Arabian Royalty: Fly Fishing for Queenfish in Dubai

Sun rays lanced through a forest of concrete and steel, only to ricochet off glass before illuminating the waking waterfront like it was a magical land. Despite being an artificial setting with everything (except the sun) creating the scene made by man, it was none the less spectacular. I took in the light show from the bow of a skiff. As the center console came up on plane, I was jolted back to reality. The captain was at ease, fully in his element. He twisted from the helm, Canon in hand, to capture the light as it streamed through the iconic bridge of Atlantis, The Palms. The morning was not a typical start to a fishing trip, but this was no typical fishing location. I was in Dubai, racing out into the Arabian Gulf with Ocean Active Charters.

It is quite a city. Known for the tallest building in the world, the Burj Kahlifa, Dubai also is home to some unique architecture, as showcased by the Burj al Arab. Top performing artists from around the world headline here regularly. It is no surprise to find the rich and famous in the clubs or at the beaches. Life in the fast lane does not appeal to me however. I am far more comfortable with less populated places. The best way to do that here is to put to out to sea; exactly as I was doing to escape the urban glitz and glamour, though it nearly always remains in sight.

dubai sunrise

At the controls of the boat was Capt. Brenton Sharp with his deck hand Ramesh. Our target for the day was, Scomberoides commersonnianus, commonly known as queenfish. It is a member of the Carangidae family, comprised of jacks and pompanos. Examining their sleek body, with deep shoulders, leathery skin, and sharply forked tail, the resemblance is obvious. Like their cousins, they are fast and powerful predators. When feeding, they terrorize schools of bait, dashing and slashing to leave a cloud of their victim’s blood and scales glittering in their wake. Best of all, they take flies. To be honest, they will hit just about anything, when they are in the mood, as long as it is moving; the faster the better.

bahrain queenfish

seabag

No stranger to queenfish, I have kept myself occupied by catching juveniles in the waters around the island of Bahrain, where I am stationed with the Navy. These smaller models are great fun, often cartwheeling out of the water once hooked and fighting for freedom until the moment they are back in the water. Their dorsal fin rays and two small dagger-like anal rays are toxic; when they score a hit, it feels like a mild bee sting, letting the angler know he was messing with the wrong fish as I have discovered on a number of occasions. I was very much looking forward to tangling with the bigger fish that patrol the waters off Dubai, feeding on the bait that congregates once the water cools off from the summer temperatures, which can be in excess of 85 degrees Fahrenheit at the surface. Fall had arrived, so the heat was gone and queens were waiting. I was in Dubai over a weekend on official duties. I almost always travel with a fly rod and this trip was no exception. I had one day off, and I put it to good use. I wrote Nick Bowles at Ocean Active Charters in hopes he had an opening. I was in luck, he did and I ended up in a boat at dawn in Dubai.

ocean active dubai

Brenton brought the boat alongside an old warship to check in with the Emirate’s Coast Guard. Security is taken very seriously in the Middle East, especially on the water. Getting cross-threaded with the Coast Guard or any other government organization is not a good idea. Papers verified and chit in hand we cleared the harbor. Keeping a sharp eye out for feathered fish finders, we made our way past anchored dhows and the Palm Resort. Ramesh, a dark, deeply weathered Sri Lankan, was busy rigging up my rods. I had on leaders with a 40lb hard mason butt and a 25lb fluorocarbon tippet. They run straight 25lb fluoro here because the fish will hit the knots in a regular leader. While doing that, Ramesh kept one eye on the sky.

I’ve been at sea most of my life, and Ramesh has the sharpest eyes I’ve ever seen. Brenton has learned not to question, he just turns the boat where Ramesh points. Barely a mile off shore, we spotted the first few birds holding over fish. Brenton skillfully brought the boat in, cutting the motor as we drifted into the fish. The fish were moving so Brenton broke out the “persuader,” a spinning rod with a teaser on it. He cast until he caught the attention of a pod of queenfish that followed the teaser long enough to get with in fly casting range. Meanwhile I was peeling line off my reel and limbering up with my 10wt. I was false casting and waiting for Brenton to tell me when to deliver my offering.

He yelled “cast.” I did. He hollered “strip, strip!” I already was. I saw a fish closing in on my fly. I promptly did what I knew not to do, what I’ve counseled others on not doing – I trout set.

The fly was yanked out of the fish’s face before it could attack it. Brenton’s hands went up in the air and his moan verbalized the chastising I was giving myself. I hung my head for a moment and gave my disappointed guide a sheepish smile. He turned back to finding fish. He’d done his job, I had not done mine. Waiting for him to bring in another fish I repeated to myself “don’t trout set, focus on the strip set, don’t be an idiot.” Brenton conjured up another target. I dropped the half-Clouser in front of another worked up fish. This time I did not trout set, the fish just flat out refused my offering. Encouraged that there were fish about, we set out in search of another school.

While Brenton scanned for signs of activity, I took a closer look at the fly they prefer here. It is a Clouser style streamer with a tan body, chartreuse eyes, and sparse bucktail, grey (or olive) over white with 2 strips of flash between the bucktail. The bucktail is tied only on one side, under the eyes. When tied traditionally, the sharp teeth of the queenfish cut the hair pulled over the eyes. With the hair splayed out, the fish won’t take them. So, a bit of modification to the pattern makes sense. All that really matters is that it catches fish and that it does.

nick bowles hooked up

We soon found more fish, thanks again to the birds. This time, everything came together. Brenton brought a fish in for me to target. I cast and the fly fell right. I stripped line as fast as I could as a dark form dashed to my fly to inhale it. The line went tight and my rod tip came up. The line I’d worked so hard to strip in was now melting off the deck; I felt a couple coils whip across my feet as the fish headed for the bottom. In seconds the fish was on the reel and I was using my new rod as it was meant to be used. In my hand was the new TFO Axiom II and I couldn’t be more pleased.

The fish ran deep, and I used the full length of the rod to turn it. It came to the surface and showed us its acrobatic side. The morning sun flashing its sides is a sight I will never forget. It made a few more leaps before settling into a tug of war match. Back and forth we went until soon my prize was alongside. I didn’t have to force a smile as Brenton worked the camera. I grabbed it by the tail with my right hand, slung it to my left hand, and snap – hero shot complete.

dubai queen hero

Brenton is a guide who really knows how to put you at ease on the water. Originally from South Africa, he now lives in Dubai with his wife and daughter. He spends every moment he can on the water, learning about the area off Dubai or the other locations Ocean Active operates out of in the United Arab Emirates and Oman. Because of his dedication, he knows the water and how to put clients on fish. In addition to being the kind of captain one always hopes to hire on a charter, he is also a gifted artist with a budding art company, Pointing Projects, showcasing his watercolors and sketches. He applies his talented eye to the photographs he takes for his clients. I know when I’m unable to make the globe-trotting trips to fish exotic locations; I can look at the picture with that first queenfish and hopefully recall the wonderful details.

mackerel sketch

The moment that first fish was in the water, we were off after another bunch. The fish in front of the Palm Resort were not as active as Brenton hoped, so he spun the wheel, pressed on the throttles, and we came about. We raced towards Jebel Ali, the entrance to Dubai’s commercial port. Here we found fish that were more cooperative. Brenton set up a drift and there was no need to tease these fish into range. The boat was surrounded by frenzied fish. They were darting about in every direction. I cast into the mob and that’s all it took. One strip and I was fast into another Arabian Gulf speedster. The fish continued to madly cavort about the boat. Brenton was watching all this mayhem while I fought my fish so I hollered at him to grab my other rod and get in on the action. My TFO BVK 8wt was loaded and ready. He worked out line and laid a beautiful back cast in front of a fish and BAM!

doubled up queenfish

He tied into a queenfish and we were doubled up. We danced around the boat playing our respective fish without getting tangled up. Ramesh started photographing us as we both worked fish. Ramesh handed me my fish so he could run the camera again. Our smiles are not exaggerated in the picture. We were reaching over the side to wash the slime off our hands when Ramesh spotted the next bunch of fish. We immediately pursued.

two queenfish

I was locked and loaded when Brenton brought another fish into range. I double hauled and launched a cast towards the plug he was cranking in with a big queen hot on it. No luck, the persnickety fish snubbed the offering. Once more, then twice Brenton brought the fish, but they weren’t taking the fly. Persistence pays off though and he delivered another fish into my cast zone. This time, the fish didn’t hesitate to nail my fly when the teaser disappeared. I pulled back hard, driving the hook in. The fish ran deep and then I could feel it coming up, fast. It cleared water in a spectacular leap, twisting and turning like mad to get rid of the object in its maw. The tactic worked; the fish went left, the fly went right, and my line went slack. It was the best fish of the day, but isn’t that always the case with the one that got away?

jumping queen

The activity slowed off Jebel Ali, so we headed back towards the water off the Palm. Maybe those fish were feeling frisky. Moments later, the question was answered as we came up on a feeding school. Brenton cast the teaser and started dragging it back when a fish exploded on the plug. His line went slack. A Narrow-barred Spanish mackerel (Scomberomorus commerson), known locally as kingfish, had attacked the teaser and nipped the line. The fish continued to feed and Ramesh tied on another teaser. In moments, Brenton brought in a hot fish. I repeated the scenario: cast, strip, hookset, and hang on. This was also a fish bigger than my previous two. I could feel its power transmitting down the rod. It was on a serious mission to test my tackle. I was looking forward to the battle. Then, like wind leaving sails, my line went slack and luffed in the water. The leader was cleanly cut; that’s how the big ones get away.

We had a short time left to find more fish. The scene was now routine: Ramesh spotted birds, Brenton maneuvered the boat, fish chased the teaser, and I lobbed a cast out in hopes of a hook up. We had some more shots, but no takers. The fish were still around so Brenton heaved the plug out and started dancing it across the surface. It was almost to the boat when it rocketed into the air, in the teeth of another kingfish that hit it 20 feet from the boat. I could clearly see the namesake vertical stripes on the fish as it arched through its attack trajectory. It was a remarkable site to take in. I wish I could have captured the look on awe on Brenton’s face.

Airborne fish of another kind were on my mind now as we drifted into fish again. No teaser this time, these fish were close enough for my mediocre casting. The first few casts were to no avail, but finally, a fish came unseen out of the depths and ate the fly. Line shot through the guides as the fish made for the bottom, then changed its mind and altered course to Iran. That plan didn’t work, so it sought the sun. This fish was a jumper. Four fantastic leaps into the sky and it finally came to the boat. Ramesh lifted it in the boat. Brenton took some great shots of me releasing the fish before we got back to it.

queenfish release

We still had time before he had to drop me off and pick up his next client. We intended to make the most of our time. The fish however, had other ideas. We chased a few more schools, but none were takers. With a shrug of his shoulders Brenton spun the wheel. We leaned away from the turn as the props dug in to bring the bow around; it was over. The skyline of Dubai loomed larger and larger as we closed the distance to the regrettable end of an awesome day on the water. Looking at the majestic building, I knew that I would be back for another audience with Arabian Royalty – queenfish have that effect on an angler.

Buy Joel’s book A Fly Rod in My Seabag and read another of his articles on Amberjack, The Baghdad Angler’s Club and School of Fly Fishing.

Photographs and art by Brenton Sharp

Trip notes: Queenfish are available year-round in Dubai, but the peak season is when the weather cools in the fall through the end of spring (Oct-Mar). Dubai is in the United Arab Emirates and has all the amenities of a world-class city, along with world-class prices. Currency is the durham, which at the time of publishing was about $0.27 USD. Many flights to the Seychelles and other African destinations pass through Dubai. An angler headed to those destinations would be well served by planning for a day layover in Dubai to book a trip to chase queenfish. Nick Bowles runs a top-notch business and is the only charter that caters to catch and release fly fishing in Dubai.
www.oceanactive.com telephone: +971 504 592 259

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