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Mongolia: As Good as it Gets 08-28-2008

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 tail-out. 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.

We had begun our 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. While warm and very hospitable in any meeting with us, their aggressive streak can still be seen every day in UB. All you have to do is try and cross the street. Crosswalks mean nothing and pedestrians are virtually ignored, if not outright targeted. In some cities, traffic moves too fast and horns blare continuously, but in UB, the ante is raised. Mongolians drive like Genghis Khan waged war ˝ recklessly and with little mercy. We winced as drivers narrowly avoided pedestrians to gain only inches in traffic. Our driver, a very nice man otherwise, once pulled into an alley scattering pedestrians like a covey of flushed quail. No one complained. No road rage, no shaking fists, no raised middle fingers. The Mongolians use the expression "boltugai" in situations like this. It roughly translates to " may it be so". It is their implacable response to anything beyond their control. Their driving style is just part of the Mongolian psyche to push and compete. Anyone who doesn't should just get out of the way. It is no wonder that their national sport is wrestling and that boxers, archers and shooters are revered. When we arrived in UB, two Mongolians had just won gold medals at the Beijing Olympic Games. It was no surprise that one was in judo, the other boxing... all from a country of 2.5 million people. No wonder they conquered the known world with only 100,000 soldiers!

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 trout (a.k.a. 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 we took 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. As we shuddered to a stop, we could see that the water was a bit off color. We were told by the assembled staff and guides who had been waiting for us on the bar, that the river was perfectly clear two days ago and that this was the first time in 5 years that rain this late in the summer had colored the water. We could see water the color of caf╚ au lait running over patches of grass that were dotted with asters and bluebells... never a good sign!

We caught no fish that first day, as rain and a cold wind pelted us all day long. On day 2, we again caught no fish. Jaime, a Chilean guide who had been working on this river for two years now had never been skunked before and now it was two days in a row. He was apologetic, but what could he do... "boltugai" ... what is simply is. Unfortunately, we were finding too many uses for our new Mongolian word. Our Western desire for control took little solace from this fatalistic expression that sums up any situation beyond man's ability to change it. Weather and water levels certainly fall into the auspices of "boltugai"! We were worried that we were screwed and that the river would be blown out our entire week. We were all experienced anglers and knew that this is always a possibility on any river anywhere in the world... but did it have to be our week? We so wanted to get a shot at these fish we had heard so much about. We all adopted the requisite stiff upper lip and chanted "boltugai" until we were blue in the face, but this grownup posturing fought an ongoing battle with the desire to childishly blame someone, somehow for our predicament. We hoped for the best, but feared the worst.

Then a strange thing happened. We all just quit worrying about it. Sure we fished hard and really wanted to catch fish, but at some point, we all realized we were having a great time anyway. We spent the first two evenings warm and comfortable in our gers pampered by our Mongolian staff. We were really enjoying our enthusiastic and fun-loving Chilean and American guides who were clearly not there for the money, but for the love of Mongolia, the mystical taimen and the rivers that held them. Their compensation has been called insulting, but if it was, no one was complaining. These guys were obviously delighted to be working in Mongolia and it was so refreshing to be around guys who were guiding for the love of it.

At one point, while warming ourselves near the dining ger's fire, we learned the protocol for mate drinking, the strong South American tea-like stimulant, from the Chileans while simultaneously trying to follow proper ger protocol that we had been learning from our Mongolian hosts. No simple task! Ger manners involve turning left upon entering the ger, no walking thru the middle struts, no foot soles facing the fire, no squatting and to always hold any drink offered to you with the right hand while supporting the right elbow with the fingertips of the left hand etc. etc. Mate drinking involves passing the drink straw forward to the next drinker and this was often in direct conflict with proper ger protocol. It got a little confusing and a double haul with a reach cast seemed easier to accomplish than well-mannered mate drinking in a ger.

As the evening wore on and the mate gave way to red wine, we heard the repetitive chant that the weather and water levels we were experiencing were highly unusual. We had scheduled our trip during the fall dry season. We were told that usually crystal clear waters flow over jade green grasses and white sand bars. The guides waxed enthusiastically about huge taimen laid up on sandy slots and how you could usually sightcast to 4-5 foot monsters. They told us that if they weren't in the shallows, then the taimen would fall back to the ominous deep pools... perfect spots for mythical beats. At this point, with candlelight flickering on the guide's excited faces, we were practically willing to sell our young for a little good weather and clear water. We retreated to our gers all hyped up on mate and a bit tipsy on red wine and taimen stories.

At dawn the next morning, there was not a cloud in the sky. Overnight, the river had dropped and we could see that it was beginning to clear. A light fog had settled in the river valley. The whole scene was almost surreal and certainly conformed to whatever romantic image we hold of Mongolia. We had all awakened refreshed and now stood outside our gers enjoying a cup of coffee as we watched the fog burn off. Ger living had proven to be roomy and warm. Each ger had a small stove, two bunks and ample room to dry waders and to spread out. Perfect for a week, but hard to imagine an extended family sharing a ger during a brutal Mongolian winter. We did discover one ger related issue that literally reared its ugly head, for many of us, more than once. If you plan to visit Mongolia here is ger lesson # 1. When ducking through the 4 1/2 foot ger door the rule of thumb is: remove your baseball cap, duck, and then duck some more. If not strictly adhered to, you will come up with a bad case of "ger head" which involves many small scabs on the top of your head as a result of repeated encounter with ger doorframes.

After breakfast, we excitedly loaded gear onto the immaculate Aire rafts that came complete with rowing frames, front and back seats and leaning bars. As the sun forced heat into the morning chill, we launched 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. In our six days on the river, we saw one bridge, one ferry that was crossing a grossly overloaded Hyundai mini-bus, no fences, a few gers and most surprisingly, no jet contrails... none... not one. Try finding another spot on earth where you can say that!

On the morning of day three, I was basking in the sun from the back of the raft as I worked a large parachute hopper just off a steep cutbank. Gravel from the eroding bank was now visible beneath the water. Sod clumps had slumped from the cutbank's rim and now provided inviting trout lays. We were all fishless to this point and my attention was beginning to waver until my fly disappeared into the maw of an oddly shaped mouth. I struck instinctively and the 1X tippet bent my 4 wt. almost in half. The fish fought deep as it used the current to pull against the raft. This was a strong fish and it felt delicious after so long a wait. I was determined to land this fish as we all wanted to see this fish. Hell, we needed this fish!

I fought the fish gingerly and eventually Daniel netted our first lenok trout. It was 22 inches of browns and yellows with spots on top and large red polka dots along its midline. Its upper jaw was weirdly shaped like a pagoda and hinged open over a slightly under slung mouth reminiscent of a bonefish. This lenok, typically sized as it turns out, had an old scar running through the two front spots on its flank. We were all thrilled hoping that this one beautiful fish would open the floodgates and give us yet a shot at a memorable fishing experience. It did!

Each subsequent day the river dropped more and the clarity improved as did the fishing. Five fish on day three quickly gave way to 20 fish day on day four. With success on trout came more and more of a desire and willingness to focus on taimen. We worked hard, getting a strike here and there. We cast till arms grew weary switching back and forth between big 2-4/0 streamers and then surface mouse and absurdly large poppers patterns the guides named such intriguing monikers as "chicken-on-a-stick" and "taimenator". When we needed a break from the pursuit of taimen, we put down our 8 and 9 wts. to grab our 4 and 5 wts. These lighter rods felt great after a session seeking taimen and knowing that we could catch an 18-25" trout virtually whenever we wanted made the pursuit of the legendary taimen seem much less tiring and tedious.

It was 9:45 AM. My day had already been great with four big lenok and a 24" Amur trout boated. I put down my trout rod and grabbed my 8 wt. I began probing the seams of a short run. I cast into an eddy, mended twice downstream and let the current trace a belly in the line. I then began a series of moderately paced short strips. I could see my fly pulsing away from me as it left the eddy. I felt a bump and my heart surged. Taimen do not densely populate any Asian river and before you can catch one, the first step is to find one... my adrenal gland had just notified my heart that I had just completed step one.

I cast again and again watched my fly leave the eddy and swing into the main current. Behind it, a fish the size of a dog fought to catch up to the accelerating fly. By the time the fly was halfway through the swing, it was clear the fish would eat. I saw the white of its giant mouth open and close. I strip-struck. The fish never turned, it just kept coming at me like a tarpon. It was the take of a confident predator wanting to make sure the prey was well planted deep in its mouth before calling off the attack. Eventually, I came tight, and then struck twice more to seal the deal. Peter Fong expertly back-rowed the raft across the current. I hopped out of the raft. I was determined to fight the fish as best I could, and that would be with me in the water too. All went well and soon we were taking appropriate photos. Great care was taken with the fish and Peter and Mark Johnstad, the headman for this outfit and a 20-year Mongolian veteran (he once rode a horse 1100 miles across the country), 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 effort 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. I called this lovely taimen "Sara". I'm not sure how my wife will receive this news.

All hopped up on taimen success, blue sky and all that is exotic and intoxicating about Mongolia, we chattered like school kids then released the fish and watched its big red tail disappear among the cobblestones. This was my first taimen and certainly not a record fish by any means. I could have cared less!

Each day flew by, each day better than the day before. We fell into a comfortable rhythm. At dawn, we huddled under our thick wool blankets until a fire was started in our ger by one of the camp staff. When the chill was out of the air, we began to get dressed. By the time we got to our shoes, Handaa, a native of this lovely valley, would bring us a hot drink. "Tea with sugar", Handaa would say and then hand me a steaming mug. "Coffee with cream" another mug was passed to Jim. With shoes on, we often took time to photograph another spectacular sunrise, and then it was 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 were always waiting good-to-go and eager to get started. Then it was 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 was taken riverside and consisted of homemade bread and soups, sandwiches and beer and wine. Then it was off downriver again. Days raced by. It seemed that only a few hours after leaving camp almost at daybreak we were pulling into another beautiful camp at sunset. Then it was time for a quick shower before a dinner of beef or mutton stew, potato dishes, fresh vegetables and delicious desserts. (We celebrated two birthdays on this trip: one of 33, the other of 72 years. "Happy Birthday" was sung in Spanish, then in English a few days later.) Then it was off to our ger, but not before watching a moonless night sky and rediscovering why the Milky Way is called milky. Sleep came easily with dreams of giant ancient fish chasing flies the size of small rodents on rivers that flow through endless grasslands.

This was an absolutely spectacular adventure and certainly one of the great freshwater fishing trips in the world. I would put it on par with the best in Alaska or Kamchatka. We went for the legendary taimen, but the biggest surprise was the excellence of the trout fishery. Where else in the world can you average 20-inch trout all caught on big terrestrials? The operation was 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 was a top-notch experience. We are already planning a few more hosted dates in 2009 and 2010 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!

Written by Scott Heywood







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