It was when we
approached the first of the islands you can see looking west from Hurghada that
the first strike came, a dolphin around 20 pounds that spurted up, green and
gold, behind the boat. I was going to enjoy this on light gear, I thought.
Mustapha thought differently. With a wild cry he grabbed the line and started
to try to haul the fish in, hand over hand. With a wild cry I grabbed Mustapha
by the dangling end of his turban. But he had already let go. The line was
thinner and hotter than anything in his previous experience, which I now
suspected had been confined to the rich Egyptians who came down from Cairo
occasionally for the odd fishing trip. What kind of line they used was becoming
obvious. Obvious, too, was the way they landed their fish. No wonder Ahmoud had
tightened the drag and offered me the alligator-type leader.
By a miracle, the
dolphin was still on. Mr. Sabreez rushed up from below, choking on a chicken
leg that he had just furtively abstracted from the lunch box. He made for a
vantage point on the cabin roof, an area somewhat crowded by Rudi and his
gymnastics, and at the boat side the dolphin obliged with a brilliant virtuoso
display of leaping as Mr. Sabreez tried desperately to focus his ancient
Rollei. (Weeks later I examined a fine closeup of the seat of Mustapha's pants
as he leaned over the gunwale with the gaff.) But there were no problems about
a posed picture, great white hunter style, on deck. When this was done, I laid
the fish down. Rudi picked it up again. "Now me," he said. He had
slipped the harness on again.
We trolled on,
past sandy islets and long reefs. The sun was high and hot. Barracuda of a
minor nature came at intervals. We ate lunch, sneakily, down in the cabin, not
wanting Ahmoud and Mustapha to feel deprived because of Ramadan. That was a
prime error, for it gave Mustapha the chance to delve into my fishing box,
something he had wanted to do all day. I can reconstruct quite clearly what
happened. The 4/0 reel came under his inspection, and he discovered that it
possessed a curious feature. The handle would wind forward, but not back! He
set to work putting this right. It was tough going, but he managed it. And then
the handle came off. I emerged from below just as he was cautiously replacing
the lot in the tackle box. I didn't say anything. Something about the Red Sea
air and the ship's company was making me fatalistic.
The afternoon was
wearing on when a feeble strike brought me a two-foot garfish that had somehow
or another attached itself to the bait. This very modest success had a
remarkable effect on Ahmoud, who began to show signs of great excitement as he
delved into a locker and came out with a rag bundle of indescribable
filthiness. Layer after layer he removed, revealing at last a three-hook tackle
of terrifying dimensions. On this he mounted the garfish, grinning wickedly the
while. I could see his point. On that tackle, with that bait, we would not, at
least, catch any more two-foot-long garfish. With hope renewed I loosed it out
into the wake and eased off a lot of line.
Rudi the Nazi, an
interested spectator of all this, came to life. "I think I am trying this
fishing now," he said. "Please give me the rod." I told him, in
language any former soldier would understand, that this plan was just not on.
Bilked of his pleasure, he turned to Mr. Sabreez and began to tell him a dirty
story about the President of the U.A.R. For the little Egyptian, this was going
just one step too far.
"You must not
say such things about our Gamal Abdel Nasser," he said, all quivering,
courageous five feet of him. "We love him, we love him, we love him!"
"He is just another Arab," said Rudi in his best film-Nazi style. But
he retreated cautiously toward the stern.
garfish had an extended swim along the reef falloff before Ahmoud's confidence
was justified. Then it was socked very hard: the sea erupted, there was a giant
silver flash, and the line went sizzling off the reel. "Pull 'im in!"
yelled Mr. Sabreez, dancing about. Was he talking to me or the barracuda? I
didn't care much as I staggered toward the stern, hoping to find a secure niche
between the engine hatch and the tiller, because the midship seat was hopeless.
I kept the fish fighting as far away from the boat as I could, the better to
guide the line around the awning supports, and to avoid the danger zone: the
boat itself and Mustapha, who was already flourishing the gaff in wild
fought gloriously on the light tackle, leaping and making strong runs at the
surface. It was a long time before its fury could be dampened enough to make it
a safe target for Mustapha, who finally got it into the boat without even
losing a finger. When I weighed it, back at the hotel, it went a little better
than 40 pounds, which seemed pretty good to me until I looked up the world
record and found it to be over 100 pounds.
I was now eager
for more of the same, but we had run out of two-foot garfish and, in any case,
Ahmoud had purposefully swung the bow around, and we were headed for home.
Our home was the
Hurghada Hotel, opened only a few months previously, an ambitious building
constructed like a hollow, squat cylinder around a saltwater pool—full,
incidentally, of two-foot-long, bright blue garfish, I now recollected, noting
the point for future reference. For miles either way there was nothing but sand
dunes, but you couldn't miss a landfall right at the hotel jetty, because you
were bound, sooner or later, to come upon an ever-increasing concentration of
upturned bottoms and snorkel tubes—the early ones belonging to the advanced
class, the massed ones near the jetty to the absolute beginners who were being
drilled by handsome resident instructors. Everything, bar the upturned bottoms,
belonged to Neckerman Tours, a Nuremberg travel agency that had had the
foresight to book the hotel for the entire winter season, at a price that was
now breaking the heart of the owners, who had not been able to resist the
prospect of a complete block booking for three months.