Al-Ahram Weekly Online   4 - 10 August 2011
Issue No. 1059
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Who caught the red mullet?

Hook, line and sinker. Nader Habib falls for fishing

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Clockwise from top: Hanna fishing near the Ras Sedr shore; despite their different professions and varying age bracket, this group of amateur fishermen are united by their love of fishing; Porto Sokhna harbour; Haj Mohamed and his catch of the day; Rayes Khaled using GPS photos: Nader Habib

It all seemed very romantic. A day out on a boat, open horizons and endless surf, salty air beating on my face, sails fluttering above as one fish after another tugs at my fishing line. But I had never gone fishing before. Until a few days ago, fishing was just a dream to me, a vision from a film, a sport for others to engage in. Then finally, I took the metaphorical plunge. A relative of mine told me that there was a vacant spot on a fishing trip, and offered to lend me his fishing gear. It was too good to resist.

The plan was to spend two days at sea. We would start from Porto Sokhna and sail all the way to Ras Sedr in Sinai, stopping to fish at promising spots known to the boat captain.

We met -- eight amateur fishermen in all -- at a café in Maadi. It was 3am and a microbus was going to pick us up in one hour to take us to Sokhna, two hours away. Our luggage was ready, mostly fishing gear, clothes, and as much food and drink as we could bring. The microbus was on time; we loaded up and set out for adventure.

The man sitting next to me was Haj Mohamed, a retired army general willing to share with me a bag of nuts he brought to pass the time. An experienced fisherman, Mohamed began to give me tips about fishing. I learned that fishing depends on many variables, including weather and sea conditions.

Lotfi Hanna, a retired teacher, has fished since childhood. "We lived in the countryside and I used to fish in canals," Hanna told me. "Later, I fished in Alexandria, and it was only later that I discovered the Red Sea. I also got to know other amateur fishermen. We stay in touch and fish together on occasion." Fishing in a river is quite different from fishing at sea, he pointed out. "You can fish on the shore or in a small boat or even tourist boats which can take you out into deep sea. You have to think ahead about the kind of catch you'll be getting. For example, getting a big fish out of water is not an easy task; it's not just about throwing in the bait and waiting for a fish to bite. You have to learn how to handle the catch," Hanna emphasised.

In all cases, the right gear is critical. "There are many shops in Egypt selling fishing supplies," he revealed. "Downtown, Maadi, Shubra, Heliopolis, Qanater and Helwan. These shops sometimes organise fishing trips which is a good starting point for an amateur. Often, fishing shop owners know fishing boats and will help amateurs by organising trips for them."

But angling can be a very expensive hobby. "To go on a fishing trip is rather costly," Hanna added. "You can take a day trip, usually to a close spot such as Sokhna. But for distant areas, such as Hurghada and Sharm El-Sheikh, the trip would have to be longer because you'll lose two days travelling back and forth. The transportation is expensive and the boats are not cheap either. This is why we travel in groups, which brings down the cost per person to LE500 or so, including food and travelling. We have to buy our own tackle and we often have ice delivered to the boat."

Some of the boats are well-appointed, with individual cabins, bathrooms and a living area. Each boat has its own cook, ready to prepare meals from the catch of the day. "Of course you need to take along other food because you may not catch anything at all. Breakfast and dinner are usually light, cheese and eggs mostly. But if we get lucky, we eat the fish we catch. Nothing is more delicious than grilled fish fresh from the sea."

The first step for a beginner is to learn how to use the fishing gear; preparing the reel, casting the line, fixing the hook and placing the bait. I was told that every spot needs its own bait since not all fish are attracted to the same bait. Fishing in Cairo, Hanna told me, is all about the Nile. "People tend to fish from the top of bridges, but this is meant only for fun. Real fishing should, however, take place on the outskirts of Cairo, north of Qanater or south of Helwan. That's where the fish is abundant."

In Alexandria, fishing is difficult for amateurs because large fishing boats beat them to the catch. "There are some spots, however, that are known to attract amateur fishermen: the Nelson Island in Abu Qeer, for example," Hanna stated. "On the north coast, amateurs enjoy fishing off the piers."

Before going on a fishing trip, one has to get a fishing permit from the Intelligence Service in Madinat Al-Tawfiq in Nasr City as well as from the Border Police. Another permit must be obtained from the Fishing Resources Organisation for a fee of LE30 and is valid for three months. No one is allowed to fish in the Red Sea without these permits, but if a group is taking a boat, the fishermen are only required to leave their IDs with the Border Police at the harbour and collect them on their return. The Border Police prohibits fishermen from sleeping on the beach, so anglers are only allowed to use the beach from dawn to dusk.

The most popular fishing areas on the Red Sea are Ain Sokhna, Wadi Al-Dome (in front of Porto Sokhna), Zaafarana (at KM200), El-Gazaer (at KM240), George (at KM250), Aziziya (at KM270), Ras Shoqeir, Al-Gamsha, Ras Eish, El-Gouna, Hurghada, Ras Sedr, Al-Maramit, and Al-Kenisa (50 kilometres from Sharm El-Sheikh).

The oddest thing about fishing, I am told, is that out of 10 fishermen on a boat perhaps only one would catch all the fish. It is a matter of rezq (luck or God-sent).

When we arrived at Sokhna, the boat captain Rayes Khaled was already waiting for us. He has been in this trade for 24 years, he told me. "I started working on a boat right after preparatory school. I went out on a trip with my aunt's husband, who is a fisherman, and fell in love with the lifestyle. I come from Suez, so I spent all my life on the Red Sea. Now I work on this boat, but I don't own it," he added.

Khaled stressed that the boat captain must be strict: "We run into a lot of difficulties in the course of our work; sometimes the sea would be calm and all of a sudden turn stormy. This could happen at night, and the best thing to do is to cut short the trip and just head back." This boast captain is well known to many amateur fishing groups. "If a group, like this one, decides to go fishing they call me on my mobile phone to set up a trip. I don't work through tourist agencies; I have my clients and they introduce me to new clients. Also, the fishing gear shops often advertise our services."

Our boat had two bathrooms, two bedrooms, a living area and a sundeck and could accommodate 12 people, including the crew. Before sailing, we were warned not to jump in the water without the captain's permission. "Some areas are dangerous to swim in, so I need clients to tell me if they want to swim so I can find a good spot. Some areas are too rough for swimming, and there are sharks as well."

Foreigners who go on fishing and snorkelling trips have to obtain permits from the Intelligence Service and the Border Police as well. Diving is only allowed close to the shore. "Deep-sea diving is prohibited in this part of the Red Sea because it's a shipping lane," Khaled revealed.

Before boarding the boat, passengers hand over their passports or IDs to the Border Police who keep a record of who's going where. If the trip involves an overnight at sea, the Intelligence Service must be informed in advance; the Border Police has a list of people who are not allowed on such trips for security reasons.

Khaled is very strict about alcoholic beverages. "Some passengers drink and then they start acting silly," he says. "So I have banned alcohol on this boat. There have been incidents when people had too much to drink and became a danger to themselves. We are in the middle of the sea, and one has to be quite alert or the consequences could be grave."

Sailing is an art as well as a science, Khaled told me. He goes periodically to the Maritime Academy to take refresher courses in GPS, depth sounders, and various modern gadgets. "Before modern instruments came along, we used to memorise the shape of the mountains to know where we were. And things would get hard when visibility was poor."

Gamal Marei, an accountant and marble trader, is one of the group's newest members. "I joined the group through my brother-in-law who loves fishing," Marei stated. "I bought my own equipment and have been out on several trips so far. The gear can be expensive but worth it; it is such a pleasure to have fresh fish. You cannot get fresh fish in Cairo markets."

At the end of our trip, Khaled brought us back to Porto Sokhna. As we sailed back, everyone bathed, changed into fresh clothes, and climbed on deck to play some backgammon and drink hot tea. Some of us had been lucky with their catch. Others -- having caught nothing -- consoled themselves with fish bought at the harbour. Once home, it's their prerogative to claim it is their own catch.

As for me, I will not reveal how I came about the red mullets I took home. But I know I will come back for more.

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