I came to Mongolia to flyfish for Taimen, the legendary salmonlike fish that lives in its big rivers. When fly-fishing didn't work, I tried spinning with lures. When spinning with lures got no bites, I tried half a dead lenok (another kind of fish). When the lenok was a bust, I went to the can't-miss bait: a prairie dog. And now, in the last hours of the last day, the dead prairie dog at the end of my line was mocking me.
After five hours of continuous casts into the Delger River without so much as a nibble, the dog was both absurdly stiff and unbearably heavy, the twin effects of rigor mortis and being water-logged. And even though it had been dead for almost 24 hours, it somehow stuck its stiff, black tongue out at me.
Sure, I'm dead, it seemed to say, but you are one sorry-ass fisherman. You couldn't catch a taimen if you were both in the same bathtub.
"Shut up," I replied. "I may catch one yet." I took another step downriver and cast once more into the water and started another retrieve. I was so far gone by this point that it didn't even strike me as strange that I was conversing with my bait. Because the dog had a point. I had traveled halfway around the world on the trip of a lifetime, fished my brains out for six days, and been skunked.
The Journey From Moron
Looking back, there were signs—like the name of the Mongolian town from which I embarked on a six-day hunt for big taimen: Moron. But I was too pumped to be suspicious. After reading about taimen for years, I was finally going after one of the least known gamefish on earth. And after 48 hours on airplanes, I had finally made it to Mongolia, one of the most isolated and unspoiled countries on the planet.
The fish that had prompted me to take leave of my senses is an evil-tempered, prehistoric critter that lives only in certain big, cold, fast rivers in Mongolia and Siberia, most of which flow into the Arctic Ocean. Hucho hucho taimen is a spotted fish that grows to great size (fish measuring more than 4 feet and 50 pounds are not uncommon).
Because taimen (pronounced TIE-men) live in such remote areas, they are little studied, and sport fishing for them is a recent development. The current all-tackle record, a 92 ½-pounder caught in Siberia in 1993, is likely nowhere near the maximum size. There is, for instance, a report of a 231-pound commercially caught fish back in 1943. It is an ancient species, the ancestor of modern salmon and trout, equipped with an oversize mouth lined with rows of small, sharp teeth. And it is belligerence personified, cannibalizing its smaller brethren and happily murdering pike, salmon, grayling, small birds... and prairie dogs.
I'd read online that Mongolian nomads hook a dog, float it downstream on a shingle of wood, and then give the string a quick jerk. In a typical take, the taimen leaps clear of the water before attacking its prey, stuns it with a blow from its powerful tail, and then comes back around to finish the job.
The idea of catching a sociopathic aquatic vertebrate like that on a gentlemanly 9-weight fly rod appealed to me. It would be like putting on a top hat and tails and going 10 rounds with The Rock in a phone booth.
I booked a trip with guide Andrew Parkinson through Waders On.com, a worldwide fishing resource based in the United States. And now I was bouncing over the Mongolian steppe in a van with him and three other anglers: Greg and Bruce (two Aussies on a six-week fishing trip to Mongolia, Alaska, and the Kamchatka Peninsula), and Steven, a Canadian working in Beijing. Even in my jet lag—diminished state, I was struck by the landscape. But it wasn't so much what was there as what was not.
There were no signs, no fences, no concrete—and just to keep things simple, no road. Only endless rolling grasslands over which our driver raced. Mongolia, sandwiched strategically between Russia and China, is a huge place, three times the size of France with a population of just 2.75 million, of whom 43 percent are nomadic. Herds of sheep, goats, shaggy yaks, and tough little horses dotted the land.
We passed ancient piles of stones, the altars of invaders who had come and gone as long as 4,000 years ago. Prairie dogs and big marmots streaked for the safety of their dens as they caught sight of the van. Overhead flew ravens and rare white-naped cranes, which number just 5,000 worldwide.
"Just hope Ganchuluun doesn't see a wolf," Parkinson said of our driver. "If a Mongolian in a car or on a horse sees a wolf, he goes a bit mad. And he won't stop until the car is broken, the horse can't run anymore, or the wolf is dead. Mongolians absolutely hate wolves."
We stopped to view deer stones, upright grave markers from the Bronze Age. They all faced south and were covered with stylized images of elk-like deer antlers. On one Parkinson pointed out what he thought was a fishhook. Every few miles we came across gers, the traditional round, felt houses that nomadic herders have been picking up and moving every few months for centuries, forever in search of new grass.
A LOG WITH FINS
We finally got to camp, a series of gers along the banks of the Delger River, late that afternoon. Over dinner, Parkinson told us about the biggest taimen he'd caught. He and a friend had been prospecting a new river when they spotted a log in the shallow water at the head of an island. Logs being scarce in Mongolia, they inspected this one more closely and determined that it had fins. The friend tried to reach it with his fly rod and failed. Parkinson had a spinning rod and cast a mouse lure in front of the fish.
It made the classic taimen attack, leaping clear and clubbing the fish with its tail. Unfortunately, it snapped the 20-pound-test line in the process. Parkinson next tied on a Rapala, and this time the line held. He fought the fish for over an hour as it leapt and raced seven times up and down a side channel of the river. His shoulder and arm went numb during the fight, and his friend massaged them whenever the fish went down to sulk.
At last they fought the fish into shallow water. Because it was too big for their net, they beached it. Parkinson's friend was an experienced angler, but he'd never tangled with a taimen, and Parkinson had to talk him into approaching. They measured it at 53 inches. It broke their handheld scales, which maxed out at 50 pounds. That was when Parkinson decided to chuck his job as a farming consultant back in England and move to Mongolia.
Let the Games Begin
The next day we started fishing. Taimen like big pools and long riffles, Parkinson told us, but since they could be picky, it was necessary to methodically cover every foot of water. We'd be fishing big gurglers, foam-and-bucktail flies that made an appropriately desperate sounding plonk when popped.
All of us piled into the back of an old Zil 31, a six-wheeled army truck that Parkinson said had "fallen out of the back of a Russian army depot" about the time the Soviets pulled out of Mongolia around 1990. We dropped the two Aussies and Edward, a friend of Parkinson's who had come over from England to guide on the trip, downstream. Steven and I got off with Parkinson a couple of miles upstream. During the next eight hours, we experienced a sampling of Mongolian summer: 50-degree swings in temperature accompanied by sun, rain, snow, hail, and winds that rotated through all four points of the compass.
The river was 100 to 150 yards across, but the current in most places was so strong that I found it impossible to wade past my knees. Even though the wind made for tough casting, I managed to work a long pool 30 feet out. The drill was to cast across, strip methodically, let the fly sit for a moment as it dangled at the end of its drift, move a step downstream, and repeat. Steven and I did that for three hours without so much as a rise. Then it was time for lunch.
When the truck rumbled up, Greg and Bruce were already in back, smiling. Each had landed and released a taimen. The bigger, Greg's, had gone 30 inches. "Just amazing, mate," he told me. "Hit it not 4 feet from me at the end of the retrieve and scared me to death. Vicious fish. Took me 15 minutes to land it, and 30 inches is a small one." He reported the teeth to be sharp and numerous and was glad he'd had Parkinson's biteproof fish-handling glove to remove the fly.
HOLD THE DOG
At lunch in the ger where we took our meals, Parkinson and some of the English-speaking locals he hires gave us a lesson in ger etiquette. Upon entering through the ridiculously low door, you move to your left, clockwise, so as not to impede the universal flow of energy.
You never step on the threshold, touch other people's hats, or use a knife to cut in the direction of any other person. If you spill any beverage, it is customary to immediately shake the hand of the person nearest you. It is considered rude to pass directly in front of an older person, point your feet at the stove, or put water or garbage on a fire, which the Mongolians consider to be sacred.
When approaching a traditional nomad's ger, the correct greeting is "Nokhoi khor," which literally means " hold the dog." A dog in this country is expected to earn its keep, which involves biting the legs off any unknown human. Nyamaa, a beautiful woman who helped around camp and spoke some English, further informed us that women, especially those who are pregnant, do not eat fish. Fish are the only animal that makes no noise, and the fear is that a woman who eats them may give birth to a deaf child.
WITCHCRAFT? That afternoon, Greg and Bruce both caught and released small (25-inch) taimen. "I don't understand it," Greg said happily over a cold can of Chingis beer. "I'm the worst caster in the lot. I think it's my lucky Filson hat." I smiled. I wanted that hat—I wanted anything that might help me nail a taimen.
The morning of the second day I spent fishing some beautiful water, a bend in a small gorge with very fishy-looking pools. Nyamaa was walking some distance behind to keep an eye on me. The Delger, like most rivers in Mongolia, has few particularly dangerous rapids, but on the other hand, it's big water, powerful in places, and cold. If you filled your waders, you could get into trouble a lot faster than you could get out.
I had worked a long section and then walked back up to fish it again. Seated on a rock a little above me, Nyamaa watched in silence. As I passed her, I turned from the river for a moment and teasingly asked, "So what did you do with all the fish?" as if she'd somehow spirited them away. At that instant, as my fly lay motionless at the end of its drift, a taimen hit the lure like a baseball bat and disappeared. Frantic, I cast repeatedly, trying to draw another strike. No dice. I looked at Nyamaa, who was smiling enigmatically. Her poise at that moment was unnerving, almost as though she had known the fish would pick that moment to strike.
My intention all along had been to take the high road, flyfishing only. By the third day, however, I had begun to slide. I accepted Parkinson's offer of a spinning rod and a large, articulated black-and-silver Rapala rigged with two single barbless hooks. This way I could cover more water and fully expected another baseball-bat strike at any moment. Wading out as deep as I dared toward a bend where a glacier came into the river on the far side, I let fly. As the lure wobbled seductively in a foamy pool, another taimen came up and exploded. It did everything but actually bite the lure.
Again, my efforts to raise a second strike failed. Taimen were aggressive but wary. Parkinson was as disappointed as I was, the sign of a good guide. "My aim is to show every angler a meter-long fish," he said. "Usually, I can. We may have to resort to extreme measures." He gave me a version of his mouse lure, which, when wet, weighed several ounces. I actually threw it over the river and landed it on the glacier, from which I teased it into the water. Still no luck.
At lunch we found out that Greg had hit the jackpot, landing a taimen measuring just over 40 inches and so broad across the back that he couldn't grab it. "I've never seen a freshwater fish like it," he said. While trying to free his lure, he had reached into the fish's mouth with the protective glove. "It nearly crushed me hand," he said, "and bit through the bloody glove like it was paper. Lucky I only got this." He showed a small puncture wound on his finger. I wanted a wound like that, too.
LUCK WITH LENOK
At lunch that day as we sat by the river eating sandwiches, Nyamaa urged me to have a beer. "It will make fish come. I am sure of it." I had the beer. When I woke up, I was lying in the grass and everybody had headed off fishing. Nyamaa was watching me. "You were really asleep. We tried shaking you but you would not awaken. So we take your picture. Did you dream of a fish?" I couldn't remember. She still had that unnerving smile. I got my rod and started casting.
In my obsessive hunt for taimen, I'd been passing up all sorts of other opportunities, from fishing for lenok and grayling to visiting a local village and the gers of nearby nomads. One afternoon, we went way upriver and crossed in a spot so deep that the water came up over the floorboards in the back of the truck and it appeared that we might be stationing a casting platform there permanently. As I walked back to the rendezvous point, I discovered Bruce casting in a pool with a little 5-weight. He offered to let me have a try, and within 15 minutes I'd landed two lenok and two grayling, good additions to the night's dinner. It was also the first tug on my line I'd felt since leaving home. I liked it. Lenok are quite good sport on a light rod, but I was a prisoner to my taimen-mania.
Parkinson, sensing my fixation and my despair, cut the smaller lenok in half and rigged the tail end on his spinning rod with a treble hook. I'd slipped from flyfishing to spinning with lures to heaving a bloody hunk of fish across the river. It wasn't the first time I'd thrown my dignity out of the boat to lighten the load, and it wouldn't be the last.
YOU SHOULDA BEEN HERE NEXT WEEK
On the evening before my last day of fishing, I saw two of the camp boys on horseback trotting swiftly back to camp carrying something hanging from a string. As they got closer, I saw that it was a freshly snared prairie dog. My heart soared. I was so happy I nearly dropped my beer. Prairie dogs are cute little things, and were it not for the fact that they are known to carry bubonic plague and dig horse-crippling holes in the ground, I might have regretted this one's demise.
Parkinson and the boys spent about an hour working on the dog, fortifying its spine and rigging the treble hook until the lure swam with a lifelike motion. They put a good dollop of Gink on the tail to make it float realistically. This, I was sure, was going to be one of those trips that is saved at the last minute with the catching of a tremendous fish. Mine would be a tale told around the campfire for years to come.
Only it didn't turn out that way. I cast that damn prairie dog until we both looked about equally beat up. I never got a bite. As the evening grew gray and the wind came up, Parkinson came and put a hand on my shoulder. "We know there are fish here. And you fished harder than just about anybody I've ever had on a trip." I turned and tried to smile.
The next day, we loaded up and left. The last image I saw of camp was Nyamaa and her benign, knowing smile. We said good-bye at the Moron airport as another group of anglers got off the plane we were about to board.
I got an e-mail from Parkinson the next week. Fishing had turned fantastic right after we left. His four clients landed 18 taimen in five days. Each had one that measured at least a meter. I'm trying to be philosophical about it. I find beer helps.