Josh Collins, a Canadian living in Qatar, did not hold much hope for fly fishing when he moved to Doha. Then he fell in with Fred Davis and Tim Olsen and went on a trip to Oman in search of his first permit. The story of that trip ran in issue 34 of The Mission.
A year ago, the Middle East was a distant land of camels, hijabs and shawarma. It was a place where my girlfriend went to teach at an international school, where I was going to join her, sadly leaving behind me the lush green valleys of Western Canada with their lakes and streams, salmonoids and char. I packed a fly rod and a mess of tying materials with a smidgen of hope. I mean, what fishing could I really expect to find in the Middle East? Little did I know that I’d find myself on a desert-lined beach waving my rod at a tailing permit, and that it would be completely surreal.
In hindsight, committing to a fishing trip to Oman was a trip in itself. I barely slept in the weeks building up to it and more than once I found myself doubting whether it was actually going to happen. Even after flights were booked, there was this eerie feeling that something would go wrong. And when that damned dude at the airport disappeared into the bowels of Hamad International with our visas and some story about mismatched professions, I felt an empty hollow churning through my guts.
I’ve never done this before… climbing on a plane with the sole intention of targeting a single species of fish. Yes, they eventually let us board, thanks to some serious hustling at the airport by my fishing buddy Fred Davis. Hell, I’ve never even travelled specifically for fishing before, and now I had been (very easily) talked into chasing the holy grail. Until I got to Qatar, I’d never considered the ocean as a place where I’d fish. Now I’d been introduced to a whole new side of fly fishing, and a new fire burned inside me.
More than ten years of fishing in Western Canada barely prepared me for salt, but I took to it like a dog to a fresh bone and, in a few short months, caught fish I could not have dreamed up. Having listened to the beer-fuelled stories about sickle-finned swine and thousands of ignored presentations, I quickly learnt that the permit was THE fish to catch… the heartbreaker, the Tiffany Thiessen, pure saltwater fly junkie crack. Although I had yet to taste that permit goodness, the stories I’d heard and read in the build-up lit the fire that drives any junkie to find their next fix.
Crabs, crabs, crabs! I needed crabs.
The fly tying before the trip was an onerous mission. I already had a box full of saltwater flies, but mostly baitfish patterns. There were Crazy Charlies and the likes that I had tied when I first arrived in the Arabian Gulf. With limited materials and a realisation that proportions and action were everything, it was a steep learning curve. Permit possess these huge round baby doll eyes that seem supernatural. Would any self-respecting permit eat my measly scraped-together flies, especially when my first flexos kept flipping upside down? But after some late-night tying sessions, with much needed beer, along with advice and some materials from Fred and Tim, I eventually got them to a point that, hopefully, something would eat. I was stoked now and I spent every evening only half-listening to my very understanding better half, while churning out versions of the flexo, that I prayed would catch those big round baby doll permit eyes.
After finally touching down in Oman, I immediately felt lighter on my feet. All of that worry and doubt about getting there had vanished, leaving excitement and anticipation in its wake. After a quick hustle through the shops for groceries, some interesting packing (three guys with all their fishing and camping gear in a Cruiser was probably a push) and we were off. Our first stop, a beach nestled between two headlands, looked lush. The confidence killer were thousands of commercial fishing nets that seemed to smear the ocean to the horizon. As we explored the coast from Salalah to Minji, bay after bay was littered with the marker buoys of lobster nets. It gives you a sick feeling in the pit of your stomach seeing all of that. They’re aqua death traps for anything that swims, and you can’t help but think of the bi-catch. Such an archaic and miserable way to catch lobster.
It took us a couple of days to get to the spot where Fred, our South African veteran, had lost a big permit on his first trip to Oman way back in 2015. Once on the water, it wasn’t long before he and the Aussie, Tim, who has fished for permit in Belize and at home, had both reported their first sightings of tailing permit. We split up and I took up the slow steady stare, step, stare rhythm that soon became my sight fishing tempo. Back at the car, hours later, Fred recounted how a fish had surfed up almost onto the beach to eat his crab. He’d had the first eat of the trip only to have the hook pull, well into the fight. The heartbreak dripped off his words. He seemed physically hurt by this loss. Me? I’d seen nothing. Sitting quietly, legs surprisingly sore, it sank in just how hard these fish are to catch and I found myself wondering if I’d bitten off more than I could chew.
“Then I saw the silent, swirling swish of the double sickle of a tail cut the fading whitewash just before being engulfed by another wave.”
It’s a scene that’s engraved in my mind now. I froze – that moment felt like an eternity – until it sank in that this was actually a permit. Tailing. Within casting distance. Oh shit! As it fed harder, the subtle black and yellow accents of those elongated dorsal and anal fins danced between the wash of the shore break. Then the adrenaline kicked in. My heart thumped a heavy tattoo against my ribcage. I started to shake. Complete weakness in the knees. And all I could think was, “How the hell am I going to cast straight?”
Creeping into the water, the opportunity to cast seemed to elude me, until, there was a lull between waves. I took too long. One too many false casts. Too much focus on a perfect presentation. As the next wave rolled in, the fish weightlessly lifted and I found myself looking it straight in the eye, those baby doll eyes magnified through a crystal-clear window of the wave face. A pause. A swirl. Then white water. It was all over. Fish gone. I stood there staring, hoping, but I knew it was gone. The adrenaline hung around and my heart took forever to slow down. At least I knew then what I was looking for.
Over the following days, I sighted fish. Cruising, waving their tails, disappearing at speed. Each time played out entirely differently from the last. There’s no consistency to these damn fish! My frustration grew. I found myself forcing casts and muttering curses. One fish would give me multiple chances to present a fly, completely oblivious to my presence, while the next was gone before I’d lifted a rod to cast. And the real bastards are the ones that seemed to have a sniff but turned their noses up at my meagre offerings. All this simply left me wanting more, every time.
There were other fish to be caught too. We needed to break the prolonged intensity of stalking permit so we fished rocky outcrops, gullies and gutters on the beach for triggerfish, pompano and bream. Fish were scarce and I have no doubt that the environmental cluster of thousands of kilometres of nets just offshore was not helping. But we did manage a few live ones between the numerous washed up, eye-plucked corpses that we walked past. They always seemed like fish I’d love to catch. The Omani coastline is awe inspiring. Even if I never manage to return it will be etched into my memories for life.
Watching Fred take the first permit of the trip was a pivotal moment. I had taken the day off to nurse my feet; cut to bits and infected from a foray across the mussels chasing a pod of Africanus. At the last light of the day in the full push of the tide, while I sat watching the blacktips cruise the backline, I saw him cast, wait and then tighten up. The bow in his rod was deep. Then I heard that yell of frustration that only comes with the loss of a good fish. Interest piqued, I hobbled across to where he and Tim were waiting like herons. He was soon casting at another tailing fish and quickly managed to feed it too. The fish took off, faster and harder than I expected. Suddenly he took off after the fish, running after it and making a massive commotion in the water. What the hell was happening here? Then it dawned on me: a shark must have come looking for snack. Damn. South Africans running towards sharks!
The first Indo-pacific permit of the trip felt like a success for the whole team but now Tim and I needed to step up our game and get one. We celebrated that night at a local Omani restaurant. The burgers Tim and I ordered looked nothing like what was pictured on the menu. Fail. Fred, seasoned traveller in these backwaters, scored again with ‘khubz ragag’ (Omani bread) and fried chicken. Gins at camp and a good night’s sleep followed.
Grab the rest of this story in issue 34 below. As always, it’s free.