Today was cold. The sky was blue and the sun warm, but a wind spilled in from Siberia and eventually chilled all of us to the bone. Now as I pull off stiff waders, a young woman’s silhouette glows in the last rays of sunlight. She is lighting the fire in our ger by dripping candle wax on birch tinder. Before long, the fire jumps from the tinder to the small split Siberian pine logs and soon the ger is warm enough for me to relax in a t-shirt and light pants. From my now cozy abode, the sounds of a classical guitar pulse on what is left of today’s strong wind.
Daniel, one of our three Chilean guides, is a trained classical guitarist and today is Chile’s Independence day. Daniel celebrates with his music while his countrymen, Jaime and Fabian, tend a freshly butchered lamb that sizzles on an outdoor grill. In the cook tent, our Mongolian cooks work on a stew and steam turnips and potatoes. On this September 18th, 200 years ago, Chile declared their independence from Spain and today, three of Chile’s children guided five Americans down a Mongolian river in search of the rare and elusive Hucho taimen. Tonight we will celebrate, laugh and eat lamb.
So let’s get the fishing report out of the way early. All the other stuff is great, but if you don’t have some good fishing, all the tasty lamb in the world just won’t cut it. Afterall, this is what we came to Mongolia for: big trout and a chance to catch one of the rarest fish on our big blue ball, the ancient taimen. We were not to be disappointed!
Everyone on this trip caught a 30+ inch taimen and our largest fish was taken by John Riggs with a taimen just a bit over 40 inches. We fished for this most ancient of salmonids with absurdly large streamers and mousey/gurgler type poppers the size of sailfish flies. The takes were aggressive and jaw-dropping. Steve Peskoe and guide Jaime hooked a 30+” taimen that an estimated 60” taimen tried to eat! John Riggs caught a 34” taimen that jumped completely out of the water and attacked his popper from above! Let’s be clear though, catching taimen is not an easy game, nor is it a numbers game. It is enthralling, wrist-wracking, shoulder-melting and addictive. Taimen are voracious predators, but also cagey bastards - some experienced taimen anglers even say cunning. This year, we caught lots of 20-25” taimen and probably averaged one 30+” hookup a day. While taimen fishing is a a tough game - throwing big flies all day can wear out the toughest of anglers - what makes Mongolia and specifically this river a world class fishing destination, are the trout. When you hands cramp, your forearms ache and your shoulders demand Ibuprofen, you can pick up a trout rod, (I use a 4wt. and it feels like a feather after a bout of taimenating), and cast a #2 Fat Albert at the bank. Here lenok and Amur trout look up for hoppers and provide perhaps the best dry fly fishing in the world.
Again, let’s get the details out of the way early. Our trout (lenok and the rarer Amur trout) averaged (yes, truly averaged) 19-20”. We caught many in the 20-23” range, a few in the 24-25” range and enough 26-27” lenok and Amur trout to put this fishery on a par with Alaska or Kamchatka.
The lenok are strong tough fighters that make powerful runs while the Amur trout fight like big browns, that is down and dirty and tough to turn. Lenok can take a dry with an aggressive flourish or a subtle blip. Amur trout often sip a terrestrial delicately and in doing so conceal their sometimes incredible size. Both are often taken right off the bank within five inches of shore. At other times they can be positioned in the foam line three feet from shore. Why so close to shore... is it in hopes of the rare terrestrial or because a 3- 5 fool monster lurks nearby and having a bank to one side of you at least provides some level of security? In any case, casting for trout is relaxing and fun... like target practice and the takes are usually visible. Often, you can see a big trout follow your fly or rise up off the cobbled bottom to engulf your morsel.
On DAY 2, Steve Peskoe and I fished with guide Peter Fong. We planned to separate from the rest of our crew to float a long braid that would take most of the day. The day was warm, the sky clear and the water stunningly beautiful. It was perfect... the day you dream about. Fishing this braid was like fishing Montana’s upper Big Hole (if it held 60” monsters and the trout averaged 21” and if you had it all to yourself... but I digress). We caught a few 20-24” taimen early, but this was not to be our best taimen day... it was to be one of the best trout days I’ve ever experienced anywhere including Alaska, Kamchatka, Montana and Argentina.
Steve stayed with Peter on the main waters of the braid while I fished down a small bleed-off with my 8 wt. loaded with a moderately sized taimen streamer. As I turned a bend and lost sight of Peter and Steve behind the tall willows, I saw four ears in the tall grass shouldering a steep cut bank across the stream. One of the ears twitched and being from Wyoming, I immediately thought coyote. One of the canines stood up, then the other. They stared at me and I could see they were young. They were not puppies, but they were not filled out adults either. They seemed very curious. One rocked back on his rear haunches to stretch his long front legs,. Then they both turned and slowly trotted down the edge of the high bank. They watched me the whole time. The profile was unmistakeable.... they were wolves and if they don’t smarten-up a bit, they will soon be dead. They will be killed by locals looking to sell their hides and body parts for medicine (wolf’s tongue is a cure for cancer in Mongolia). In a flash, they were gone swallowed up by the grass of this vast land.
I fished out the small channel and caught a couple 20” lenok before joining Peter and Steve. In front of us stretched the long cut bank now free of trees. From the raft, I searched for the wolves before surrendering my attention to the Fat Albert I was drifting down the crystal clear waters next to shore.
The next few hours were the stuff of a trout hunter’s dreams. We caught 20-24” trout one right after another. The takes were classic, the fights invigorating and the fish big. The drill never got old: float your hopper next to the bank, wait for the take, hook the fish, row to the opposite shore to take photos and admire the beauty of these fish. I’m sure Steve and I caught 30-40 fish before lunch. The river was tight with complex runs and current folding around log jams, sod clumps and undercut banks. The braid, our braid, flowed clear over a beautifully pebblestoned bottom. The trout disappeared when released... a good thing in a place where 60” killers look for the weak and the timid.
Day after day we floated downriver. The scenery was beautiful. We passed single gers where long-maned horses were tethered to wooden posts. We dropped thru canyon stretches and drifted thru open grasslands hemmed in by pine topped mountains. We pulled into cobblestoned bars for lunch and enjoyed great food including freshly baked breads, Russian caviar and red wine. We reached camp usually after the sun had set at night. Our evening meals were wonderful. Hearty soups followed by stew and meat dished were accompanied by lots of vegetable, pasta and filling side dishes. One night, the music teacher from a small village, brought two of his elementary-aged students to play and sing for us. In Mongolian, the professor gave long-winded introductory speeches apparently describing each song then gave Yogi (one of our Mongolian guides) barely a second to translate. With Yogi in mid-sentence, he and his students would launch into a song using one of four traditional instruments. The students sang and danced in their traditional costumes while their mothers watched proudly from the shadows of the ger.
The days rolled off quickly. Our warm days early in the week gave way to chilly days at week’s end. Every day big taimen were caught and the afternoons usually provided world class trout fishing for most boats. On our last day, I again fished with my longtime friend and traveling companion, Dr. Steve Peskoe. The two of us have good fish karma and we more often than not, have memorable days. We started out the day with a number of hookups on taimen. Steve landed a fish in the upper 20’s and we caught a lot of 20-23” taimen. In fact, throughout this trip we caught many more small taimen than we had in 2008. This speaks well for both the conservation efforts enacted and the future of this fishery.
Despite our successes with taimen in the morning, it was a cold raw day. Casting was tough with cold hands and it was a challenge to stay warm. At lunch, we built a roaring fire, sipped hot tea and relaunched for the afternoon a rejuvenated crew. Soon the wind abated and the weather stepped to the back of your mind.
As the sun got lower in the sky, we switched to our trout rods to fish a long cut bank. I was using a mega-Fat Albert tied on with 0X tippet. Not a dainty set up! Steve was using the same and his fly floated about three feet from the bank and 20’ ahead of mine. Suddenly, his fly vanished. Steve struck and based on the gentle take, we all assumed it was another 18” lenok. Then the fished rolled underwater flashing white and I got excited.
“That’s a big fish, Steve.” I yelled never one to moderate my enthusiasm over a big fish.
I reeled in my line and grabbed the net while Fabian rowed us to shore. I quickly bailed out determined not to lose this fish. I wanted to see it. The bank was steep and the water quickly got deeper than my rolled down waders would allow. The long handled net would help, but looking upstream, I had the glare from the sun. I would not be able to see the fish. Steve would have to get the head up where I could see it to net it.
The fish fought deep leading Fabian to speculate that it was big Amur trout. Amur trout are relatively rare and exist in only a few of the drainages in Mongolia. They look like rose-tinted brown trout with black spots. Steve’s fish finned for the pushy current in deeper water and stayed well out of netting range. Steve dropped his rod to his right hip and the fish planed up and in towards the cut bank where I was standing with only inches of freeboard left in my waders.
“Big Amur!” Fabian shouted through a big smile.
Then the fish went deep again. Steve was patient and it wasn’t long before he was able to coax the fish in again. I stretched and the fish wallowed on the aluminum edge of the net before it plopped in. I pulled on the handle and backed up towards shore. It was big!
“Gorda!” said Fabian.
“Fat.” I agreed.
We taped the fish at over 25 inches, but we made straight lines with the tape where the fish curved. Not wanting to damage this rare trophy trout we left our measuring to that. It was probably between 26 and 27 inches and very deep. A true trophy and on a dry fly! We took many photos and marveled at its beauty. By the time we were done with photographs, my feet were stuck in the mud.
“Mucky!” I said.
“I do not know this word.” Fabian answered.
I told him it was sticky mud.
“Fangoso.” he said.
I repeated the pronunciation knowing I would never forget that Spanish word and will always associate mucky with a 26+” Amur trout. We piled back in the raft and caught a 25” Amur 50’ further downriver. Fabian netted this one.
“Mucky!” he said, smiling as he reached for the 2nd big Amur.
And all too soon this trip was over. At the end of our week, we left camp after breakfast. We drove to a remote strip in the middle of the grasslands, boarded our spotless plane and thunk!... the trip was over. Great trips go like this. The days fly by and too soon they are over. But, what a wonderful adventure we had had! I want to thank Anna and John Riggs, Dr. Steve Peskoe and Scott Sawtelle for such an enjoyable trip. It was great seeing you all each evening in the dining tent and seeing what adventures everyone had each day. Also to the guides Jaime, Fabian, Peter, Daniel and Yogi, you guys did a great job and many thanks. To our cooks, drivers and camp staff you were terrific and to Mark Johnstad, you should be proud of yourself for what you have created. And to Megan and Cooper, it was a pleasure spending time with you! Of course, I’ll miss all the great people, the river and the fishing, but I also miss the dining tent where meals were enjoyed, huge flies were tied, stories were shared and on occasion, live music filled the air. Floating down this river with only oar power made me appreciate the silence of this land. And while in camp, the lack of generators, radios, TV’s and all the white noise that goes with civilization was a blessing. All we heard were our own voices and the sound of the wind and all our light came from a few candles, a full moon and every star in the universe.
Written by Scott Heywood