Greg Heinricks runs big game fishing trips from what was once Abu Dhabi's old fishing village
UAE Portrait of a Nation: the big game fisherman of Al Bateen
It is early spring in 1998 and on the warm waters of the Arabian Gulf, Greg Heinricks is watching his reel. Something has taken the bait. But it is impossible to know what, if anything, is at the end.
Then the hook catches, the rod arches and the fish streams to the surface. Only now does Mr Heinricks, 52, realise what he’s hooked.
“You often don’t know you’ve caught anything until it comes to the surface,” he says. But then, aha, I’ve got a sailfish and this one is big.”
Sailfish, named for their striking dorsal fin, are the fastest fish in the sea, reaching speeds of up to 112kph. This one weighed a staggering 56kg and remains the biggest fish Mr Heinricks has ever landed. The biggest ever caught in the world was 100.24kg in 1947.
Dressed in a fishing shirt and shorts, he leans back into a chair in his shop in Al Bateen marina where he runs big game fishing trips and speaks of those epic days. “It is always an honour and privilege to catch a sailfish,” Mr Heinricks says. “In that era, we would tag and release more than 10 a day. In most places in the world you are lucky to get one or two strikes.”
On another occasion, he caught and released a staggering 48 sailfish on one day, a figure which put the Arabian Gulf in the top three in the world during the late 80s and early 90s for catching these types of fish.
Two decades on, the Canadian resident is still fishing the waters off Abu Dhabi and still catching fish. He arrived here in 1986 and photos of those heady days are plastered on the walls of his shop where he now runs fishing charters. The area was once a small fishing village and the shop speaks to those times. Crammed into the small space overlooking the old marina are hundreds of fishing lures, boxes of hooks, dozens of reels and scores of rods. Fishing magazines and books line the walls.
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It was the American author Ernest Hemingway who wrote so well about fishing. “Perhaps I should not have been a fisherman, he thought. But that was the thing that I was born for,” Hemingway wrote in his acclaimed novel, The Old Man and the Sea. And as Mr Heinricks recounts his adventures, it is clear big game fishing is a craft honed by years on the water: rigging up rods, choosing bait and picking the best fishing grounds.
Today, however, many anglers use lures that do a lot of the work and instead of learning to tie a complex knot, use simple metal “snap-ons”. Somehow that noble spirit, captured so eloquently by Hemingway, is being eroded by the sense of immediate gratification that has pervaded the world.
This has been partly driven by social media and Mr Heinricks laments this loss among some of the younger generation. “They don’t want to apply themselves. They don’t want to wait to be chief executive, or have the five-bedroom house. They want it instantly. You are seeing that at sports fishing” says Mr Heinricks. “They only want that one selfie –been there, done that, next.”
But perhaps surprisingly, Mr Heinricks reveals that social media has also boosted vital conservation efforts through that very same instant gratification. People want the photograph on Instagram rather than the fish. “Take that photo, get it back in water and upload it to 10 million followers.”
Mr Heinricks is from St Albert, a town in Canada’s western province of Alberta. He grew up in an era before personal electronics without Xboxes or Playstations when fishing was hugely popular. But in 1986, he swapped the cold waters of Canada for the warm waters of the Gulf when his day job in aviation brought him to the capital.
Throughout the years, Mr Heinricks has been committed to conservation and is member of the International Game Fish Association, a global not-for-profit organisation committed to the conservation of game fish. While he has seen stocks dwindle in the seas here, it has coincided with a surge in support for catch and release. More than 30 years ago it was rare that anyone would have released a fish back into the water here.
But now this is common. Today too have seen the creation of more marine protected areas.
“Before you were only considered on how many ice chests [full of fish] or the size of a fish someone could touch. Our example has made a difference.”
Mr Heinricks retired from his day job in 1997. The same year he established the fishing charter business that runs to this day in Al Bateen. He is also involved with caring for Abu Dhabi’s street cats through the Animal Welfare Abu Dhabi group.
Now he is devoted to the boat, the sea and the fish.
“To see the joy in peoples’ faces who may never have fished or who have caught the biggest fish or their lifetime, I get a lot of satisfaction from that.”