May 14, 2020
Hucho Taimen can reach six feet in length, and weigh more than 150 pounds. Just those two measurements alone tell you all you need to know about why my friend Ilya Sherbovich and I have spent the better part of two decades searching for these incredible salmonids. They are the largest members of a family that includes Pacific and Atlantic salmon, char, and all the trout species.
Sherbovich, the owner of the Ponoi River Company, first got the itch for taimen after a trip to northeast Siberia in July 2002. Two years later, I stumbled into the picture. While we were sitting on the Ponoi River on the Kola Peninsula, Sherbovich invited me to join his next big expedition. Little did we know that this would be the start of a 17-year taimen hunt that would include an enormous amount of research and exploratory visits to more than two dozen rivers.
Historically, taimen were distributed across a huge territory stretching from European Russia (the Volga and Pechora River basins) more than 3,700 miles (6,000 kilometers) to the east (Yana River and Amur River basins). While taimen are neither as plentiful nor as widespread as they once were, Russia still boasts a potential taimen area of more than 3.8 million square miles (10 million square kilometers) to search, if one focuses on all river and stream environments with steady flow. In general, taimen migrate between larger, deeper rivers and smaller, shallower streams. We factored all this into our hunt, as well as the usual variables such as weather and the guesswork of water heights that can be witnessed only when arriving at the river. The expression “a needle in a haystack” would be an understatement, and the search would probably seem too much of a challenge if we were not constantly reminding ourselves of those two potential measurements: more than 6 feet long and 150 pounds.
Working his way through the haystack over the last 17 years, after significant research and exclusions, Sherbovich has organized expeditions to fish the Lena, Dyanyshka, Menkere, Dzhardzhan, Kuranakh-Siktyakh, Uel'-Siktyakh, Muna, Natara, Sobolokh-Mayan, Eyekit, Besyuke, Olenyok, Pur, Bytantay, Tugur, Konin, Koninikan, Munikan, Ulgi, Bytantay, and quite a few others rivers we’ll keep to ourselves. The biggest challenge with exploring for Siberian taimen is logistics, and to cover the above-mentioned rivers, Sherbovich required logistical solutions of gargantuan proportions. This includes an incredibly skilled team from Ponoi River Company, who had to mobilize our group of anglers for more than 11 trips and 118 days of fishing in those 17 years.
My introduction to this amazing adventure kicked off in 2005 with an airplane charter to Tiksi. Situated on the coast of Yakutia on the shore of the stormy Laptev Sea, inside the Arctic Circle, this town is one of the northernmost settlements in the world. Two MI8 helicopters whisked us away and over the immense delta of the Lena River, which has its source in the north-central Siberian plain, from which it flows northeast before emptying into the Laptev Sea. Flying upstream along the Lena and over to the upper reaches of the Olenyok River, I had the first of many reality checks, as it dawned on me just how vast Siberia is and how challenging the search was going to be. We sat spellbound by the great green carpets of tundra lichens and mosses cut by incomprehensible quantities of water flowing into majestic clear rivers just waiting to be fished.
On that 2005 trip, we spent two weeks on various tributaries of the Lena and Olenyok as we rafted downstream, bouncing on tumbling water and gliding over a silver-dappled paradise, fishing each pool, soaking up the beauty of the river. The scenery of this region would take forever to describe. Around every corner there is a different rapid or pool that reminds you of somewhere else in the world. The highlight of the trip was when we found a pool on a tributary of the Lena that was stacked with fish, and we had our first taste of big taimen. Sherbovich landed a fish weighing 39 pounds, 10 ounces, which became the IGFA 20-pound-test-tippet fly-fishing record. We caught many taimen on the trip, but more important, we were humbled by the natural beauty of Siberia, and filled with a burning desire to experience much more of this wilderness in search of a monster taimen.
Fast forward 10 years (and a few more trips) to 2014, when Sherbovich started hearing about massive taimen in a remote watershed 500 miles northwest of the city of Khabarovsk, deep in the Russian Far East, on the Konin and Tugur rivers. The first trip to the Tugur in October 2014 resulted in no big fish after seven days of fishing in perfect water conditions. Instead of a success story, we enjoyed a week of vigorous casting, split fingers, and stiff backs. A normal person would question our sanity, considering the number of days spent casting huge flies into hundreds of Siberian rivers with little to show for it. But the proof of the presence of monster taimen was there. Alexander Abramov, owner of Lodge Konin, had a bunch of framed pictures of massive taimen caught during previous seasons on conventional tackle.
Inspired by these photos, Sherbovich was back in 2015. The days flew by quickly with not a single fish hooked or landed, and it would seem no amount of luck, skill, and effort would prevail. A belt of cold weather set in, canceling the helicopter flight out, which gave him another day’s grace. The snow and sleet couldn’t hold him back from one more attempt. And then it happened: Sherbovich hooked and landed the first ever Hucho taimen over 66 pounds (30 kilograms) on a fly. It was a pivotal moment, announcing emphatically that these monsters can in fact be caught on flies. This amazing fish weighed in at a massive 67 pounds (30.4 kilograms) and was awarded the IGFA 20-pound-test tippet record. His catch also proved that the Konin and Tugur rivers were good places to do it. Always keen to go bigger, we knew there was a possibility of catching a taimen over 100 pounds using fly tackle.
Old Russian folk tales suggest that the Lena River system holds fish up to 200 pounds, which meant that we weren’t finished with this area. A year later our team was reassembled and we were back exploring. This time we did everything on a larger scale so that no stone would be left unturned. The trip extended over 15 days and 11 rivers. We experienced rivers in flood, rivers in prime condition with no taimen, and finally a river full of taimen. The most impressive fishing was in the same section of river we had fished 11 years earlier with very little success, which sparked another reality check. You can’t rule out rivers you’ve previously fished with no success, because these fish migrate, sometimes stacking up in pools rather than spreading out through the whole system. The trip resulted in some incredible taimen fishing, with many caught on mouse patterns, but our group failed to find a monster.
Tugur To Be True
Konin Lodge (thelodgekonin.com) was built on private land controlled by prominent Russian fly fisher and entrepreneur Alexander Abramov. Nicknamed the “Taimen Tsar,” Abramov has created a unique fishery for giant taimen in Russia's Far East where the Tugur River—and its two tributaries, the Konin and the Munikan—are guarded and protected.
The lodge sits just outside of the new Tugursky Nature Reserve created in 2014 with support from Oleg Abramov, The Wild Salmon Center, Khabarovsk Wildlife Foundation, and other partners to protect 197,000 acres of critical habitat within the Tugur watershed in the Khabarovsk Region.
Back to the Tugur
It was obvious that the Tugur-Konin system was the place, so in 2019 we returned for another crack at it. These rivers enjoy strong runs of chum salmon, which are the main source of sustenance for these massive taimen. They grow large enough to engulf an entire adult salmon in one bite.
Difficult rivers are synonymous with big fish, and the banks of the Tugur and Konin rivers are lined with logjams and fallen trees. Some sections are impenetrable, with densely stacked trees and a labyrinth of channels. Others are navigable only after lengthy chainsaw sessions. The rivers meander at a steady pace, but never too fast—there are no rapids and no large rocky areas to define any distinctive lies. The riverbeds are mostly sand, gravel, and small rocks, forming perfect spawning habitat for salmon.
In 2019 we fished the same water that had left us fishless the previous year, but with improved tackle and refined techniques we caught giant taimen almost on a daily basis. Why had they been so difficult to catch, and why hadn’t we been successful on the occasions we fished there before? We surmised that these taimen feed actively only for a short period of time, just as salmon are arriving. After they gorge themselves, they probably enter into a catatonic state while digesting. It’s a matter of being in the right section of river just before the peak of the salmon run, and while the taimen are still hunting. Otherwise, your fly competes with a fresh, full-size salmon on every cast.
On the last day of an already successful week, we headed an hour and a half downstream to an area I had fished unsuccessfully on the first day. I can’t explain how relaxed I felt without any pressure to catch another fish. It had been a week of incredible proportions, and I had landed several great fish up to 78 pounds (35.5 kilograms) and witnessed other group members catch taimen exceeding 66 pounds (30 kilograms). Already content with the trip and set on enjoying the last day, I took my time, and messed around with some huge fly combinations to make sure I could get the fly down and the fish would see it. I started fishing just after 11 A.M. The sun came out, making the experience even more pleasant, until my third cast came to an abrupt stop and the line wrenched through my fingers, breaking the 30-pound-test Maxima tippet, leaving behind two burnt train tracks on my fingers.
I had broken off a big taimen—probably the only action I would have for the day. I messed around with some more fly combinations, trying to match the fly I had broken off, then took some more photos and had a couple of vodkas to drown my sorrows before fishing again. A few casts later, I hooked up again, and minutes later we landed a fin-perfect fish of 68 pounds (31 kilograms). We collected all measurements needed for the scientific data records, and took some close-up photos of the right cheek, because all taimen have unique, identifiable markings.
While I was taking photos, out of the corner of my eye I saw a stretch of glassy water showing distinctive small bow waves, which I initially mistook for a wind line. A few minutes later I noticed the same thing, but this time it was definitely from moving fish. Taimen were hunting in the pool, which is something I thought I'd never see. A few casts later, I hooked up again. We landed a similar fish, weighing more than 66 pounds (30 kilograms), took photos, and released the amazing creature. I was overwhelmed with a feeling of both gratitude and guilty gluttony that overcame my will to continue fishing.
We sat and watched the pool for a while and noticed a few more fish rolling on the other side of the river near a cutbank packed with fallen trees. The chase become more intense and visible as taimen chased their prey through the shallow tail of a glassy pool. My guilt trip subsided just enough for another chance to catch one of these waking fish, which looked to be larger than any I had caught so far. I made a short cast from a stationary boat first, and then a long one into the area where I had seen the movement. The fly swung momentarily before I was hooked up to a taimen that behaved completely differently than the previous two, as it headed downstream at a rate measurable in knots. We drifted out of the pool before using the motor to get to the opposite bank, where we could pursue the fish on foot. I could feel that this fish was much bigger because the head shakes were more violent and the runs longer. Fifteen minutes later I had my first glimpse of the fish as Sergei, my guide, swept with the net. On his first attempt, he managed to get only half the fish into the net. It measured 62.6 inches (159 centimeters) long, with a girth of 29.9 inches (76 centimeters) and weighed 109 pounds (49.4 kilograms).
Dripping wet after the taimen’s explosive departure, I was officially done. How could you finish on a better note? I cut my fly off and saved it to place in a framed picture. Shocked with disbelief at what had just happened, we watched more giant fish hunting in the same place.
Upon arrival at the lodge I could see that I wasn’t the only one who’d had an experience beyond expectations. My roommate Steve Estella was also grinning from ear to ear. He had caught a monster of close to 100 pounds. For most of the group it was the end to an amazing week of fishing.
But for Sherbovich and Max Mamaev, Ponoi head guide, the trip wasn’t over. Abramov invited them to stay for an extra few days. Mamaev and Sherbovich fished unguided, relying on their years of experience to figure out where to cast. They fished multiple unnamed pools. Some held no fish, but at least a few times a day they found pools that produced. They both exceeded the 88-pound (40-kilogram) mark before their second day. The final tally of the taimen they caught is likely never to be repeated. Realizing how special the fishing was in that short window, Ilya decided to experiment with some light leaders, and managed to land three fish that were submitted to IGFA for world records: 12-pound-test class at 65 pounds, 5 ounces (29.62 kilograms); 16-pound-test class at 96 pounds, 15 ounces (43.98 kilograms); and 20-pound-test class at 101 pounds, 11 ounces (46.12 kilograms).
On their last day, the fog lifted from the river and they headed to a section of river that Mamaev had named “monster pool” earlier in the week. They fished through the pool with no action. In disbelief, they discussed moving to another pool before deciding to give it a few more casts. Sherbovich made a cast and let the fly swing before moving it slowly to feel a constant tension as if he had snagged the bottom. As happens with all really big fish, there was a pause before a violent head shake and a run that headed off toward a logjam on the opposite bank. After 25 minutes and a fight that dragged them far downstream, the taimen slowly moved to the river’s edge, where Mamaev was ready with the net. Once the fish was subdued, they immediately realized that this was the biggest fish they had ever seen. It measured 64.6 inches (164.5 centimeters) with a girth of 33.5 inches (85 centimeters). Keeping the fish in the water, they pushed it gently into the fish sling and lifted it with the scale attached. The numbers quickly raced past the 110-pound (50-kilogram) mark before settling on 115 pounds (52.12 kilograms)—the first taimen over 110 pounds ever caught on fly, and the biggest fly-caught taimen ever measured and weighed. It is the pending IGFA all-tackle world record for taimen.
That night a fair amount of vodka was sacrificed in thanks to the Tugur River gods for finally delivering the payload on an amazing 17-year journey that had seen us fish the most remote and beautiful places. The Siberian winter was coming, and it was time to head home. The atmosphere that evening overwhelmed the team as they sat spellbound by the experience of spending weeks surrounded by the sheer beauty of one of the last few untouched places on the planet and of coming face to face with the ancient beasts that call it home.
*Keith Rose-Innes is a former head guide at Ponoi River Company and is the founder and now managing partner of Alphonse Fishing Company (alphonsefishingco.com), the premier fly-fishing outfitter in the Seychelles with operations on Alphonse, Cosmoledo, Poivre, Astove, and Farquhar atolls. When he's not at Alphonse, he lives with his wife and children in Johannesburg, South Africa.