Book Excerpt: A Fly-Fishing Expedition in Mongolia

Written by: Peter W. Fong, Mongolia River Outfitters

Editor’s note: Peter W. Fong’s Rowing to Baikal, an account of a thousand-mile journey by horse, camel, kayak, and drift boat, is forthcoming from Latah Books. Here are excerpts from three chapters.

Taimen are Tough

When we reach the pool where, several years ago, a Mongolia River Outfitters guest landed a fifty-five-inch taimen, I beach the kayak on a gravel bar, rig a nine-weight rod, and tie on a streamer fly nearly as long as my forearm. Although the expedition intends to use nets and traps to sample the smaller fish such as minnows and loach, our plan for larger types—including grayling, lenok, and taimen—involves fly rods and barbless hooks. Whenever we catch a fish, we’ll record its length and species, use a sharp pair of scissors to clip off a sliver of fin, then release the fish otherwise unharmed.

While taimen are related to trout, the transition from North American trout fishing to Mongolian taimen fishing can be a difficult one for many anglers—even highly experienced ones like Guido. Earlier in the summer, when he had just arrived in Mongolia, I tried to temper his expectations for immediate success. The first thing to keep in mind, I told him then, is the scarcity. On the Delger, for example, which boasts some of the best taimen habitat in the world, every mile of river contains, on average, many hundreds of lenok and grayling, but perhaps only a dozen taimen.

Then there’s the equipment. Trout rods are light enough to cast over and over without fatigue, while the flies are typically tied on tiny hooks, so fine that a simple twitch is usually enough to set that hook in the corner of a trout’s mouth. Taimen rods, on the other hand, must be heavy enough to throw flies tied to imitate trout-sized prey. Most anglers need regular breaks from the effort needed to cast and retrieve these patterns. And because the hooks are proportionately larger, it also takes a lot more force to set them. The bigger Mongolian taimen have notoriously hard mouths, capable of clamping down so firmly that we sometimes must pry their jaws apart with pliers to remove the fly—only to find out that the fish was never actually hooked. Just too ornery to let go.

With trout, a simple lift of the rod is often sufficient to come tight to the fish. With taimen, this so-called “trout set” is worse than futile. It’s dismaying, discouraging, demoralizing. Usually you achieve just enough tension to briefly turn the fish’s head, allowing a tantalizing glimpse of the magnificent specimen that you are about to lose. To remind taimen anglers of this potential catastrophe, one of the other guides once suggested that we have T-shirts emblazoned with a picture of an Irish setter holding a trout in its mouth, overprinted with the general prohibition sign, that internationally recognized, circular red symbol for No.

Get it? No Trout Setters.

Here are the instructions I repeat for every newcomer to Mongolia. Hold the rod firmly in one hand, with the rod tip down, pointed at the fly. Strip line with your other hand to make the fly look as if it’s a baitfish fleeing from a predator. Move that hand quickly back into position, near the rod handle. Pause, keeping the line tight. Strip again.

If you see the fly disappear into a taimen’s mouth, do not lift the rod. Just strip, hard. At this early stage in your acquaintance, you want to maintain the most direct connection possible with the fish, without any of the intervening flexures of the rod. If you don’t feel the hook point bury itself in the taimen’s jaw, strip again—harder.

You can do all of this and still lose the fish of your dreams. In every angler’s life, skill and luck will play unequal parts. Sometimes it all feels out of our control. And yet, on other days, it seems as if it is up to us to determine where the line of proportion will fall.

3-1/2 Feet of Fighting Power

The sun warms the valley so quickly that I’m in shorts before midday. And wearing a T-shirt that shows a map of the Mongol Empire in 1280, more than a half-century after the death of its founder, Chinggis Khan. At that time, the southern half of Baikal was inside the imperial borders, as were many other familiar place names, including Beijing, Guangzhou, Lhasa, Baghdad, and Moscow.

Despite the dry weather, the river continues to rise—more evidence of the size of this drainage. Even though we can’t see any clouds, rain must be falling somewhere upstream or, if it has stopped, the flood surge is only just now reaching us, two days later. Along the grassy banks, the lines of driftwood and larch needles—deposited by previous floods—grow damp, then begin to float again. A few larger bits of flotsam also resume their journey downstream. For several hundred yards, I use a raggedy beach sandal as a target for casting practice, repeatedly dropping the fly onto its upturned sole and then pulling it off, like a rat abandoning a sinking ship.

Although Guido and I keep at it for hours, we don’t raise a fish until just above our next camp. This taimen bumps the fly twice, then swirls behind it several more times, but I can’t manage a hookset. This despite the fact that what most anglers perceive as a “bump” is actually a quick inhale and exhale, a maddeningly brief moment when even the largest Z-Bone is often completely inside the fish’s mouth. After a few more casts with the same fly, the taimen refuses to show itself again. So I resolve to offer something new.

While Guido holds the boat in position, I try to interest the fish in a small white minnow imitation, then a gigantic rainbow-trout-colored streamer, with holographic eyes.

No luck with either.

I take a deep breath, wondering if, after so many hours of casting, I have botched my only chance of the day.

Guido wisely suggests that we rest the fish, and I agree. He pulls to the far bank, where we sit through what feels like an appropriate interval: two Bob Marley songs on his phone.

I change flies again, this time to a smaller Z-Bone, tied with copper-colored tinsel.

When Guido allows the boat to slide downstream, I focus on the spot where I first saw the fish, a deeper slot where the current edges around a small outflow of mountainside scree.

Just as the fly is swinging through this spot, the taimen hits so hard that it tears the line from my stripping hand. Luckily for me, I am able to pinch the line against the rod handle with my left forefinger, while the rod tip is pointed downward and directly at the fish. I hold the line against the cork, hoping for enough tension to give me one more chance to set the hook. Miraculously, there is—and I am tight to a taimen.

At one point in the fight, the line stops moving, as if the fish is hung up on a rock. At another, the taimen changes directions and surges downstream with its head clear of the water, mouth open.

Guido pulls the boat to the other side of the pool, where we’d recently been listening to “Redemption Song.” Here the water is surprisingly deep against the grass, and the fish cartwheels dangerously beneath the surface, sometimes upstream of the boat, sometimes down.

When at last I am able to raise its head toward the surface, Guido approaches from behind with the net, but the taimen leaps free of the mesh. On his next attempt, Guido again sweeps the net forward from the tail—and again the fish endeavors to swim out. This time, however, Guido manages to stagger a few steps upstream, then lift the net from the water.

The taimen is forty-two inches long and not exceptionally thick at the shoulders, but it feels strong in my hands, with a distinctive array of spots on the top of its head.

Someone, apparently, has been shouting, because Ganbaa, the expedition’s driver—and an enthusiastic angler himself—arrives from camp just as we are taking the fin clip for a DNA sample. Upon seeing the fish, he looks almost as happy as we are.

Spreading the Conservation Message

The morning is clear and cool when we set off from the bridge below Khutag Öndör, having arranged to meet Ganbaa about halfway to the confluence with the Eg, perhaps twenty miles downstream.

I ask Shugee, our new translator, to come in the drift boat with me, so we can talk about the goals of the expedition, how to administer the Taimen Fund survey of watershed health and ecological awareness, and what he can expect from the next two weeks on the water. A recent graduate of the American School of Ulaanbaatar, Shugee wears aviator sunglasses and speaks English with a near-native ease. He’s been working as a tourist guide for Nomadic Journeys for several summers, but this is his first exposure to a river trip.

Before lunch, we anchor the boats on a mid-stream gravel bar and get out the dipnets and sampling vials. We catch a handful of spiny loach and some minnows, then begin the process of collecting DNA samples and recording the necessary information in our waterproof notebooks.

While we are working, Lanie walks down a narrow slough, spooking a small pike. This is the first of the species that we’ve encountered so far, though we’ve been expecting to see them since leaving the upper Delger. No doubt this is another side effect of the high water—with the river so full, we are able to explore only a small percentage of the available habitat. And with the water so muddy, it’s harder for us to capture or observe the fish that are there.

After hearing Lanie’s report, I make my own foray along the slough, net in hand. That’s when I notice two anglers on the far bank. I’ve been talking to Shugee about our project and the survey all morning. Now here’s a chance to see him in action. We climb into the boat and row across the wide river, leaving Lanie and Guido to finish sampling the minnows.

As we approach the bank, Shugee remarks that the anglers appear to have a Nomadic Journeys tent. Who can it be? And in such a remote spot? Then it dawns on us—it’s our kitchen tent, only many miles upstream from the site that we agreed on a few hours ago.

The tent is nestled in a poplar grove, not readily visible from the near channel and completely out of view from the far braid, on the other side of the gravel bar, where we’ve been dipnetting. If I hadn’t noticed the anglers, we probably would have passed without stopping. And continued downstream until darkness, looking for a camp that we would never find.

During the next few seconds, I pass through the four stages of expedition-leader grief. Frustration, disappointment, anger, resignation. Briefly, I entertain the thought of staying put for the afternoon. It’s a sunny day after all, and there’s a beautiful tributary adding a dose of transparency to the Selenge’s overwhelming murk.

The two anglers—local residents, not part of the expedition team—are using live grasshoppers for bait, weighted with lead shot. They complete the questionnaire and graciously allow us to collect a DNA sample from a small lenok they’ve stashed on the bank. I hand one angler a Taimen Fund sticker, then wade across the tributary to retrieve the other’s hook and bobber, snagged on a willow branch.

When Guido and Lanie join us, we have a conference with Ganbaa and decide to push on. We’ll take enough food for a night out unsupported, then get up the next day and continue down to the confluence with the Eg, where a well-traveled road offers easy access for our UAZ-452, known in Mongolia as a fourgon.

Before we leave, however, Guido declares that he must make a few casts where the little stream enters the river. And it only takes a few before a healthy taimen is jumping in the current. Lanie puts down her water filter and grabs a net. I find my camera and a sampling kit.

We all kneel to admire the taimen resting calmly in the clear water of the tributary, where its red tail seems to flicker like a flame among the yellows and greens of submerged willow leaves. Upon release, the taimen is reluctant to swim through the flooded branches. But when Guido turns its head toward an expanse of open gravel, the fish powers away upstream—back toward the spot where it was hooked.

Peter W. Fong is the head guide for Mongolia River Outfitters. His stories and photographs have appeared in The Flyfish Journal, Gray’s Sporting Journal, High Country News, the New York Times, and many other publications. Rowing to Baikal, his account of a thousand-mile journey by horse, camel, kayak, and drift boat, is forthcoming from Latah Books. One-half the royalties have been dedicated to the Wild Salmon Center’s International Taimen Initiative. For more info, visit For information on Orvis trips to Mongolia, click here.

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