Taimen in the Land of Khan

Taimen in the Land of Khan

A guide's journey on a river in Mongolia.

  • By: Peter Fong
A prized Mongolian taimen.

If you’ve seen pictures of taimen, you may already be ruined, particularly if you’ve studied images of anglers kneeling in bewilderment, smiling and stunned, behind a fish so impossibly large that two hands form an insufficient cradle. As soon as you grasp that scene, the dream begins—your wading boots planted in an unfettered river, your eyes blinking in the boreal sun, your hands reaching into cool water, your arms bearing that implausible weight. It’s a wonderful dream, infused with just the right blend of beauty and impracticality, alternately enhanced and encumbered by facts.

Like Paris in the spring, a taimen’s heart-rending strike exists in a specific time and a far-off place & shy—Mongolia, the Land of Khan—a location so remote that chasing the largest and longest-lived relative of the trout requires (for most people) a week’s leave and a month’s salary.

Personally, I don’t object to this state of affairs because, after a two-decade hiatus, I’ve returned to guiding anglers, for five weeks each year, on an incomparable river in northern Mongolia. (The river’s name is not important.) By doing so, I see more than my share of taimen ravaging flies.

Most of these splendid attacks involve floating mouse imitations made of hair, foam or some combination of both. Sometimes we see the fish coming, a wolf across the steppe. Other times it’s a bolt from the blue, a liquid detonation of shock and surprise. As a guide, I’m gripping the boat’s oars when this moment happens—not the rod—but taimen are astonishing that not being the angler matters less than I thought it might. Like other charismatic predators, taimen aren’t plentiful, even where their populations are healthy. They can be fickle, especially under a bright afternoon sun, and their hard mouths make them difficult to hook. If you float 10 miles of river, casting with diligence and precision, you are likely to raise a half-dozen taimen and release one or two. I don’t want to call this an ordinary day, because drifting through Mongolia’s remarkable landscape isn’t ordinary, but landing a fish or two is a reasonable expectation, if not a statistical average.

The word average, however, interests me less than ordinary because I always hope for better—the unusual, exceptional or truly unforgettable. That’s what most guides want for their clients: something they can take home. Not something tangible, but a totem memory they can rub until it shines, some ritual protection against the harsher elements of civilized life, be it a domineering boss, a kidney stone or an adjustable-rate mortgage. Because the river I guide on is routinely generous with souvenirs, I usually get what I want. However, when the inevitable occurs—those days when the unpredictable nature of fishing becomes predictably frustrating—I can’t avoid the old questions of fate and luck.

This past season I guided two clients who have fished in most of the world’s hotspots, ranging from Argentina to New Zealand. One angler, Dave, took up fly-fishing as a hedge against retirement-induced dementia. He casts moderately well, tells a good story and appreciates cold beer and a ceremonial cigarette. He’s a fun guy to row down the river, although you might have to remind him to set the hook.

While Dave is enthusiastic, his friend Darron is obsessed. Once the fishing begins, he sips nothing but water, eats only when necessary. He leans forward in the boat, as intent as the great gray herons that stalk the banks, and lays out line with the stylish efficiency that comes from long practice. Darron uses a roll cast to disengage less-desirable fish immediately after they eat the fly. During his time in Mongolia, all fish were less desirable than taimen, even the river’s two species of colorful and enthusiastic Manchurian trout.

No doubt you can guess which angler landed the largest taimen of the season, on a 6-weight rod, while skating a hopper pattern for trout. You may also surmise which angler cast fervently from sunrise to sunset, without a solid take, until at last, in knee-deep water, he saw a silver wake streaming toward the mouse pattern, with the straightforward concentration of a nuclear submarine, only to watch a 16-inch trout dart ahead, like a sparrow hawk stealing prey from a golden eagle, and impale itself on a size 2/0 hook.

These incidents, and others like them, can—if you let them—condense an entire day into success or failure. When failures mount, it’s easy to start keeping track, to catalog each missed chance and discover a pattern of futility.

Although I tried not to count, I was aware of the numbers over the course of Darron’s trip. A truly hungry taimen often gives an angler three or four opportunities to set the hook. In fact, some particularly aggressive fish might strike six times or more. Darron had encountered none of these accommodating individuals.

This disheartening history couldn’t be attributed to a lack of skill or persistence. The man had plenty of both. According to Dave, Darron outfished him on all previous occasions, for everything from Arctic char to sea-run browns. In a promising start, Darron netted a 30-inch juvenile taimen on the first afternoon. He continued to raise fish, but some taimen missed clumsily before vanishing into broken water, while several offered nothing more than an indolent swirl. The one merciless specimen that ate with abandon? It charged directly at the rod tip. (Slack line, fish gone.)
For Darron’s last day on the river, I wanted something that felt like victory, something to chalk up in the win column, not in his amiable competition with Dave, but with the curse that seemed to have settled over him like a solitary cloud. It was possible, I thought, to end his unlucky streak by force: the force of will, determination and desire.

As it turned out, I was wrong. But it wasn’t until after the season that I realized my entire attitude was wrong. When you’re floating through the valley where Genghis Khan was born, casting a fly for fish as long as your leg, you really can’t lose. What you’re after is not victory, but memory.

Darron and I covered the final stretch of river with single-minded dedication. To tell the truth, I was so absorbed with hunting taimen that I scarcely noticed a family of whooping swans veering overhead, the four gray cygnets grown as large as their parents, ready for their journey south. Nor did I pause to admire the autumn hillsides, with their golden poplars, white-barked birches, and red-leaved currants. Instead I lingered over every likely pool and seam, looking for the one fish that I imagined would release Darron from his torment.

We didn’t talk about Dave’s run of fortune. What was there to say? Dave’s big fish on 3X tippet could have been a line-class record, but we didn’t even break out the scale. It was a long fight, upstream all the way, with the taimen surging repeatedly toward the sanctuary of a sunken log. Because that fish was at least 20 years old (judging from its size), a healthy release was the end of our ambitions.

Don’t get me wrong—I don’t wish that Darron and I had fished less carefully or with less commitment. But, perhaps we might have allowed ourselves to look away from our destination every hundredth cast or so. If we’d done so we might have seen a bachelor flock of plump black grouse that flew over a gravel bar, or the blush and silver flanks of that infernal sparrow hawk-like trout. In retrospect, my favorite moments on the water seem to occur when I’m thinking less like a commuter and more like a pilgrim—all hope, no expectations.

Of course, I never articulated those thoughts to Darron. I am just superstitious enough to suspect that naming a curse might prolong its power. And to his credit, Darron never mentioned it. He kept the fly on the water with such stoic calm that I might have misread his silent determination. Maybe his suffering was all in my head. Maybe he already knew what it took me weeks to understand, that casting is its own consolation, and that sometimes our most hopeful memories are memories of hope, unfulfilled.

Peter Fong has written about Tokyo for Fly Fisherman, Borneo for Gray’s Sporting Journal, and Malaysia and the Maldives for The New York Times. For trip-planning info, contact Angling Destinations at 1-800-211-8530 or anglingdestinations.com.