Fly Fishing for Taimen in Mongolia

Fly Fishing for Taimen in Mongolia
The author clamps down on a thrashing taimen as guide Jeff Forsee prepares to net the fish. In the background, Bactrian camels graze after two days of hauling tents, rafts, and food into the Ulaan Taiga Bio Reserve, a restricted-access taimen sanctuary known by locals as The Temple. Earl Harper photo

A scholar at the Gandan Tegchenling monastery explained to me that tantric Buddhism isn’t merely a religion based on sex positions outlined in the Kama Sutra. I was not completely shocked to learn that Western culture has created an inaccurate generalization of an entire religion based on scandalous images of foreigners. Tantric Buddhism (more accurately described as Vajrayana Buddhism) teaches a path to enlightenment through the ritualized practice of hundreds of different sutras, and the Kama Sutra is the only one that focuses on sensuality.

Unlike Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, which all worship external deities and seek a future paradise, Vajrayana Buddhism’s “pathway to enlightenment” attempts to create paradise in the present, through practice, repetition, and isolation. Meditation, physical manipulations like sex or yoga, chanting, and memorization are all potential pathways to a “place” that is actually just a perfected state of mind.

“You are going to the river fishing?” my guru asked rhetorically. “You can find paradise there, for yourself, while you are fishing. The deities we worship are inside all people, and paradise is all around us . . . you just have to become enlightened to truly realize it.”

This paradise is a state of singularity where you realize you don’t have a place in the universe: You are one with the universe.

I started down this road when I caught my first trout on a dry fly. Like a monk intoning scripture, I repeated and refined the same metronomic casts over and over again until finally I passed into a blissful state where I stopped trying to be a dry-fly fisher, I became lost inside nature, and my dry fly became part of the hatch.

Chasing this paradisiacal state of mind is how fly fishers get into low-odds, high-reward disciplines like winter steelhead, permit, and musky fishing. Each is its own religion where acolytes accept that they’ll catch far fewer fish, but along the way they hope to become part of a world that transcends merely catching fish.

Fly fishing for taimen is the ultimate faith of this type—a Mongolia pilgrimage where if you focus on the path and levitate your mind beyond the crass pleasures of a hard pull, you will find heaven in the murmurations of sheep filtering over rolling distant grasslands, in the sunlit canyons painted with neon orange and fluorescent green lichen, and in the sparkling clear rivers where the largest trout-like creatures in the world hunt in pink feldspar boulder gardens, flooded beds of river grass, and in shallow transparent tailouts. You don’t visit this place—you lose yourself in its beauty, and you sacrifice your own ego to become one with it.

Buddhists believe there are many pathways to enlightenment, but if you carry a fly rod there is only one path. It leads to Mongolia.

Hucho taimen

Taimen aren’t actually trout, but neither are brook trout, lake trout, or bull trout (all these “trout” are actually char). But along with true trout like brown, rainbow, and cutthroat trout; Pacific salmon and Atlantic salmon; and many other relatives, Hucho taimen are members of the Salmonidae family of freshwater fish.

Like true trout, they have dark spots on a lighter background. They have dark olive heads and distinctive crimson tails that stand out like prayer flags when the water is clear.

They’re known also as giant Eurasian trout, Siberian salmon, and in China “The river god’s daughter.”

The vast historic range of taimen includes parts of Kazakhstan, China, Russia, Japan, and Mongolia.

They have evolved in massive watersheds that reach the Pacific and the Arctic oceans, and like most salmonids there are sea-run varieties, mostly on Sakhalin Island in Russia and the island of Hokkaido in Japan. Unlike the comparison between rainbow trout and steelhead, however, there’s little evidence that sea-run taimen are typically larger. In fact, the largest taimen in the world are primarily resident fish that haunt their home pools—the clear, cold headwaters of the Selenga, Lena, and Amur rivers in Siberia and in northern Mongolia, where they average 27 to 46 inches and can live 50 years, or sometimes much longer. 

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In the upper Delgermörön, fishing from boats is prohibited and rafts are used to move quickly from one wading opportunity to the next. In the lower river (shown here) you float and cast from comfortable NRS inflatable drift boats. Photo: Ross Purnell
There are unverified reports of taimen weighing more than 100 pounds, including a fish netted from the Kotui River in 1943 that was 83 inches and 231 pounds, and these are the legends that over the years have earned taimen their reputation as “the largest salmonids in the world.” It seems unlikely that any fly fisher will ever encounter a statistical anomaly like the Kotui fish, but the IGFA weight record is a 92-pound taimen caught not long ago, and 50-inch+ taimen are caught and released annually on Mongolia’s best rivers.

When you first lay eyes on one of these jaw-droppers, your guts tell you it’s the biggest trout you’ve ever seen, but a close inspection reveals a divergent predatory evolution. The wide-set eyes of a taimen are positioned on top on the head for ambush strikes—much like bull trout, pike, and muskies. And their heads and mouths are proportionally massive compared to those of a trout or salmon, and lined with double rows of teeth designed to grab, hold, and kill their prey.

They feed mostly on other fish such as lenok and grayling, and a big part of their diet—particularly for mature specimens—is made up of ducklings, fledgling birds, and swimming rodents like mice and ground squirrels.

They have keen eyesight in clear water and can spot and chase a fly over long distances, but they also commonly use dirty water to their advantage to ambush smaller fish. They use their lateral lines to sense or “hear” vibrations in the water, so your fly—whether it’s on the surface or below—should push/plow water and make a commotion that large taimen can hear and feel.


Awakening

There is an old Mongolian legend about a hard, long winter that trapped a massive, living taimen in the ice. Starving villagers survived the winter only by eating chunks of flesh hacked from the taimen’s back. In the spring, the ice melted, and the great taimen climbed up out of the river and ate the villagers.

There’s a spark of truth in all myth, and the truth is that human beings have been hacking away at taimen populations for many generations. The winters are long, cold, and hard. Adult taimen instinctively move to deep, slow overwintering holes where they can find protection from anchor ice and ice floes, and these spots are known to “sport” anglers who use bait and treble hooks with the goal of posing with giant dead taimen, or poachers who view these majestic salmonids merely as food.
 
To stop the slaughter of giant taimen, and equally important, to stem the loss of pristine taimen habitat, more Mongolians need to see the greater value of a reusable resource, and that’s the end game of all taimen conservation in Mongolia. While the Taimen Fund has helped implement successful legislation to legally require catch-and-release of taimen nationwide, and to protect some watersheds from development, long-term success can come only from grassroots support and involvement where the locals have a vested interest in protecting taimen. The best way to do that is to teach more Mongolians how to fly fish, or at least show them how fly fishing can support and sustain their communities, their rivers, their health, and their culture.

“I would love to one day walk down to my favorite taimen pool on my favorite river, and see that there’s already three Mongolian guys there casting their Spey rods,” says Charlie Conn of the Taimen Fund. “There’d be no room there for me to fish, but that’s fine. I would love that. It’s their river, and these are their fish to protect.”

The Taimen Fund (taimenfund.org) is an alliance of government agencies, local communities, and private businesses working together to educate the public about sustainable catch-and-release fishing, legislate protection for taimen and their rivers, and further scientific research. On a national and international level, they work to protect the species, preserve habitat, and eliminate poaching.

But much of the boots-on-the-ground work in specific watersheds couldn’t be done without partnering with fly-fishing outfitting businesses on Mongolia’s best taimen rivers. If you are going to build national interest in protecting taimen, you have to build from the strongholds where they still exist, and you have to show how healthy taimen rivers can improve the economy and the community. Some of the best conservation work going on in Mongolia doesn’t come from NGOs, but from the outfitting businesses who have skin in the game.

Dan Vermillion of Sweetwater Travel (sweetwatertravel.com) realized this truth when he began outfitting fly fishers on the Eg-Uur watershed near the outflow of Lake Khovsgal more than 20 years ago. Mongolian guides like Ganzorig Batsaihan, Bayaraa Saikhan, and Enebish Ganpurev have worked for Sweetwater since the year 2000. The other guides, camp staff, cooks, and handymen, and the food and livestock purchases Sweetwater Travel makes in the region have a huge economic impact in an area where herding is the only other form of employment.

But Sweetwater Travel does more than just support the economy. In 2006, Sweetwater Travel, with help from visiting fly fishers, the World Bank, and the Taimen Fund (formerly The Tributary Fund), restored the Buddhist Dayan Derkh Monastery, which was destroyed during Joseph Stalin’s attempt to purge religion from all Soviet states.

“That reconstruction was a central component of the watershed conservation project and marked the return of Buddhism to the Eg-Uur Valley,” Vermillion told me. “Herders and their families from all over the valley tearfully thanked us for supporting their faith and their heritage.”

In addition to the indirect economic contributions each fly fisher makes through an outfitted visit to Mongolia, Vermillion says his guests, and many others, have donated an additional $400,000 toward taimen conservation in the region. “We feel very blessed to have spent so many wonderful days in the Eg-Uur Valley, and we feel a profound obligation to protect these taimen and the river they call home.”

Mark Johnstad of Fish Mongolia (fishmongolia.com) also points to conservation as the primary reason he started outfitting fly-fishing trips in Mongolia.

“The whole premise is to do everything possible to generate and maximize locally based conservation incentives, whether it’s permits, jobs, purchase of goods and services, support for research, helping to clean up the local landfill, doing conservation education in the schools, or providing better access to health and education,” said Johnstad. “We do whatever we can do to help local communities realize the benefits of having 50-year-old taimen swimming in the river.” 

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Dr. Grace Smith puts her stethoscope to work during a wellness check at the Healthy Taimen Festival on the banks of the Delgermörön. Photo: Earl Harper
My 100-mile trip on the Delgermörön was booked through The Fly Shop in Redding, California, and one of the early participants to sign up for the adventure was pediatric cardiologist Grace Smith. She has previously volunteered for medical missions to Haiti, and her idea was that she could help the Mongolia community in more ways than by just paying for the trip. So she suggested to The Fly Shop that she’d be willing take a day off from fishing to conduct wellness exams on local children.

When her idea filtered back to outfitter Mark Johnstad, the concept instantly snowballed. With a grant from Patagonia’s World Trout Initiative, a matching grant of $7,500 from The Taimen Fund, and funding from Bio Regions International, Johnstad also arranged for medical doctor Erich Pessl and dentist Jeff Johnson to join us for the second half of our float. His goal was a free wellness clinic for local children that would be the foundation of a Healthy Taimen Festival on the banks of the Delgermörön, just 13 kilometers from the village of Bayanzurk.

The festival happened on a hot bluebird afternoon on August 31, the day before school started in Mongolia. The lure of a free exam and consultation with an American doctor and/or dentist emptied the village, and more than 300 people came to the river in 4X4 vans, old Russian flatbed trucks, sparkling new Chinese dirt bikes, and on horseback.
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Dentist Jeff Johnson simultaneously provided fluoride treatments and examinations in a separate tent. Photo: Earl Harper
The doctors and dentist had long lines outside their tents until early in the evening. The final tally was 150 to 160 visits with school-age children, resulting mostly in practical advice from the doctor, some dental hygiene work, fluoride treatments, and dispensing a lot of ibuprofen and vitamin supplements.
 
The children and their families waiting in line were entertained by a loudspeaker game of “taimen biology trivia” with Mongolian river guides, fly-tying demonstrations, rafting, and tenkara casting and fishing lessons along the river. Patagonia donated three rods to the event, and some of the children waited for more than an hour for their turn to use a rod under the watchful eye of a Fish Mongolia guide.

“Our Mongolian guides are like superheroes to these kids,” said Johnstad after the event. “Who wouldn’t want to float down a river in a raft all summer and get paid for it?”

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Fish Mongolia guide Battulga Tumenjargal (above) taught along line of children how to use Patagonia Simple Fly Fishing Tenkara rods. Photo: Earl Harper
The guides have a huge influence on their family networks, and Johnstad strategically hires young guides from families with a history of taimen harvest. Our 24-year-old guide Battulga Tumenjargal (who gave casting lessons at the festival) grew up eating taimen his father pulled from the river. Now, his father is a catch-and-release fly fisher and head of the local Fishing Conservation Club, and the entire outlook of the familial network is changing from the ground up. 

Like Battulga’s father, every Mongolian at the festival experienced firsthand how healthy taimen rivers can provide a sustainable economy, and improve the health and welfare of the community. But more important, hundreds of Mongolian children learned that taimen have more than economic value—they have intrinsic value.

“Every kid who enjoyed casting a fly rod or tying flies or rafting the river is now a champion for taimen in their community,” said Johnstad. “They’ll grow up wanting taimen in the river, and that’s meaningful progress that will impact future generations.”

There is no such thing as a fly that is too large for Hucho taimen. The only limits are your tackle, casting skill, and to a great extent your strength and stamina. Darren Hanifil, in 2015, caught a 57-inch Mongolia taimen using an 18-inch musky fly with a rattle in it. My 55-inch taimen (on the cover of this magazine) took a 16-inch Blane Chocklett T-Bone fly with a series of silicone cones built into the body to push water and make the articulated body swim in a side-to-side motion that big predators can’t resist. These flies are impossible to cast gracefully, but the results are undeniable.

The smallest and easiest-to-cast flies are Gurgler-style flies with multiple layers of thick foam forming a popping/skating lip, and 6 to 8 ¬inches of trailing synthetic hair. Casting surface flies is by far the most entertaining way to search for taimen, and unlike many other types of freshwater fishing, getting down to the fish isn’t nearly as important as just getting their attention with something big.

To cast these flies, you’ll need a 10- or 11-weight, single-handed rod with a RIO Pike/Musky line or a Scientific Anglers Titan Mastery line. Overlining the rod by one line weight is helpful. Even with an 11-weight rod, truly massive flies are tough to cast repetitively over the span of a week or more. My favorite rod in Mongolia was a 9-weight, 14-foot Sage Method. With “small” flies like an 8-inch Gurgler I could cast farther and cover more water, and with Blane Chocklett’s T-Bone I could cast with less strain and effort because the workload was spread over two limbs. I even cast the two-handed rod from the bow of a drift boat—awkward at first, but it worked.

The Beast of the Delger

The Delgermörön runs clear most of the summer over a hard river valley comprised of granite boulders and sawtooth limestone ridges that might have been mountains millennia ago. But like any freestone river, 36 hours of hard rain creates tens of thousands of tiny rivulets that can double the size of the river and make it opaque with sediment.

In clear water with bright blue skies through most of our trip, the fishing had been unusually tough, but when the water turned the color of wet cement for two days, it was hopeless. On the final day of a two-week float, the river slowly turned to that brown/green color where you can see the tip of the oar blade down in the water, or see your boot laces in knee-deep current. It’s the kind of water steelheaders love and streamer fishermen dream about.

At lunch we stopped at a bulbous granite outcrop with a cave. Buddhist monks holed up here for more than a decade while the Stalin regime destroyed monasteries and jailed or executed religious leaders.

We couldn’t read the Tibetan script on the walls of the cave, but knew this was a refuge the monks shared with the taimen of that era. It was a rally point from which they could stage a comeback.

With this kind of water clarity, big black flies have always worked for me, so I tied on a 16-inch black T-Bone tied by Blane Chocklett. The cones inside the jointed fly make it move like no other, and give it a massive presence that seemed to be just what I needed in stained water, but the fly proved difficult to cast.
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Photo: Earl Harper
An hour after lunch I was spent, and wanted to give up on the fly. I knew we were just a few miles from our final camp, I was enamored with Mongolia and the beautiful taimen I caught days ago when the water was clear, and I had mentally arrived at a blissful state where my passion for the spirit of this place was far greater than my desire to catch an enormous taimen. I just wanted to spend the last hour watching my fly line gracefully unfold over a spectacular landscape.

“I’m giving up on this fly,” I said to guide Jeff Forsee, an American who lives in New Zealand and talks like a Kiwi.
“I wouldn’t do that, mate,” he replied. “That fly is your best chance. Actually, it’s your only chance.”

I stuck with it, and five minutes later I cast the snaky fly into some flooded river grass and slithered it through a slow, deep slot. Strip. Strip. Thud. The fly came to a complete stop, I stripped hard, and there was nothing there.

“I think I just had a strike,” I said tentatively. After days without seeing a fish, I wasn’t 100 percent sure. But Forsee was damn sure, and instantly pulled on the oars to move us back upriver. My next cast hit the same grassy spot, and in retrospect I believe that river dragon was still looking for whatever had just slipped through his teeth.

Strip. Strip. Thud. The line came tight in my line hand so ferociously that I instinctively also tarpon-set with my rod hand.

When the fish thrashed the surface of the river and I saw its wide, white belly, I was stunned, and temporarily confused. We had talked about taimen on this river for two weeks, and always referenced their great lengths as if they were two-dimensional creatures. For years, I had studied profile photos of taimen that give the impression of long, thin fish without the girthy top-to-bottom proportions of most salmonids.

But the fish that churned the water to a froth in front of me looked as wide as a bus, and my brain for a millisecond was reluctant to accept that this was the taimen I’d travelled 10,000 miles to catch. A taimen couldn’t be that fat, could it?

To my way of thinking, a taimen is just as “trouty” as a salmon, brook trout, or bull trout, but there’s one dimensional difference—the hidden girth you can’t see in most photographs. The fish you see here (and also on the cover of this magazine) was 55 inches long with a 26-inch girth at the dorsal fin, and it was much more massive just behind the head near the pectoral fins. It had the body shape of an ambush predator with wide-set eyes that look up, not forward, and an oversize salmonid-shaped mouth that could easily T-bone and swallow most of the trout I label “trophies” at home.

I traveled farther, made more casts, and spent more fishless hours hunting this taimen than any other fish I’ve ever pursued, and maybe that’s why it feels there will never be an equal. But oddly, that Soviet-era taimen (likely older than I am) wasn’t even the best part of Mongolia. It wasn’t even close.
—Ross Purnell

The Journey

Taimen are voracious, long-lived predators and require a large hunting territory to thrive. While this explains their immense potential size, it also makes them extremely vulnerable to exploitation. If you kill one taimen, you’ve removed a huge biomass from the river that won’t be replaced for decades. Because of this, the only remaining taimen sanctuaries left on the planet are far from roads, bridges, and other human developments.
 
To find fishable numbers of large taimen in Mongolia, you’ll have to fly to the capital city of Ulaanbaatar, then take a domestic flight the next day to your jumping-off location, whether that’s Mörön, Erdenbulgan, Teshig, or another small town. From there you’re looking at one to six hours (depending on the river) of bumping through the countryside in 4X4 vehicles. Most of those miles will be roadless, but you’ll follow ancient trails across rivers, over high mountain passes, and across grasslands, where you’ll see nomads with their herds of yaks, goats, and sheep. It’s hard to crest a saddle between the high peaks of these ranges, see a stone ovoo that may be 500 or more years old, and not imagine battalions of Chinggis Khaan’s armies using the same high passes centuries ago to muster for battle.

I’ve heard of fly fishers complaining about the long drives in Mongolia, but my breathtaking drive to the Delgermörön in a comfortable Toyota Land Cruiser was more adventurous and spectacular than the Going to the Sun Highway in Glacier National Park or the Big Sur Coast Highway in California, for obvious reasons: It wasn’t a highway.

When we arrived at the river, we were at the midpoint of a two-week, 100-mile river trip. Downriver was a procession of eight Fish Mongolia (fishmongolia.com) permanent tent camps, strategically positioned 8 to 12 miles apart. But our initial goal was upriver in the Ulaan Taiga Bio Reserve, a national park with strictly controlled access and limited use. The watershed is closely guarded by a Mongolian army checkpoint, monitored by mounted park rangers, and regulated to protect one of the last untouched and undeveloped taimen sanctuaries on the planet. Locals refer to it simply as The Temple because it is a revered, sacred place to these people, who are deeply influenced by Mongolia’s shamanistic folk religions, which predate Buddhism and are based on the worship of nature, or more accurately, The Blue Sky God.

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Access to the upper Delgermörön in the Ulaan Taiga Bio Reserve is by horseback and camel only. On the lower river, and on most other rivers in Mongolia, you can drive to your fishing location. Photo: Earl Harper
Fish Mongolia holds the only fishing permits for these waters, and to access the preserve, the outfitter enlists the help of nomadic families who have grazed their animals inside and outside the protected area for countless generations. To reach high into the headwaters, these herdsmen accompanied us with eight Bactrian camels (each carried a load of 600-700 pounds), and 16 horses to carry rafts, tents, food, four anglers, two guides, camp staff, and boatmen over mountain ranges and into the most remote reaches of the river near the Siberian border.

After two days of travel in a horse-and-camel caravan, we reached our starting point in a limestone canyon etched by the Delgermörön. From there, we floated by raft more than 100 miles over 12 days, searching for what are, in essence, the largest trout in the world.

Paying Your Dues

Taimen are incredibly aggressive carnivores, but that doesn’t mean they are easy to catch. First you have to find one. Many of us enjoy home waters where there are 2,000 to 3,000 trout per mile. If you stand in a riffle in the Bighorn River, there are often 500 trout within casting range at all times. Catch one fish, and other moves to take its place.

Taimen fishing is just the opposite. Your task is to eliminate the empty water one cast and one step at a time until you find a taimen that is actively hunting. When you do finally find a taimen in a mood to eat, guide Jeff Forsee says, “There’s almost nothing you can do to keep your fly away from it. Once they are locked on to a target, they will find it and crush it.”
 
One taimen we spotted behind an island in the upper river blitzed my Gurgler on the first cast, which I thought was too short. It was an electrifying chase: The fish pounced on the skating fly five times before finally hooking itself. But not all taimen react like that. We spotted other taimen finning in shallow, cobbled tailouts, in sheltered coves along massive cliffs, and in smooth inside bends that wouldn’t acknowledge any fly. Sometimes they just aren’t in the mood, and it’s usually not a matter of changing your fly or downsizing your tippet. You have to keep moving, walking, wading, and casting down through the rest of that pool and the next one, and the one after that, until your path intersects with one of the river god’s daughters.

It’s this journey downriver that elevates your mind and your soul to a place where perhaps you’ve never been. Your boots certainly are in a far different place, and when you first step into the river, there’s nothing you want more than to catch a giant taimen. That’s the reason all fly fishers visit Mongolia the first time.
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Photo: Earl Harper
But taimen don’t surrender themselves easily, and it can be many days between fish. It’s during those blue-sky afternoons when the rod and your feet seem to move themselves, and you have hours to decide if you’re really there for the fish, or something else. Maybe you’re there just to find the kind of calming humility that comes with knowing you’re probably not going to catch a giant taimen on your next cast. Or the one after that. Instead, you learn to flow with the river and all it is connected to. You become part of it. Like no other place, Mongolia separates the people who love fishing from the people who like to catch fish.

That foundational desire to catch a massive trout is merely a stepping stone toward truly discovering the joyful, gracious people of Mongolia, immersing yourself in their hospitality and history, and wandering through river valleys where the “progress” of concrete, cell phone towers, electricity, bridges, and extractive industry doesn’t yet exist. There you can find a paradise that our consumer culture can’t recognize, your siblings won’t understand, and industry will never celebrate. But you will, because you are a fly fisher.

Ross Purnell is the editor of FLY FISHERMAN

The Fly Shop (theflyshop.com) in Redding, California, handled all the details of my trip to the Delgermörön, and also arranges trips with the same outfitter in the Onon watershed. Sweetwater Travel (sweetwatertravel.com) is the booking agent for all the trips in the Eg-Uur watershed. Be cautious about any trips outside of these regulated catch-and-release regions.
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