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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 16 December 2018

Fishing in the UAE: enthusiast Kit Belen offer tips for first timers starting out

Fishing is growing in popularity with enthusiasts from all walks of life picking up their rods, most bound by a common interest: relaxation, away from the roar of the city and all its pressures

It will be cloudy over the weekend, with choppy conditions in the Arabian Gulf. Delores Johnson / The National
It will be cloudy over the weekend, with choppy conditions in the Arabian Gulf. Delores Johnson / The National

If you were to think of hobbies and sports that tend to appeal predominantly to males, fishing has got to be right up there with soccer and motor racing. In Europe, freshwater fishing is viewed as an almost therapeutic way to while away one’s evenings in complete solitude, a world away from the wife, kids, bills and any other grinding aspects

of daily life.

Out on the high seas, big-game fishing provides all the thrills and spills of any high-octane sport – strength, stamina and cunning are required to catch some of the creatures of the deep.

Fishing, in all its forms, is something we’re used to seeing in Hollywood films but, possibly due to the time of day most engage in it, it’s not something that’s especially conspicuous in the UAE. But it is definitely popular and growing ever more so, with enthusiasts from all walks of life picking up their rods, most bound by a common interest: relaxation, away from the roar of the city and all its pressures.

Kit Belen is a Dubai-based expat from the Philippines. His day job involves IT and web design, data analytics and helping companies maximise their presence on search engines. He agrees that fishing is the antidote to stress, a blissful way to unwind and get into an almost Zen-like state, usually while the rest of the country is sleeping.

“Fishing is a way of life for most boys in the Philippines,” he says. “Our dads are into it, we’re an island country where the sea is almost always present, and the waters are teeming with spectacular species. But it was when I came to Dubai 10 years ago that I really got into it.”

How, though, does one go about getting started? There are so many restricted areas in the country that it can be a figurative minefield out there, trying to work out where you can and can’t go.

Firstly, you need a licence to engage in any form of fishing in the UAE. It’s free in Dubai, available from the municipality offices, while in Abu Dhabi there is a Dh120 annual fee and the process is dealt with by the Environment Agency. Other emirates charge nominal annual fees and there are temporary licenses available for tourists. If you get caught fishing without a licence, you can face hefty fines.

If you think this is a bit draconian, you’re wrong. Knowing how many people are out there with their rods is an effective way for the government to keep a watchful eye on fish stocks and maintain natural resources.

“You have to police yourself,” continues Belen. “You have to respect the species that are in our waters, and there are laws that govern what can and can’t be caught. I fish for sport and return 90 per cent of what I catch back to the water. The rest comes home with me and provides food for the family.”

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Unlike other hobbies, fishing isn’t represented by formal clubs, with Facebook groups being the main platform for enthusiasts to communicate. “Friends tend to head out together, often at night, so it doesn’t really suit the traditional club format,” he admits. “But we can keep up with developments in the local scene online, in our own time. Often I will fish throughout the night, head home, have a shower and head out to work – I never feel anything other than completely chilled out after a night of fishing.”

Belen points out that the UAE isn’t really suitable for freshwater fishing, with only a small handful of areas catering to that interest. So it’s saltwater all the way for the country’s recreational fishing community, and that can be done from the shoreline or from a boat.

There’s a burgeoning industry in chartered fishing trips, particularly on the east coast where the “big-game” species are in plentiful supply. “Black marlin, longtail and yellowfin tuna are all there, says Belen, “as well as the highly prized kingfish and cobia. Predatory fish are the fastest and most difficult to catch – they present a real challenge and it can become a game of wits.”

When your licence to fish is issued, information is presented about what’s off- limits as far as catching is concerned. Some species are protected because their numbers are dwindling, other rules apply to the size, with smaller, immature fish needing to be returned to the water, to give them a chance to grow and reproduce. The balance of nature in the oceans is not something to be trifled with, and Belen says that, in general, those who take up fishing do have a healthy respect for it.

With your licence in hand, it’ll be time to buy some gear, and Belen maintains that you get what you pay for. For experts like him, it’s worth spending big bucks on lighter, stronger rods and lines, but he says beginners would do well to work their way up to that level. “Barracuda on Sheikh Zayed Road [close to the junction with Meydan Street] is an excellent store, run by knowledgeable staff with huge stocks of all the gear you could need. I’d recommend it to anyone just starting out.”

For all his love of the sport, one thing evidently riles him: the litter left behind by people who share his hobby. “It’s disgraceful,” he sighs. “The UAE’s fishing spots used to be spotless, and now people just head home leaving all their rubbish behind. Empty bait boxes, food packaging, bottles, you name it and it’s left to ruin these areas of natural beauty.

“The authorities do police it, they deal with anyone found without licences and check their catches for banned species but, to be fair, there’s more than 1,300 kilometres of coastline here, and they can’t be everywhere at the same time. It’s so bad in some areas that the authorities have threatened to prohibit access – it’s something that causes the real enthusiasts, like myself, a great deal of distress.”

Hopefully, with education this will become less prevalent, but one thing is obvious: fishing is only set to grow in popularity on our shores. And whether you get into it for sport or sustenance, or simply to relax and unwind to the sound of lapping waves under a blanket of stars, the UAE has more than enough to offer.