Dubai on the Fly
April 04, 2018
When Captain Nick Bowles's girlfriend (now wife) left their farming community in South Africa to take a job with Emirates airlines in Dubai, the sportsman decided to follow her, not certain he would be able fish or hunt the way he could in the wilds of Africa. To his delight, what he found in the shadow of the city's sleek skyline was a premier saltwater fishery that had seldom seen a fly rod. Despite the desert setting, the Arabian Gulf lapping Dubai's shore teems with queenfish, Spanish mackerel, and golden trevally.
"When I arrived in Dubai in 2002, there was not much in the way of fishing, guiding, or even information," Bowles said. "I started an informational website called Ocean Active as a hobby, and then started receiving a lot of inquiries. We set up Ocean Active as an outfitting business and have been loving guiding and introducing clients to Dubai and Oman ever since."
Dubai is located almost perfectly in the middle between North America and the Far East. Over the last few decades, the city has become a travel, business, and tourism hub. With Emirates flying to 75 countries and 141 destinations, the city is easily accessible to major international cities within a few hours. Nick knew this place and its budding recreational fishery merited more attention, and possibly even a film.
When travelers envision Dubai today, the images that come to mind are of luxury and wealth—the tallest buildings in the world, the fastest cars, luxury resorts and dining, and the newest and shiniest of urban chic everything. But at its roots, Dubai is a fishing and pearl diving village that didn't start growing into a global metropolis until the 1970s. Who would have guessed that one of the keys to unlocking this city's true character would be through fishing?
"This idea was a pie in the sky. No fly-fishing film has ever been made in the Middle East," Bowles said, "so for me to actually see it become a reality was a milestone for those of us developing the sport in a new region. Getting the support from Dubai Tourism and top industry professionals was huge."
In April 2017, Bowles hosted Off the Grid Studios to produce and film Dubai on the Fly, a film that explores the old and new facets of the city. The production was headed up by veteran angling filmmaker RA Beattie, with Frank Smethurst as host in this Anthony Bourdain-style culture-and-fishing film.
"To prepare for this film," explained Smethurst, "I read about the region and the history of the Emirates. I wanted to understand important customs and not be the ignorant American. At the same time, I didn't want to know too much, so that I could learn and experience things for the first time along with the audience. Because I had never been anywhere near Dubai, it was all new and amazing, and I hope that shines through."
Filming in the Desert
A pro angler based in Colorado and well known to angling audiences through his roles in Running Down the Man and other fishing films, Smethurst was well prepared to take on this part, acting as a guide through new and old Dubai. Beyond fly fishing with Ocean Active, Smethurst was called upon to handle camels and falcons, drive a 600-horsepower Jaguar, sandboard and snowboard, golf, and to perform several other tricks.
The stable ocean conditions near Dubai create dependable inshore fishing with all the amenities of a modern city nearby. Photo by Bryan Gregson
Smethurst also sailed aboard a wooden dhow owned by an 80-year-old commercial fisherman who welcomed the entire Off the Grid team aboard to film his crew at work checking fish traps.
"In many ways, being on the Arabian dhow with the traditional fishermen was my favorite part of the entire trip. The captain had such a friendly and wise spirit. We sat on the bridge of the boat and just talked fishing," said Smethurst."It was a vivid illustration of how much we in the fishing world hold in common. They used fish traps and actually baited them with bread. The small fish went in there and then the big fish followed. When I will use fish traps in the near future, I'm not certain, but I never get tired of learning about fish, fishing, and fisherpeople." Smethurst and Bowles were joined by Mohammed (Mo) Al Faor, a 16-year-old Emirati who was taught traditional sustenance fishing by his grandfather. Mo truly represents the bridge between Arabian tradition and the new fly-angling scene.
"The fishing I was taught," Mo recalled, "focused on handlining, usually trolling or bottom fishing. My earliest memories are of fishing with my grandfathers, in a small rubber dinghy catching baby orange spot trevally on sabiki rigs. I began watching fishing programs on television. That's when I got into rod and reel fishing. Once that happened, it was exponential growth. Fly fishing then came out of necessity. I studied in the UK for two years and was desperate to fish. I learned that you could fly fish in London. A few lessons later, I was hooked."
To this day, commercial fishermen leave the Dubai marinas each day on wooden dhows to check their traps. Their view of the city is one looking from the water toward the mainland, the city of blue and pink glass enshrouded in a persistent sandy orange and yellow haze. Catch-and-release isn't the general mode of operation, but Bowles is doing just that with the sport fishery, particularly with talang queenfish.
Talang queenfish are members of the jack family, and they range widely throughout the Indo-Pacific. They thrive on the natural and artificial habitats around Dubai, and the city has done an outstanding job protecting its fishery for both commercial and recreational fishing.After his wife took a job with Emirates airline, Capt. Nick Bowles (right, with cameraman Paul Bourcq) started a fly-fishing guide service in Dubai as a hobby. He soon found out the fishing opportunities were better than he imagined, and demand from business travelers and tourists was booming. Photo by Bryan Gregson
Queenfish feed on schooling baitfish and crustaceans. They may grow up to 43 inches in length and 24 pounds. Queens are generally found in less than 330 feet of water, most often over reefs and inshore areas with structure. "Queenfish are a fantastic for fly fishing as they are aggressive, with visual takes. They jump and shoal in big numbers. But they do come with some intricacies," Bowles noted.
"They slash at the bait, will take a few while stunning the rest, then turn around and come back to feed on the paralyzed bait. So for us, to have a good, strong retrieve is very important. If the fish doesn't take, we let the fly drop for half a strip and normally the queen will swim onto the fly and crush it."
It's not every day that a new fish species enters the sport-fishing consciousness, and it will be interesting to see how the queenfish emerges and gains momentum over the coming years.
For instance, it took years for new gamefish species like milkfish, triggerfish, and giant trevally to even make it into mainstream fly-fishing discussion. For decades, the only species gracing the covers of fly-fishing magazines were rainbow and brown trout, tarpon, bonefish, and steelhead or salmon. Over the last decade, there's been an explosion of new bucketlist species, and queenfish are sure to rise in popularity as fly fishers look to advance their species checklists.
Crew cameraman Paul Bourcq, owner of Drift Media and a former member of Team USA Fly Fishing, was impressed by queenfish: "For me, from a sport-fishing standpoint, it was the speed of queenfish that was remarkable. They have a forked tail and are super fast. They would break on bait all day. The diffused light, early and late, was more comfortable for anglers, but it went on all day. They push bait around in that light without stopping. It was interesting to see fish not so dependent on photoperiods, but wanting to chew on flies all day."
Smethurst, who's done his fair share of exotic and urban angling, also offered a positive review: "Queenfish are easily one of the most exotic fish that I've caught. Visually, they're a blend of many of the most desirable fish on the planet—beautiful spots and subtle mother-of-pearl highlights along the flanks, with the face of a permit or roosterfish and just a touch of freshwater golden dorado. They also have the lithe and athletic body of a rainbow runner or winter steelhead."
For Mo, the big highlight of his film experience was landing a gargantuan queenfish with Smethurst doing the coaching. He recounted, "If I were to choose one stand-out moment, it would have to be that. It was a completely new experience, to be on camera, with a world-renowned fly fisher, and chatting with him as if we had been friends for years. That was something that blew my mind, and illustrated how impactful fishing can be as a method of bringing people together.
"Landing that great fish and sharing the moment with someone from the other side of the world was incredible and in essence, spurred me on to further develop my passion and love for fishing."
Behind the scenes, this film was unlike any other produced by Beattie and his team.
"Just like any outdoor adventure to a distant location, all of our projects require quite a bit of detailed planning and logistics," said Beattie. "This Dubai project was the most logistically challenging for our team, mainly because of the 12-hour time difference and the sheer number of activities we tried to film in a short time. For instance, the average day started at about 3:30 A.M., and lights out was usually around midnight, so the project was very demanding on our production crew and talent."
For Bourcq, the challenge was the heat: "My sensor kept overheating even with the fan running full tilt. The Arabian Desert dust was really fine and fried the fan as well. The wind just blew it all over during the sandboarding scene. For a filmmaker, light is everything. Because of the dust, there was haze all the time, an orange cast to everything. As far as camera and white balance, there was nothing to set to. You just had to figure it out."Talang queenfish are powerful members of the jack family found widely throughout the Indo-Pacific Ocean from Australia to the Persian Gulf. They are daytime feeders and prefer small pelagic fish, squid, and other fast-moving prey. Photo by Bryan Gregson
Aside from the challenges, Bourcq noted, "One thing that still strikes me is pulling into the marina each morning—the sheer scale of those buildings, the reflections off them. It was almost fake. It was unbelievable. I almost forgot to hit 'record' several times, which is not like me. It was beautiful. But it took only a few minutes to get away from the upscale downtown and get into the traditional areas."
Beattie found the filming conditions easier in some ways: "In many ways, the actual filming was not very challenging. The sea around Dubai is consistently calm and makes for stable filming, as compared to being in rough seas with lots of spray and swaying skylines."
It took a lot of serendipity to bring such an international crew together for this production, but most walked away with similar sentiments.
"I think the news has given us a very skewed look at Islam," said Bourcq. "It was enlightening for me to find people there whose lives revolve around the ocean, just like me. On paper, people think we couldn't be farther apart, but we actually couldn't be more similar. Those guys are great, and their entire culture is built around fishing. Oil has gotten all the press, but Dubai is a fishing village at its core. There's a call to prayer several times a day. The devoutness and commitment it takes in that religion is the same on the water."
Beattie found the city to be one of the friendliest he's visited.
"What I found most surprising was how friendly all of the people were to us," he said. "The people in Dubai were consistently gracious, friendly, and courteous. Every time we make a film in a new country and location, the world somehow feels a little smaller, a little more interconnected. When you have the opportunity to bond with another group of people and another culture—when you sit down and share a meal or create a connection with a shared passion—you realize we all have more in common than we know. The people we travel and fish with become our friends and family."
Mo agreed, "Fishing in Dubai truly is a unique experience. To be able to have stunning, exciting fly fishing, in the center of a metropolitan city, is something remarkable. In terms of political motivation, I think it's important for Westerners to understand how different this place is in comparison with how the media may depict it. Dubai is an accommodating and surprisingly modern destination. So for me, it's about education and the ability to experience something unique that should bring visitors to this wonderful place."
As for Smethurst, he'll be heading back to the Middle East soon.
"As an American, I wasn't sure about how I would be received," he said. "People were terrific and incredibly welcoming. The language of fishing is international, and we need to better understand all of the friends that we have elsewhere in the world. I'm also hoping they'll lend me the Jag for just a bit longer."
Sarah Grigg (sarah-grigg.com) is a writer and editor based in Bozeman, Montana.