Fresh Mongolian Prairie Dog Bait

When you travel 6,500 miles to catch a maniacal fish in an unforgiving land, you have to be ready to play dirty.

Field & Stream Online Editors

I came to Mongolia to flyfish for taimen, the legendary salmonlike fish that lives in its big rivers. When flyfishing 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 waterlogged. 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.

[BRACKET "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 921/2-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.

[NEXT "Next Page"] 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 WadersOn.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, sandwhed 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.

** [BRACKET "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.

[NEXT "Next Page"] [BRACKET "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.

** [BRACKET "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.

[NEXT "Next Page"] **[BRACKET "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 frs, 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.

** [BRACKET "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.

[NEXT "Next Page"] **[BRACKET "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 fr