In the early part of 2020 there was a lockdown throughout Pakistan, so fishing was off the cards. Later in the year, the increasing severity of the pandemic and the related travel restrictions meant that I could not go anywhere outside of the country either. Thus I decided to wait for things to get simpler. In the meantime, I concentrated on losing all the fat I had piled on during the year due to stress-eating. My weight-training and boxing coach Rizwan Bhatti did a great job at whipping me into shape!
The only place I could go to without having to do a two-week quarantine was the Maldives. I got in contact with a local fishing charter and organized my trip only to find out that the resort I had booked and already paid for did not allow outside contractors to deal with the guests. They said that they would have made an exception but could not in the current scenario due to COVID procedures as all of their staff had already been vaccinated and they were adamant on keeping their resort COVID-free. They assured me that they had a local boatman who belonged to the area and was an avid fisherman and that he would do his best to put me on to the fish. I considered canceling the trip, but as the money I had paid the resort was non-refundable, I decided to go through with it.
Thus I flew Qatar Airways Business Class to Doha and after staying 12 hours at the airport hotel with frequent trips to the Business Lounge, where I met my old High School buddy Sameer Riaz and his wife, I finally flew into Male International Airport. The Maldives is not a place for a single male traveler, especially a recycled bachelor still carrying emotional baggage! You are surrounded by lovey-dovey honeymooning couples and the untranslatable Pakistani TikTok adage “Lagtey hai khush, par dil ke hai sarrey, Baba Ji charrey!” comes to mind. Furthermore, I was disappointed by the response of my fishing organizers: I had brought only limited tackle with me and what they had on offer was substandard. They had also not procured the items that they had told me they would arrange before my tip. I did have confidence in my boatman though – Abdullah seemed to know his stuff.
The coral reefs of the Maldives have an abundance of fish. Commercial and even subsistence fishing with nets is illegal and plastic pollution was not at all noticeable – unlike the rest of Asia, where there is often more plastic in the water than fish!
The first morning out was not great. After an hour of casting around our resort island, which was the Holiday Inn Kandooma, without any luck we headed off to another island where on my third cast I was broken off by a giant trevally, probably a massive one. Following that initial upset we headed to yet another nearby uninhabited island, where we did some jigging in the coral reefs and I finally caught a few small groupers. Getting a fish, even a small one, is always a huge relief as it means you have avoided a fishless fate, what British anglers call being blanked and Americans refer to as “getting skunked.” The coral reefs of the Maldives have an abundance of fish. Commercial and even subsistence fishing with nets is illegal and plastic pollution was not at all noticeable – unlike the rest of Asia, where there is often more plastic in the water than fish!
I spent the rest of the day lounging around on the beach and swimming in the lagoon. As I was lazing around in the shallows, I noticed some commotion next to shore and saw shark fins breaking the surface. I can’t help but admit that I felt a sense of primal fear when I first saw this sight, but then I got out of the lagoon, jogged to my villa and got my camera, which resulted in decent-quality photos of the juvenile black tip reef sharks and a couple of sting rays.
On the fishing front, the next few days weren’t great. Casting and trolling yielded nothing, but bottom fishing with cut bait was fun. I caught plenty of varied reef fish but the majority were white snappers, triggerfish and barracudas. The prize catch was a small jobfish caught close to a picturesque sand bank. One evening I hooked up a massive grouper but after an hour-long battle which resulted in my clothes being thoroughly soaked with sweat, the fish made a final dive into the reef and was gone.
On a morning bottom fishing session, Abdullah told me that the reef where I had been broken off on the first day was the most productive one in the area and that if we went out before first light, we would have a better chance at success. That day I got upgraded to a spacious beach house and as I waited for the buggy to arrive to transfer my luggage, I sat on the ocean-side verandah of my villa eating a delicious Wagyu beef burger and contemplated about the last few days. The substandard fishing and the emotions built up over the last year coursing through my mind were not pleasant but I resolved that I was there to have a good time and would keep a positive attitude regardless of what would transpire. The new villa was luxurious; things were starting to look up.
I noticed some commotion next to shore and saw shark fins breaking the surface. I can’t help but admit that I felt a sense of primal fear when I first saw this sight, but then I got out of the lagoon, jogged to my villa and got my camera
The next morning, I was up at four and was dockside in half an hour. Abdullah was busy getting the tackle on board our swift little launch, the Kandooma Teal, an eighteen footer outfitted with a 200 HP motor. As we sped off to our location I looked up at the starry night sky and noticed that the constellations were different at that latitude. I could not find the Great Bear or ascertain the position of Polaris and barely made out what I assumed was the Belt of Orion. Once we reached the reef we started casting immediately, and within minutes I was in! A small giant trevally was landed soon after. Next Abdullah got a massive hit and handed me the rod and I set the hook several times and immediately knew it was a big fish. After several deep runs and a lot of power pumping on my behalf, I brought the fish boat side. It was a huge red snapper. I couldn’t admire the fish for very long though as Abdullah insisted that it was the best window we had to get fish and we shouldn’t waste time. Within minutes I got hit again and this time I knew it was a big giant trevally. The sheer power and speed of this fish is unmatched! After a hard fight the GT was gaffed and brought onboard. I was drenched in sweat by the equatorial humidity and had a bottle of water before resuming casting and getting yet another, slightly smaller GT. It had been a good morning. All of this was before sunrise and after a photo session and coffee, we decided to do some trolling. After an hour my reel started to sing and I began retrieving and pumping. I got the fish close enough to see it break the surface, a big wahoo! Then all of a sudden slack, it was gone. Afterwards I realized that I had failed to inspect the hooks on the lure before trolling: they were thoroughly rusty and blunt. We headed in around nine and once at the jetty, the staff as well as other tourists who were embarking on snorkeling and whale-watching trips were amazed at seeing the big fish being brought out of the boat. For once I was back in time for breakfast, so I went to the restaurant to treat myself to some Nutella French Toast.
I went out on two more trips but couldn’t replicate the success I had that morning. I lost another wahoo while trolling and had a reel shattered to bits from a sustained run by what was probably a 40 kg GT but none of this dampened my mood as I had already realized my goal of catching some quality fish during this trying time. Soon enough it was time to take another COVID test and take the boat to the airport to get home. During the bleakness of the pandemic, I was able to realize that life must go on and that morning off the reef battling big oceanic fish reminded me of just some of the thrills that our wonderful world has to offer!
The author is the ceremonial Mehtar of Chitral and can be contacted on Twitter @FatehMulk