few hours it will be closer to forty than thirty degrees centigrade, a good day to escape the oppressive heat on land and escape to a cooling breeze at sea.
We meet Sahim, our skipper for the week, and soon we are heading at high speed to fish a patch of reef that lies in 150ft of water a few miles offshore. We’ve been told there are a few tuna around, and that those fish that are getting caught are big-very big, but first Sahim is keen for us to sample what he reliably informs us is highly productive reef fishing. So that’s what we decide to do, and as we approach the reef we can see a few local boats are already settled at anchor their crews busy working handlines, and it’s not long before we can see the first fish getting hauled aboard.
There’s a certain excitement that invariably grips you when fishing cut baits over reefs and wrecks, I’ve yet to meet an angler who doesn’t love holding a rod feeling for the initial tell tail tip rattling tugs, plucks and pulls of a feeding fish. Often you can watch as someone visibly tenses prior to setting the hook and playing their prize up through the depths towards the surface. From my experience tropical reefs are especially productive when fished with bait, and consequently tremendous fun to fish because aside from the large quantities of fish you can generally catch, best of all you really never do know just what you’ll catch next; and what variety we caught during that trip!
The first bites came pretty much instantly, and within a few minutes we were admiring the first of the many exotic oddities we caught. Within the first hour we boated at least half a dozen varieties of snapper that Sahim generically referred to as ‘red snapper’, but quite clearly were totally separate species. I caught a couple of decent humphead snapper, an incredibly strong species that fight out of all proportion to their modest size, and judging by the enthusiasm that Sahim greeted them aboard, these chunky, bronzed flanked fish taste just as good as they look.
In addition to the snapper and grouper we caught other unusual species, such as the voracious brushtooth lizard fish, a fish I knew from painful past experience had to be handled with care else it would quickly attached itself to a finger or thumb. We caught a cutlass fish, three feet long with flattened flanks of polished pewter and vampire like fangs, a striped bonito, while the likes of small sand sharks, flatheads and others ensured our skills in fish identification were tested to the limit.
That evening we explored the labyrinth of secret alleyways and tight passages that make up the traditional Arab souq at Mutrah. Oman is famous for its delicately crafted silverware, and within the gold and silver souq you’ll find many small shops selling wonderfully worked silver and 21ct gold jewellery that is sold by weight. Everywhere frankincense is burnt over glowing charcoal embers in traditional clay burners called a Bakhoor, and the pungent aroma of this Biblical incense hangs thickly in the still night air.
The street food is truly superb, I can only describe the atmosphere as you sit at a harbour side cafe sampling a smorgasbord of traditional Arab foods, the Muezzin’s calling the Islamic faithful to prayer from ornamental Minarets set high above the many Mosques, as being positively unique.
Day two we decided to try and catch one of those huge tuna. Arab fishermen know that the quickest way to locate the very biggest tuna is to fish in the near vicinity of dolphins, so Sahim scoured the calm seas for signs of dolphin. When finally we found some the numbers were staggering, as far as the eye could see in every direction dolphin were breaking the surface, and in amongst the dolphin were a huge pod of enormous sperm whales blowing water spouts high into the air.
We were heading towards Fahal Island, and as we got close we could see upwards of thirty local boats fishing amongst the concentration of dolphin, several crews actively employed in a ‘hand-over-hand’ tug of war battle with big fish. Sahim pulled alongside a friends boat and we were treated with the heart warming site of five humungous great yellowfin lying in her bilges, best fish better than 200lb in weight.
Sahim studied the direction the main feeding group of dolphin were following, then motored off on a course to get a few hundred yards in front of them. The engine was switched off and he scooped a net full of bait fish out of the livebait tank and began to loose feed these in the direction of the dolphin.
The three of us fishing had each hooked a live ‘seema’, a type of pilchard, onto the single hook at the end of our lines, and fed the silvery bait out over the side. The plan worked perfectly and in no time at all I could feel the seema frantically trying to escape on the end of my line. The little fish swam back up to the surface where it was taken in an explosion of white water, and I was fast to my first Omani yellowfin. The screaming clutch confirming it was indeed a decent fish and at the better part of 50lb it provided great fun on the 30lb class stand up gear I was using. By the time we had finished later that afternoon, we had all caught yellowfin to better than 60lb.
Keen to show us as much of the excellent fishing potential in Oman as possible, the next day Sahim took us to the famous ‘Fahal Buoy’ off the port of Muscat. Having first calculated the angle we would drift, he positioned us up current of the buoy and started loose feeding seema, throwing them directly towards the buoy. The response was instantaneous with the water erupting as a series of electric blue and gold streaks darted out from beneath the buoy to snatch our offerings. They were dorado, mahi-mahi or dolphin fish and again the live baits at the end of the line were very quickly taken. We caught seven in less than half an hours fishing.
Next stop was a mark tight under the cliffs at Raz Muscat. Here Sahim dropped anchor and informed us we would once again be live baiting, this time targeting kingfish, queenfish and barracuda. Again our run of good fortune continued and in no time at all Dr Harmohan Khanna was posing in front of my camera holding an impressive silver flanked queenfish. Oman is a country with huge and as yet virtually untapped angling potential, and over the coming years I for one look forward to discovering just how good the fishing in this most beautiful of countries is.