December 17, 2021
This article was originally titled "On Foot in Oman" in the Feb-Mar 2019 issue of Fly Fisherman magazine.
We pushed our 12-foot aluminum boat 150 yards through the sand to access a pristine shoreline. We were hours by car from the nearest village, searching a pristine, remote, rocky shoreline for permit, bream, and queenfish. As we bombed casts into the rocks and structure, we saw a boat approaching on the horizon. It kept coming, straight toward us.
We were in the middle of nowhere—miles from anyone and anything. The boat had to be coming toward us, as there was nothing else around. As the boat became recognizable we saw four men wearing traditional Muslim dress—and ski masks. Time to go!
We tried to pull-start our outboard, but the engine wouldn’t fire up. I looked up, and saw the boat was nearly on top of us, there was no way to avoid an encounter at this point, so we braced ourselves for the worst. I was rethinking my decision to come to Oman, and wondered if I would ever see my family again.
Then—in very broken English and using many hand gestures—these four commercial fishermen expressed concern for our safety out in these rough seas. They warned us to be careful with our small boat around the rocky shoreline and crashing waves, and they kindly threw some lobsters in our boat for our dinner that night.
My adrenaline crashed and I became painfully aware of my own cultural biases. I wouldn’t have any concern in the Everglades if a boat approached with four guys wearing neck gaiters—even if they were adorned with skulls and scary faces. But out here, with men wearing traditional jalabiyyah clothing and a mask to protect themselves from the sun, it caused me a great deal of discomfort.
But that’s why I travel—to get outside my comfort zone, push boundaries, and to learn and grow both as an angler and as a person. The people in Oman were incredibly welcoming, open, friendly, kind, and curious. I haven’t spent much time in Muslim countries, but my experience in Oman will change all that.
Strange Permit-fishing Adventure
Like many adventures, this one was concocted over beers with a stranger. I met Ed Nicholas at a trade show in Florida. He is British expatriate who has spent his entire life in the Middle East. Nicholas grew up in Dubai before starting No Boundaries Oman, a guide operation focusing on conventional topwater popping for GTs. He’s not an absentee owner: With his wife and son, he calls Oman home.
No Boundaries consistently puts giant trevally above 100 pounds in the boat, all on the surface. It’s an incredible display, jerking these huge topwater plugs across the surface, and the takes are unbelievable. It’s like someone threw a Volkswagen in the water, and in that hole a monster disappears with your plug. It’s incredible, but it’s not my thing.
Fly fishing isn’t Nicholas’s bag either, but he knew there was potential here, and he had many people reaching out to him about it. He was inquisitive, hitting me up for what I looked for, and how to figure it out. After a few beers, Ed invited me to explore the fly-fishing possibilities of southern Oman. Of course, I was in!
Over the past few years, Oman has quietly become a hotspot for DIY permit anglers. It is probably one of the few places in the world where you can drive and camp along the beach and have legitimate shots at permit.
There are two distinctive species. Trachinotus blochii, or snubnose pompano, are known to fly fishers as Indo-Pacific permit. These are the same permit that are caught in the Seychelles and Australia. Oman also has Trachinotus africanus, more jack-like permit that are notorious for eating crabs off rocky, inhospitable bottoms.
These fish attract numerous adventurous souls, with varying degrees of success. Permit fishing is never easy, and even fish that haven’t seen a fly can be fickle. There is an American, Ray Montoya—a school teacher in Oman—who is widely regarded as the champion DIY permit guru in this part of the world. If you Google “fly fishing Oman” you’ll find his many videos. Montoya’s permit tally is somewhere north of 60. A good year leads him to a dozen permit, all caught pounding the beaches on foot on the weekends.
I had relatively little intel going into this adventure. A new country and permit are reason enough to pack a bag, but I was also interested in other species. Besides the GTs, Oman has some of the world’s largest queenfish. These are the same fish you catch in Dubai, but four times the size. There is another fish called a bream that looks like a cross between a redfish and a cubera snapper that is frequently caught on the surface by conventional anglers.
Unfortunately, the inshore fishing for these species was mostly a bust. We arrived in February, right in the heart of lobster season. The commercial fishermen were out in force dragging nets for lobster and it put a huge damper on our inshore possibilities.
The Oman shoreline is stunning, with giant rock formations and dramatic transitions from rocky shoreline to pristine blue water. It was surreal—empty, beautiful, so stunning that it almost seemed fake.
As empty and pristine as the beaches were, fish were hard to come by. We put many miles on our boots with little reward. Whether it was tide, location, lobster nets, time of year, or a combination of all of the above, the beaches were mostly desolate. It was pretty bleak, until it wasn’t.
We eventually found a school of emerald parrotfish feeding heavily in some coral. These fish are remarkable, big tankers cruising and munching coral. They are similar to bumphead parrotfish, but unlike bumpies, these fish can see! I lobbed a crab into the school and watched a fish move 10 feet to eat it. I was almost in shock. I’ve never seen any kind of parrotfish do that. I stripped tight, and had him on for a few seconds before the line sprang back at me. My hook shank was cut in half. I re-rigged and hooked another. This one proceeded to rub his face against the coral and break the line. I hooked several more, and they all seemed impossible to land.
Often your best successes as a fly fisher come from capitalizing on a fish’s mistake. One of the parrotfish made such a mistake, and ran away from the patch of coral. My hook was lodged right in the scissors of his mouth, and when the fish decided to run into sandy terrain I was able to land it.
My first fish of the trip was a stunning specimen. Neon blue and pink with a deeply forked tail, it was simply perfect. It’s amazing how a single fish can boost the morale of an entire group. Re-energized, we were back on the march.
We hadn’t made it 150 yards down the same beach when a single tail flicked in the sun. I did a double take, then a triple take. “Damn, that looks like a permit!”
Other than the school of parrotfish, we hadn’t seen a fish in days. It was 120 degrees F. so I thought I might be hallucinating. I made one cast, one strip, and I was on. My first blochii permit, and it was as textbook as it gets. While they may not rival their Atlantic cousins for size, their colors are stunning. This one cooperated for me, but don’t let them fool you. They are just as finicky as any other permit I’ve ever seen.
Just like that, my entire trip to Oman became a success, all on 200 yards of beach. A permit plus a bonus emerald parrotfish makes a hell of a trip anywhere in this world. Of course we kept fishing, with moments of greatness. I spotted another permit cruising just inside a shore break. It munched a crab, and immediately ran into the surf.
I could look into the 6- to 8-foot waves like a window, and could see the permit eye-to-eye as it surfed the breakers trying to escape. I dashed out into the surf to keep it away from some rocks, and was totally destroyed by a wave, but I kept the rod up and the line tight and landed another blochii. Trachinotus africanus eluded me, and that’s a huge reason for me to go back. That’s still a species I’d love to check off my list.
In my final tally, I estimate that we walked close to 100 miles of shoreline in order to land three fish. It was hot, and often brutally difficult. But it was also amazing and perfect. I left so much on the table with this trip, we didn’t scratch the surface of all the possibilities of that coastline. I’ll go back one day, and I think in the next few years, the Middle East might slowly start popping up as a more “normal” flats destination. All we have to do is leave our fears and our bias behind.
Oliver White is a partner in two fishing lodges in the Bahamas—Abaco Lodge and Bair’s Lodge. He travels extensively, hosting small groups in exotic locations around the world and in the American West.