Gone Fishin' With Big Tony
© 2005 by John and Susy Pint Updated September, 2013
Sabah Yousf Aied is our mechanic, but everyone calls him Tony. He's from Lebanon but he's been in Saudi Arabia for fifteen years. One Friday, he invited my friend Bernie and me to go fishing and now we were standing on a sandy shore of the Red Sea, looking out at a lot of boats bobbing on the waves.
"Oh...we're going to, um, carry all this stuff way out there?" I asked naively, glancing at the ice chests, gas cans, bags and boxes that filled the big "cage" which we had towed to this desolate spot all the way from Jeddah.
"Just carry it all to that boat out there and pile it up. I'll bring my skiff over," said Tony as he walked off into the water.
I picked up a jerry can and stepped into the thigh-deep brine. I didn't get more than a couple meters before the black muck on the bottom sucked a sandal off my foot. I soon learned that refastening a velcro strap while standing on one leg and balancing a five-gallon gas can on your head, is not an easy trick. After several more sandal recoveries, I began to ponder on what was lacking at this dock: a pier.
At last, Bernie and I and Tony's friend Khalid, a landscape designer, also from Lebanon, got everything loaded onto the nearby boat and Tony pulled his skiff alongside. It was six meters or so long, flat-bottomed and made of fiberglass. As soon as we finished transferring the gear, Tony started his big 85-HP Yamaha outboard motor and we skipped off over the waves.
Tony wove his way through the coral reefs and hidden sand bars as if they were flowerbeds in a park and soon we found ourselves surrounded by nothing but the placid, dark blue sea, which, of course, is not the least bit Red.
Now Captain Tony, standing behind the center console, let the throttle out completely and the boat leapt forward like a shark on a kill. Instead of skipping o'er the waves, we were now smacking them with hard thuds. The only thing to hold on to was the edge of the boat, which I grabbed with both hands -- and instantly let loose of as I felt a sharp tingle zing up my arms.
"Electricity!" shouted Tony into the wind. "Better you don't touch!"
Khalid then suggested to Tony, in Arabic, that we really weren't interested in rocketing out to wherever we were going and would prefer a slower speed, "so we can better enjoy the view."
So we slowed down and spent a half-hour looking at the wide, empty sea while getting spritzed at irregular intervals. Ah, the life of a sailor!"
At last, we stopped at "a good spot," which, to be honest, looked exactly like every other spot we'd seen since our last sighting of dear, sweet land. Now came the ceremony of lowering the anchor, which had four prongs, each a quarter-inch steel reinforcement rod. These are supposed to catch on rocks down on the bottom and are strong enough to keep the boat from drifting, but easily straightened out when tugged on by the likes of Popeye or Big Tony.
Coaxing the anchor to catch something thirty meters below you is like manipulating a lunar excursion module with no feedback to tell you how you're doing, but eventually we caught a rock (or something) and settled down to the serious business of fishing.
To hooks less than an inch long, we attached rubbery pieces of squid tentacle, still dripping black ink. Lowering them into the deep seemed to take forever, but Tony insisted the hook had to touch bottom and then dangle about a meter above it. Accomplishing this was easy enough, but there was no way to know whether a quick nibble had stripped your hook,... except to pull it back up, carefully arranging thirty meters of line in a pile at your feet.
Tony, of course, was a past master at all this and was soon hauling in fish about a foot long. There were parrot fish, grouper (hamour) and Jack Crevalle down there, but the best catch of all was a red fish (also in the grouper family) called NAJIL and the worst was what Tony called "plastic fish" but whose real name may be unicorn fish.
"Your fish died from the quick change of pressure," explained Bernie. Why had I imagined it only happens to human divers?
After giving away great quantities of free squid to the nibblers at the bottom, we were soon catching nothing but sunburn. "Time to find a new spot," said Tony as he switched on the engine. But instead of a mighty roar, all we heard was an ominous click, followed by several more.
"The battery is dead," announced Tony.
"And we're next," I thought, wondering how long it would take to paddle 20 kms with our hands. But Big Tony assured us all could be set right with nothing more than a piece of string. Some thin polypropylene twine was quickly found and in a jiffy, Tony had started the huge motor, just the way you do a lawn mower.
Off we zoomed to a new and better spot where Khalid the non-fisherman surprised all of us, including himself, by catching a veritable monster of the deep.
"It's big," he shouted while pulling in the line, "it's REALLY BIG!" When it reached the surface, we saw it was an enormous najil. To my surprise, Khalid and Tony were able to lift it right out of the water and plop it into the boat. And then, there it was, inches from my bare toes: 20 pounds of angry red flashing fins and razor-sharp teeth, leaping and flopping all over the place.
"This one looks like it survived the pressure change just fine," I said, as we all helped tip it into the giant ice box. At 60 Saudi Riyals per kilo, this single fish would have cost $160.00 at the market! Kahlid's wife would be delighted.
Of course, we all redoubled our fishing efforts, but no more red giants were handed to us by the deep blue sea. Finally, all we were getting were "plastic fish" again, so we pulled up anchor and headed for a reef where Tony wanted to do some spear-fishing. By now, wayward electricity was again coursing through the perimeter of the skiff, the not-so-dead battery having returned to life after a loose wire was reconnected.
We were chugging along when suddenly the top of the big cooler snapped open with a BANG! and high into the air leapt Khalid's giant najil. Luckily (but not for the fish) it landed inside the boat and finally ended up stowed in the anchor-rope compartment.
Next, we came to the edge of a beautiful coral reef only a foot or so below the gently undulating waves. Here Tony demonstrated how a frustrated fisherman can easily come home with a fine catch, even if he hadn't had a nibble all day. With snorkel and fins in place, Big Tony slipped over the side of the boat and gracefully swam away, trailing a floating plastic jug behind him. An hour later, that jug was riding low in the water as Tony returned. Attached to it were at least eight nice-looking fish, some quite large. "I could have shot more," said Tony, puffing as he pulled his heavy body into the boat, "but a big hamour broke my retrieval line and swam away with my spear."
Now that we had a full cooler of fish, we zoomed off to a sand island to have a snack and take it easy. As we arrived, a large flock of birds rose into the sky en masse and hovered over the island, waiting to see what we would do. A quick walk around the perimeter revealed that this sand bar had some clumps of coral around it, so, after a light lunch, we did some snorkeling. I didn't have to go farther than the first large coral "bush" I found, just over a cubic meter in size. This turned out to be the home of so many creatures and plants that I spent all my time lazily circling it, each time making lots of new discoveries. "It's the greatest variety show on earth," I thought, "and it's on 24 hours a day."
After an hour or so of pure relaxation, we girded our loins and got ready for the real job we had come here to do: scale and clean the fish. Doing this at the water's edge was a whole lot easier than in any kitchen and the four of us made short work of our big catch while at the same time feeding hundreds of appreciative minnows as well as the big land crabs that endlessly danced back and forth over the sparkling sand.
Then we shoved off, the Yamaha's roar sending the birds on another tizzy. But once we had left the island, we could see them quickly settling down on our fish-cleaning spot, happy to join in the feast.
Well before sunset, we were back at the garage in Jeddah, dividing up our spoils and thanking Big Tony for an exciting introduction to fishing in the deep, blue, Red Sea.