Mongolian Taimen

The flyer for Mongolia at your local travel agent depicts a nation of eagle hunters, two humped camels and sprawling sandy deserts – a landscape not commonly associated with trout. But alongside Mongolia’s large open plains are silhouettes of imposing mountain ranges and – most importantly – wide thriving rivers. Rivers that are home to the world’s largest salmonid – the elusive taimen (see FL#22 & #62). Land-locked and isolated, Mongolia is wedged between China and Russia. With just over three million people, it has the lowest population density of any independent country. Most interestingly, it’s one of the few places on earth upholding the nomadic lifestyle. The country also has a strong and proud history. Viewed as conquerors, Genghis Khan is highly regarded and the locals still have deep respect for the Khan Dynasty. Our group of travellers was a mixed bunch, in nationality and personality. Converging from Australia and the US, we flew to Ulaanbaatar (UB), Mongolia’s capital, via Seoul, Korea. We had organised a couple of extra ‘tourist’ days in UB at the start of the trip, but with big fish on the brain, a couple of days was enough. The Camp Getting to UB was the easy part, but heading further north to our camp held the most anticipation. This was my second time fishing in Mongolia, and once again we returned to the Sweetwater Camps run by the Vermillion brothers and Hosvgol Travel. The Vermillion family visited Mongolia in the ’90s and quite understandably had their minds blown by the fish on offer. Keen to share this experience with the world, they set up two different fishing camps, in partnership with Hosvgol, on 150 kilometres of the Eg-Uur river system. On my first trip we fished the lower camp, whereas this time we were headed up to the top, right by the confluence of the Eg and Uur rivers. Rising early in UB and making our way back to the airport, we prepared for our two-hour flight. We’d be landing in a small town in the north of Mongolia, close to the Russian border, to be collected by lodge staff and transported by four-wheel-drives to our final destination. The flight was stunning, and our September trip was perfectly timed not only for the fishing but the stunning colours, with the trees fading from green to yellow to orange up the mountain slopes. It was hard to turn away from the view. Our small Cessna Caravan flight was almost over and I could see the pilot’s navigation slowly tick down to ‘zero minutes to destination’. But there wasn’t any airstrip. We slowly descended towards a small town where I saw a single flag in the middle of an open field — that must be the landing strip — our adventure had begun. Bags were unloaded and we made our way to the camp. The Sweetwater camps utilise traditional gers (two anglers per tent), a shared dining room, shower and toilet block. For rural Mongolia it is pure luxury. And after a long day’s fishing, there are few beds more comfortable than a night’s sleep in a Ger. Everyone was excited, so we met the guides, set up our gear and hit the river in the afternoon for a fish. The Beautiful Eg RIVER Our first morning at camp was brisk, no frost, though it must have been close. A few smaller taimen were caught on the previous afternoon, but everyone was ready for the first full day ahead. A cooked breakfast from our Mongolia camp staff and the boats were being loaded. Mist had barely cleared the air as we cut through the chilly morning on the way to our first location. The operation is run with four speedboats, eight anglers per camp. Each day we had different sections of water to fish and the boats gave great versatility to change spots quickly if needed. On the first day I fished with Pier and our guide, Dan Vermillion, who runs the whole Mongolia operation for Sweetwater Travel. Experienced would be an understatement. The first run was close to the confluence of the rivers and Pier had his first taste of a taimen on dry fly. He had shots at two fish, both around 80 cm, eating aggressively and leaping clear of the water on the attack. But neither fish stuck. Dan then took us up the Eg River. It was stunning. Gin clear like a big New Zealand spring creek. Eight to 12 metres wide, but frequently splitting into smaller branches. “So Dan, have you caught any big fish up here?” I was hoping for a good story. “My first ever Taimen was caught here on a grasshopper. It was nearly 1.5 metres long.” Pier and I were speechless. How was that even possible? “Yep, that day I knew we had found something very special.” The standard had been set. Fishing the Eg River was very cool. We took the boat upstream, and then slowly drifted our way back down. Dan guided us into likely pockets of water, basically spending the whole day standing in the river, holding the boat back from being fully captured by the speed of the current. We soon spotted a good-sized taimen stationed in the middle of the river. I made a cast and swung the fly in front of it. It attacked but didn’t fully eat. One more cast and there was a visual, aggressive take. Then, ten seconds into the fight, it came off. It was turning out to be one of those days. We were strip-striking the fish well, but in the fast current so many of them managed to get off part way through the fight. That included a big fish that emerged from the bank edge and attacked my fly with aggression. A few headshakes in the current and it was gone. “Are we doing anything wrong?” Pier asked Dan. “No, just unlucky, keep casting, you will get one.” The 1.5 metre tale was becoming more and more unrealistic. But not long after, we both landed nice fish in succession. And I managed another to finish the day. Although we dropped half of the fish we hooked, I was still amazed by the frequent and aggressive clear-water attacks. Big Fish Bro-va-load Pier and I decided to fish together again for the next day, but this time our guide was Jako Lucas. An absolute legend in guiding circles, having guided in the Seychelles, Russia, Mongolia, Argentina and chased just about every big fish on fly imaginable – I could tell we were going to have plenty to talk about. “Do you have any big flies with you?” Jako asked as we got set for the day. “I have some Murray cod flies, but maybe they are too big.” I said, opening my fly box to show him. “Nothing is too big,” he laughed. “Tie that one on.” He pointed at a mammoth fly, not something you would generally associate with a ‘trout’. Red and black, and around 25 cm long, it casts like a heavy wet sock on my 9-weight, but I was ready to oblige. If the big fish guide says use it, then I will. One way of fishing for taimen in big water is to motor to the top of a run and throw a concrete block anchor from the back of the boat. Anglers cast out on both sides while the guide slowly moves the anchor or lets out more rope to gradually fish the run. “This is a big fish run!” Jako said as he prepared to drop anchor. “Pier, you fish this side with the deep gutter. Josh, you fish the shallow side as sometimes they hold around the boulders.” It was an overcast day, fairly bland in comparison to the day before, but these are known to be great fishing days when chasing taimen. We made our way through the run. Pier and I both casting to either side, slowly moving large streamers through the strong flow. Every bump of a rock was noticed, often raising my heart rate even just for a second. I cast to the shallow side and the fly swung into the main current. My line stopped dead; it felt different. “Is that him?” Jako called, already knowing the answer. My line tore off rapidly into the deep water. Heart churning thumps pulsed their way along my rod. We all knew it was a big fish. I like to think I can generally play it cool, but at this point I was a nervous wreck. Jako did his best with the net, while navigating the boat in the fast current. Two or three near misses had nausea consuming my body. With my heart in my mouth and my breathing in rapid gasps the net finally wrapped around the whole body of the fish. I couldn’t believe it. I gave Jako a huge bear hug, or several, which he later declared as a bro-va-load! (Excessive man hugs after a moment of excitement.) 1.36 metres of beautiful taimen. They say the trophy mark is 50 inches (1.25 m), and as such I got the honour of inscribing the moment into history on the back of the outboard motor. What a day, I was well and truly high on trout! BY-CATCH Taimen can be very aggressive predators, and at times eat well above their means. Fish have suffocated themselves by eating other large taimen and lenok. Although plenty of our taimen flies represented fish like lenok and grayling, those species also provided great sport as a by-catch or target on a 4/5-weight rod. Northern pike were available in all the clear backwater sloughs, and were very rarely targeted. Nick Sheriff and Pier Nissotti, having not caught pike before, chose to take a morning off Taimen and chase them instead. The fish were extremely willing and with nearly a dozen landed in an hour they were satisfied. LAST RUN But it was about this time on Day 4 when Kurt Schiele was starting to get the jitters. Not only were we making fun of the fact that he looked like Rocky Balboa with a swollen face after a run-in with a local wasp, he had also hooked and lost several big taimen. And as much as lenok, grayling and pike are good fun, it was the taimen we all came for. Fishing with local Mongolian guide Gana, Kurt and I had experienced a tough day on the water. A few smaller fish on rodent dry-fly style flies, but Kurt needed a big one. We were on our run downstream towards the lodge when Gana said the dreaded words, “Last run guys.” Kurt and I set up to cast, and it began to pour with rain. Taimen are one of those fish that all the guides will say are ‘nowhere and everywhere’. So the biggest rule is, just keep casting! Just moments before Gana had a chance to call out “last cast,” Kurt hooked up. Whether it was the very decent fish, the pouring rain, the beautiful backdrop, or even Kurt reminiscing on his boxing earlier in the week, but that moment was one of the most memorable. He finally got his catch. Hard work pays off. Taimen are an elusive fish. Every one of them, regardless of size, is a special capture. Having visited the Sweetwater camps twice now it seems an average catch for each angler per week is around 6–12 taimen. You will encounter many more, but with aggressive dry fly and streamer takes, it’s inevitable to lose a few. The rewards are sweet, and for those who need a distraction, the lenok, grayling and pike do provide exactly that. In truth, you don’t come to Mongolia just to catch taimen. You come to experience something indescribably wild, unique and beautiful. The local Mongolian people, the simplicity of the lifestyle, the untouched landscapes, and a comfortable night’s sleep under millions of lit-up stars. Mongolia is different, a land far away from your computer and desk. I’ve already been twice but I can’t wait to return. Mongolia is a place that gets under your skin, in only the best of ways. Josh will be returning to Mongolia to chase taimen with Sweetwater Travel again in September 2019. Visit www.aussieflyfisher.com for details.

Current FlyLife Subscribers can login to read the full article.
To access this article, back issues & more Subscribe to FlyLife today.