We were floating the perfect river. This was the river that fills the dreams of all anglers. To river right, braids cut through gravel bars and sent riffled waters into deep dark pools. Here, seams boiled and brewed until all was folded together again at the tailout. This was any river in Alaska's Bristol Bay or perhaps the Yellowstone in the fall.
On river left, poplar groves stood tall in the flood plain and were fringed with willow thickets at river's edge. Behind both, bleached summer grasses stretched to meet the hills beyond. This was Montana's Bighorn River... just sixty-two miles from my front door. Whether I looked to the right and was reminded of Alaska or looked to the left and thought of Montana, I felt at home...
So far this morning, I had caught a 24" trout, two 23" trout and two 22" trout. It was 9:45 AM. We had left camp at 9:00 AM. These big trout had all been caught on huge Chernobyl ants and red-legged parachute hoppers. Some had been taken off the gravel below cut banks while others were caught off undercut grassy banks where a semi well-executed drift brought fish from underneath root balls or from the eddies formed by small sweepers. These big trout were beautiful. Spotted like brown trout, but with big rosy side panels like par marks, they ate confidently and fought deep and hard. They were the perfect trout on the perfect river. Like this, we floated on hour after hour, day after day. We saw no other anglers, no other boats, no bank improvements and no trophy homes with manicured lawns to river's edge. This river was as it was meant to be... intact... complete... and utterly perfect.
But this perfect trout stream held a secret... a big secret.
SSH Journal August 29, 2008
You'll begin your adventure in Ulaan Baatar... UB, as the locals call it. UB is the capital of Mongolia and its largest city. UB is a sprawling collection of austere Soviet era buildings and traditional Mongolian gers (pronounced gair - as in air with a "g" in front) ... the canvas and felt yurts used by the nomadic horseman of Mongolia. It is not uncommon in UB to see a ger complete with garden and goats next to a grey 10-story apartment building, which are both downhill from a Buddhist monastery. UB is a city of almost a million people. The other 1.5 million Mongolians live in an area roughly the size of Alaska or four times the size of Montana or most of Europe. Take you choice, but it all means that there is very few people spread out over a huge landmass that includes some of the most unspoiled and wild lands left on earth. It is a land of bears, wolves and nomadic horsemen... and grass. Mongolia is the 6th largest country in Asia and sits landlocked like a walnut in the jaws of a nutcracker with the Russian bear to the north and billions of Chinese to the south. When Chinggis Khan (we know him as Genghis but that's an antiquated pronunciation like Peking and Beijing) began his conquest of Asia some 800 years ago, he relied on the pugnacious spirit of his people to fuel his war machine. This spirit allows them to survive both their geographical position between Russia and China and the brutal Mongolian winters.
Somehow this spirit of the great Khan has flowed into the country's rivers for not only are the trout strong fighters, but its rivers hold another great warrior... the mighty and legendary taimen. Taimen rule many Mongolian rivers in much the same way that Chinggis ruled the earth... with an iron fist. The giant taimen, tul to the Mongolians, is an almost mythical beast. When taimen are in the neighborhood, trout are nervous. It is not unusual to see a 20" trout take flight or be run up onto a bank by a marauding taimen. Smart, perhaps even cunning, taimen are difficult to hook and more difficult to land. Taimen live up to their reputation as the "river wolf" of the steppes. Many of the trout species (which include lenok and Amur or Manchurian trout bear old scars or new wounds witness to near-death experiences in the jaws of a big taimen.
The best way to wrap your mind around taimen is to think of the Madison or Yellowstone River. Then imagine its waters may harbor a voracious predator that can grow up to six feet in length and weigh 200 lbs. Taimen can live as long as many humans and most researchers believe them to be relics of some ancient species that gave rise to our present day trout, salmon and char. Taimen are essentially piscavores, but will eat mice, rats, ducks and squirrels. So imagine, once again, the Madison with some primordial fish that would take a size 4/0 streamer, a rat pattern the size of a beer can or a 20 " trout right off your hook. Now wouldn't that change things in Big Sky Country!
Taimen are beautiful fish with spots reminiscent of brown trout, rosy accents not quite like those of a rainbow and a distinctive big red tail. When a taimen eats, it really eats... no sipping here or subtle rise forms. Its all plunder and pillage in the style of the great Khan. Taimen can hunker down and fight deep or make blistering runs on the surface. Every taimen is a trophy, whether it is 25 or 55 inches.
Taimen are the largest salmonid in the world and practice indeterminate growth, which simply means they continue to grow throughout their lives. Taimen once inhabited rivers from Eastern Europe to the northern Japanese Island of Hokkaido. Over fishing and habitat loss have taken their toll. Now taimen are making their last stand in the pristine rivers that flow near the village where Chinggis Khan was born... less than 15 miles from where we were to launch our rafts into the river!
From UB, groups take an MI-8 Soviet helicopter 1.5 hours to a gravel bar beside a river we will not name... let's just call it River X. On your first day, you'll experience crystal clear waters flow that over jade green grasses and white sand bars. If you're lucky, you'll see huge taimen laid up on sandy slots and get a chance to sightcast to 4-5 foot monsters. If they aren't in the shallows, then the taimen will fall back to the ominous deep pools... perfect spots for mythical beats. Camps are almost surreal and certainly conformed to whatever romantic image we hold of Mongolia. On the river, anglers live in gers which are roomy and warm yurt-like structures. Each ger has a small stove, two bunks and ample room to dry waders and to spread out.
The daily schedule is simple: After breakfast, you'll load your gear onto the immaculate Aire rafts that come complete with rowing frames, front and back seats and leaning bars. As the sun forces heat into the morning chill, you'll most probably launch under an absolutely cloudless sky that seemed to stretch on endlessly. But then everything seems endless in Mongolia. The grasslands stretch on endlessly to the horizon with no fences and only the occasional rider to be seen. The river flows along endlessly to the sea. It bends, turns and braids, then pools up only to begin the cycle endlessly again. Even the quiet of the steppes seems infinite and is barely disturbed by the buzz of a grasshopper the size of a small bird or the call of an azure winged magpie or white napped crane.
Fishing for taimen is much like fishing for any other rare trophy. You'll work hard for your fish and the general avaerge is one large taimen boated per day. You'll cast big 2-4/0 streamers, surface mouse and absurdly large poppers patterns the guides have named such intriguing monikers as "chicken-on-a-stick" and "taimenator". When you need a break from pursuing taimen, you can put down your 8 and 9 wts. to grab your 4 and 5 wts. These lighter rods will feel great after a session on taimen. Knowing that you can catch an 18-25" trout virtually whenever you want makes the pursuit of the legendary taimen seem much less tiring and tedious.
Mark Johnstad, the outfitter is from Montana and has been exploring Mongolia for over 20 yeras (he once rode a horse 1100 miles across the country). He and his guides have a passion for taimen that borders on evangelical. As such, Mark has spearheaded the successful protection of this river system by the Mongolian government. He has also gotten the World Wildlife Fund involved and set in motion an extensive research that is being done on the species. As such, every taimen caught is weighed and its girth and length taken. The GPS coordinates are then recorded and each and every fish is named for the records. The angler chooses the name so be thinking about that before your visit!
Each day will fly by, each day better than the day before. You will fall into a comfortable rhythm. Up at dawn, you huddle under your thick wool blankets until a fire is started in your ger by one of the camp staff. When the chill is out of the air, you'll begin to get dressed. Before long, Handaa, a native of this lovely valley, brings you your hot drink of choice. Then it is off to the dining ger for fresh local berries with real yoghurt, granola and bacon and eggs. After another cup of coffee, it was waders on and gear and rods schlepped to the rafts. The guides are always waiting and eager to get started. Then it is fish, work hard for taimen, relax, and glut oneself on big Amur trout (this river holds Amur trout to 30 inches) and lenok (two species in this system to 28" ). Lunch is taken riverside and consists of homemade bread and soups, sandwiches and beer and wine. Then it's off downriver again. Days race by. It seems that only a few hours after leaving camp almost at daybreak you are pulling into another beautiful camp at sunset. Then it's time for a quick shower before a dinner of beef or mutton stew, potato dishes, fresh vegetables and delicious desserts. Before long, you'll be off to your ger, but not before rediscovering why the Milky Way is called milky. Sleep comes easily with dreams of giant ancient fish chasing flies the size of small rodents on rivers that flow through endless grasslands.
This is an absolutely spectacular adventure and certainly one of the great freshwater fishing trips in the world. This trip in Mongolia is on a par with the best in Alaska or Kamchatka. You may go for the legendary taimen, but the biggest surprise will be how excellent is the trout fishing. Where else in the world can you average 20-inch trout all caught on big terrestrials? The operation is absolutely seamless. From our beautiful hotel room in Ulaan Baatar, to the comfort of the gers, to the quality of the guides and gear, to the meals and Mongolian staff, this is a top-notch experience. So if you are looking for the best of the best and have the heart of an adventurer, give Mongolia and River X a try sometime!