Into Mongolia

Into Mongolia

Chasing myths, fishing for fact in Mongolia's Taimen Sanctuary.

  • By: Matt Harris
  • Photography by: Matt Harris
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Click image for slideshow.

Taimen are fish of legend, murderous, malevolent beasts armed with a nightmarish dental array and a cold-blooded, primeval killing instinct. These malicious assassins possess catholic tastes, and anything from lenok and grayling to rats, ducks, bats and even fellow taimen regularly fall prey to their swift, savage attacks. Taimen often hunt in packs, a habit that has earned them the soubriquet “river wolf” and conjures a frightening image to anyone who wades waist-deep into a taimen river.

Taimen broadly resemble long, lean brown trout, but unlike their smaller cousins, grow to truly enormous size. They populate a huge catchment that stretches across Asia, from the Volga and Pechora Basin in the West, to the Pacific seaboard and Sakhalin Island in the East, and their prodigious bulk and nerve-shattering strikes spawn countless stories, some little more than fanciful myths, others incontrovertibly based in fact.

One Mongolian legend tells of a giant taimen trapped in river ice. Starving herders encountered the beast and were able to survive winter by hacking off pieces of its flesh. In spring the ice melted and, so the story goes, the giant taimen climbed onto land, tracked down the herders and ate all of them. At remote Kanas Lake, located in China’s Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, taimen are blamed for dragging horses and camels into the water and tearing them apart. Locals say that fish measuring more than 10 meters and weighing 3,000 pounds have come from the lake’s deep, dark waters.

Tall tales, perhaps, but verifiable stories also exist. In 1943, a net-caught taimen on the Kotui River in the central Siberian province of Krasnoyarsk weighed 231 pounds and stretched a tape to 83 inches. Imagine that—a seven-foot-long trout, swimming in a river. We’re not talking about some wayward saltwater beast trapped in a tidal estuary, but an indigenous predator, native to the river, in the waters of central Asia, and about as far inland as it’s possible to be. The big fish aren’t all from the past: In 2010, a spin fisherman on the Shelvy River in Russia banked a 77-pound taimen; the IGFA record, another Siberian monster of 92 pounds, was caught in 1993.

Tragically, many Russian rivers have been robbed of their mighty taimen by mobs of drunken meat fishermen, who routinely pull these fish onto the gravel and watch them gasp out their last moments, before hoisting their dead catch for heart-breaking and gruesome grip-and-grin photos. As a result, many Siberian taimen fisheries are now utterly denuded of their fish. However, in northern Mongolia, where taimen are rightly regarded as sacred and where positive efforts are being made to conserve the fish and their habitat, the rivers boast thriving stocks. Last fall, after a long flight across the endless steppe of central Siberia to Ulaanbaatar, I set into the hinterlands to determine if the legends of the Mongolian landscape are painted in fact or fiction. During that time I tangled with taimen and myriad other fish that swim in northern Mongolia’s most remote and beautiful rivers: the lenok, Amur trout and Amur pike. Following is witness to what I learned, summed up best by an excerpt from my diary recalling a single day on the secret waters of Mongolia’s first taimen sanctuary.

IT’S 5:30 A.M. The insistent, repetitive stabs of a digital alarm finally pierce my dreams. As I wrestle with the urge to sleep in, the head guide, Peter, taps gently on the tent, bidding me a hushed, half-whispered “Good morning.” I curse myself for asking if we could head out early this day, and then drag my weary ass out of the heavy-duty sleeping bag and into the bitter, gunmetal-gray half-light of dawn. What happened to all that delicious golden light spilling across the vast rock face upstream of camp? That rosy warmth of the previous evening is long gone, and the icy fingers of an oncoming winter are upon us. I pick up frozen wading boots and curse again, this time for forgetting to take them into the ger, the communal tent where residual heat from a wood-burning stove warms the kit through the long night.

Boots in hand, I shuffle into the ger and grab a mug of treacly black coffee from the pot that Khander, the heroically efficient and hard-working camp manager, has already brewed. I warm my boots above the stove as I pull on fingerless wool gloves. I recall the night prior—the whole crew telling stories around a candlelit supper table, rattling off yarns about the savage takes and the wild leaps we’d experienced through that long, sun-drenched day.

I duck out of the tent into the weather, and see Khander wrapped in her crimson robes, returning from the river, having bathed her face and hands in the clean, clear waters of the stream. I defy anybody not to fall just a little in love with her. We play our ritual game—I greet her by pronouncing her name as “Honda,” and she thumps me playfully on the arm, flashes her bewitching smile and scolds me once more. “Matt!” she urges, “How many times I tell you? My name is not ‘Honda.’ I am not a car! My name is ‘Haaanda.’ ”

The light has changed. I see the huge bluff, a mile or so upriver, starting to soften into a blurry white haze. As I don waders, I’m enveloped by the first soft flakes, and as I watch Peter stride to the rafts moored by the little creek below camp, it turns to a hard, heavy snow.

Peter and I push a boat into the current and start down the river, watching snow settling on the banks. Color leaches from the landscape, leaving a magical, swirling white monochrome, as the vast, wild plains that stretch from here to the Arctic shores of northern Siberia, a million miles to the north, are erased by the whiteout.

Two miles downstream, Peter passes a nine-weight rod to me and gestures to a broad slough on our left. I suggest that, due to the extreme conditions, we swap the absurdly huge “dry fly,” designed to suggest some wretched surface-swimming rodent, for a subsurface pattern. But Peter waves my idea away with a smile. “This is perfect,” he assures, grinning at the five-inch tube fly I’ve fashioned from a mass of coypu fur and closed-cell foam.

I draw line from the reel and lay icy coils on the deck of the raft. The snow is thickening and slanting hard into our faces now. As we approach the mouth of the slough, I lengthen line and feel resistance as ice freezes line into the guides. I haul hard and pop the icy plugs out of the rings just long enough to send that huge imitation looping into the slough. The current picks up the fly and I twitch it gently to suggest a beleaguered rodent is struggling in icy flows . . . and would make an easy breakfast for a taimen. Nothing. Another faltering, ice-stifled cast. And another. Same deal.

The temperature plummets, and the icy rings offer more resistance with each attempt. Muttering more curses, I over-compensate and the fly shoots onto a cut-bank at the downstream end of the slough. Squinting through the blizzard, I gingerly draw the fly off the high bank and, mercifully, it plops into the water—a lucky accident of perfect presentation. I twitch the fly into a seam and as it sputters across a crease toward faster water, I experience a moment of rare magic. From nowhere, slashing crimson fins and cruel jaws carve the dense, white pall, and I am suddenly attached to a leaping killing machine. As this beast cartwheels into the blizzard, I feel a palpable connection to this landscape, back to a time when the world was elemental and limitless, and Genghis Khan roamed Mongolia, dishing out his brutal justice from here to the gates of Europe.

The enraged fish crashes around the pool, but steady pressure starts to tell. Finally, Peter scoops it up in his outsize net and we’re gazing at an exquisite, iridescent assassin. It’s not the biggest fish of the week, indeed not even the biggest we would land that day, but it is perhaps the most special. My time has been rewarded. And now, in the icy dawn, at what seems like the very edge of the world, in this impossibly remote snowbound wonderland, I am gently holding something as wild and stunningly beautiful as anything I will ever catch: Hucho taimen—the one and only taimen.

Matt Harris is a London-based advertising photographer who spends off-hours chasing fish wherever they are found. See more of his work and read his blog at www.mattharrisflyfishing.com

“The greatest happiness is to scatter your enemy, to drive him before you, to see his cities reduced to ashes, to see those who love him shrouded in tears, and to gather into your bosom his wives and daughters.” —Genghis Kahn

It’s a long march to the land of taimen, over sketchy roads into near desolation.

Other options

Taimen aren’t the only game in town. The rivers of northern Mongolia also offer lenok, Amur trout and Amur pike, which are some of the most interesting and beautiful fish on the planet.

Lenok (Brachymystax lenok )

Lenok have bright red sides and a down-turned mouth. They average 18 to 22 inches, with some reaching 28 inches or more. They willingly take a fly, in contrast to the often-stubborn taimen. Lenok offer great sport in early autumn, when they feed avidly on grasshoppers. Once the frosts come, the hoppers die off and lenok are difficult to locate.

Amur pike (Esox reichertii)

Also known as the black-spotted pike, they are native to the Amur River system in east Asia, as well as freshwater habitat on the massive Sakhalin Island, which is in eastern Russia, just north of Japan. Closely related to northern pike, the Amur reaches 45 inches and sports a silvery body with small, black spots. Amur hit hard and are eager to smack surface and subsurface flies, even when those patterns are intended for taimen.

Amur trout (Brachymystax savinovi)

Amur trout are found in only a few Mongolian streams. These thick-bodied, golden fish sport deep-black spots and are extremely aggressive. Amur trout are colored like brown trout and built like cutthroats. They average 18 to 22 inches. However, like lenok, some stretch past 28 inches.

Taimen this large, especially in the Taimen Sanctuary, are rare, but possible.

Winter arrives quickly in northern Mongolia. When chasing taimen you’ll fish by raft during day, and warm up in gers at night. Ice in the guides can be maddening, but it’s all worth it when an angler tails their quarry.

Mongolia is sandwiched between southern Siberia and northern China, and its very name is associated with remoteness and isolation. The country is still recovering from the collapse of the Soviet empire, but Mongolia adopted a new constitution in 1992 and is now a genuine, multi-party democracy. Its economy is burgeoning and it is a relatively safe place to visit. Its mother tongue is Khalk Mongol; English is spoken little outside Ulaanbataar. Outside of the city the population retains a nomadic lifestyle, living in large, round tents called gers. Its classic and most productive taimen rivers are located in northern Mongolia and are accessed by fixed-wing or helicopter from Ulaanbataar. Mongolia is, I believe, one of the most beautiful countries on earth, and is the most sparsely populated independent nation in the world. It has everything—a wonderland of jagged mountains, endless rolling steppe, wild deserts, thick forests and crystal-clear water. Eagles, bears, wolves, ibex and horses roam free.

Gear

Due to violent changes in weather and temperature you should use the layering system to cover all eventualities. Capilene and Smartwool undergarments make sense as a base layer. Additional layers add warmth, with synthetics or down preferred. You’ll need a quality rain jacket to keep the rain, snow, sleet and wind at bay. A good stocking hat and fingerless mittens make sense on cold days. High-quality chest waders and wading boots are required. Polarizing glasses are key, too; occasionally you can spot taimen and other species. Both Spey and single-hand rods are useful when fishing Mongolia. This isn’t a do-it-yourself trip, so we’ll leave specific rod, reel, line, leader and fly suggestions to your hosts, Mongolia River Outfitters or one of the other entities serving Mongolia, including Sweetwater Travel Company.

The Game

Taimen fishing is much like going for steelhead; it involves repeatedly swinging flies for many hours waiting for that moment of adrenaline. When a large taimen takes your fly, it is as exciting as anything possible in freshwater fly-fishing, something you’ll never forget. With Mongolia River Outfitters we floated down a stunningly beautiful river casting skating surface flies to structure. Occasionally we sight-fished to taimen, lenok, Amur trout and, less frequently, to Amur pike. Our guides were excellent and hugely likeable, and Khander and her crew raced downstream ahead of us and set up camp in time for arrival each evening, where we were greeted with cold beer, good red wine and excellent food.

Outfitters

Mark Johnstad runs Mongolia River Outfitters and worked diligently with six county governments to create the 200-square-mile Taimen Sanctuary, where anglers adhere to strict fly-fishing-only and catch-and-release policies. In addition, within the preserve use of treble hooks and motorboats is prohibited. Further protections include no introduction of hatchery fish; no commercial forestry; no mining; and no permanent tourism facilities. When fishing with MRO, you float the rivers of northeastern Mongolia in rafts and set up new camps each night. These trips offer shots at lots of taimen, although slightly smaller on average than elsewhere. In addition, MRO accesses a tremendous lenok fishery, and they offer regular encounters with Amur pike and the occasional Amur trout. Learn more about their operation at www.mongoliarivers.com

Dan and Pat Vermillion run Sweetwater Travel Company and are pioneers of fly-fishing for taimen in Mongolia. In addition, working with Buddhist communities, the World Bank and American non-profits, they created the Mongolian Taimen Conservation Fund, which protects fisheries in the Eg/Urr watershed. When fishing with Sweetwater you’ll stay at fixed camps and fish for very large taimen, although you’ll likely have fewer shots than you might when fishing with MRO. In addition to giant taimen, Sweetwater accesses a great lenok fishery, with some nice-size fish to be had. Check out more on Sweetwater at www.sweetwatertravel.com

Required Reading

Before heading to an exotic place it makes sense to learn about its history and culture. Here are a few titles worth reading before you head to taimen country:

Modern Mongolia: From Khans to Commissars to Capitalists, by Morris Rossabi

Eagles Dream: Searching for legends in wild Mongolia, by Stephen Bodio

Lonely Planet Mongolia, by Michael Kohn