MONGOLIA

Mongolia Fly Fishing Travel

 

At the airport in Tatarstan Khadizhat’s grandfather pulled me aside and said in a hushed, deliberate tone: “Be careful Justin, Mongolia is a dangerous place”.  I smiled and told him not to worry, but out of respect also let him know that I had taken his warning seriously. 

 

 

Genghis Khan and the legendary Taimen of Mongilia

 

Tatars and Mongols have had a relationship that has been complicated for centuries and spanned the width of the continent between where Granddad and I stood and the place I was headed, the capital of Mongolia.  It was a Tatar who poisoned and killed Chinggis Khan’s father.  Later the Mongol hordes conquered every square inch of Tatar held lands and at one point executed every Tatar male over the age of twelve.  What was left of the Tatars then became one of the most fiercely respected armies under Chinggis Khan’s control, and helped the Mongols in their conquest of the largest empire ever achieved on Earth. 

morning before departure on taimen expedition

 

For me, this trip had been a long time coming.  These things work out that way in my life though; they swirl around in my mind and seem like they’ll never come to fruition but eventually always do, and in retrospect seemingly always at just the right time.

 

Just like in the days before my long walk in Patagonia, I had read a lot before I got to my destination but still really had no idea what to expect.  I have always found expectations to be the enemy of travel, and so generally try to keep my mind as blank a slate as possible before arrivals.  This was as usual a good thing, because otherwise Ulaanbaatar would likely have represented a disappointment.  On the way from the airport to the hotel we passed both a Porsche dealership and a shopping mall.  Huh?  This was not the Ulaanbaatar I had expected to meet.  The next day my former-client/turned good-friend Mike Terepka showed up and we spent two days wandering the city. 

Buddhism in Mongolia

Over this time I came to see it as a sort of singular take on post-Soviet influence urban evolution.  Eastern Europe’s culture was much closer to Russia’s from the beginning, and as such after the break up when capitalism became the new deal things changed rather slowly there, and in predictable ways.  Mongolia is a whole Private flight Mongolia Fly Fishingother ballgame.  The diversity of the cultural environment and the nomadic lifestyle of its inhabitants made the spread of communism in Mongolia look more like a David Pollack canvas than the usual rolling red tide.  Then when the Soviet Union collapsed that canvas came to life, took a couple of hits of LSD, and rode madly off in all directions at once piloting Horses, Ferrari’s, and Unimogs, some to return to the lifestyles they’d lived before, and others to create miracles and monsters with their vastly expanded Taimen river access in Northern Mongoliaconcept of possibilities. 

 

But after a few day's rest, several excellent meals, and a haircut performed by a ninja I was ready to go see what things were like outside of the only real city in the country.  So we got on a little prop driven plane and flew North almost all the way to the Russian border, then drove another five or so hours to the headwaters of one of the rivers that make up the main feeder of Lake Baikal, by volume the largest freshwater reserve on Earth.  This is a North flowing Arctic drainage, and one that I’d been dreaming about for a long, long time.  What I saw when we got to the river did not disappoint.  The landscape was absolutely stunning.

Wilderness Taimen Float

When I first arrived in Patagonia most of the rivers I explored were clean and pure by default, simply because the population density of the lands they flowed through was so low.  In Mongolia though it doesn’t matter how many people are

Arrival at taimen ger camp on delgar murun

around.  The numbers are small of course, just like in Argentina, but even where there are settlements or a clutch of some herding family’s gers near a river everything is still totally pristine; Mongols consider it a grave taboo even to urinate within close proximity of flowing water!  This was explained to me as being a matter of respect for the spirit of the waters, and I could not have been more impressed.  And also warned.  Don’t piss near the rivers!  Mike and I watched the guides and staff that night to figure out the appropriate distance that must be achieved before relieving oneself, and it turned out to be around 150 yards.  

Fly fishing Taimen Mongolia floats

As such we settled into the rather luxurious (by my standards) first camp and rested up for the week to come.  The next morning was quite a parade, literally.  As the camp got broken down and the horses and camels loaded I started to do

luxury taimen camp fly fishing mongolia

some accounting.  All told our party consisted of one game warden, two guides, seven camels, twenty three Mongol employees, well over thirty horses,… and four clients.  These numbers astounded me.  All of this, I thought, just for four dudes from the west to come out here and try their luck at catching and releasing a few fish?  But after a moment or two of reflection I remembered that it is so much more than that.  It’s good, solid work for families that need it.  It’s education for a community that helps them expand their horizons.  Back country Taimen fishing by horsebackAnd it’s revenue that gets devoted to the protection of a fragile resource that deserves to be protected.  I had been itching to go and get out on my own for a while though, so while the rest of the party and its entourage got saddled up for the ride, I put on my backpack and headed upstream with my trusty Winston ten weight in hand.  I’ve never been any good at assuming the role of client.    

Remote Taimen fishery Mongolia Camel and Horse access

I also have long legs, and when there aren’t any clients to walk behind I generally make pretty good time.  As it turned out that first morning I somehow managed to beat the entire camp crew and the guides and clients all the way to the second camp’s future site and so continued on above that to see what I could find.

Justin C Witt Mongolia

  As fate would have it, after passing an empty Shaman’s tepee on a high hill to the right, then a herd of horses down in the valley on the left cropping grass with an ugly yak, I found three little boys sitting next to the river who were staring at a Taimen. Taimen! The first I’d ever seen!  The fish was in deep water though, visible but in a challenging spot to reach with the fly. I decided to sit down and think things through.

Mongolia Youth fishing education

  The boys were of course quite curious about my presence there, and especially about my rod and flies.  I handed these over to them for inspection, and they conducted said inspection with serious interest and discussion of the details.  I of course had flies to spare after a winter of tying for the trip and so gave each of them a few and proceeded to rig my second rod with a 400 grain 34’ fast sink head and short piece of straight 20# maxima before tying on a Swook. 

Mongolia local herders taimen

Meet The Swook

Fly patterns for Taimen in Mongolia

The Swook had been created a few months before.  Not just that one, but the pattern itself and what ended up becoming a seemingly infinite number of diversely detailed but structurally consistent versions of it.  As the years have gone by and the median average length of the flies I tie has increased in proportion to my age, I have moved away almost entirely from the old “batch tying” I used to do back in the mostly trout days of my career.  No more “dozen size 12 Royal Humpy” hours for me.  These days I pretty much never tie the same fly twice.  As such, every fly that comes off the vice is its own unique spirit, no two alike, and some of them represent hours or even days of my time.  Each one goes straight to the water for a test, and adjustments get made or ideas abandoned with more or less the same frequency as a heads or a tails result in a coin toss.  Patterns eventually emerge though, and the Swook was one I had fallen completely in Love with. 

 

Steve Farrar fly tying materials

It starts with a spinning of deer hair, roughly halfway down the shank of a big, wide gap hook.  The hair is not for trimming though like we do with the butts when creating solid looking spun deer hair heads.  Instead here the deer hair is spun with just a tiny bit of the butt section beneath tightly wound thread, splaying out the whole hair skirt into an umbrella that’s easily three inches in diameter and evenly thick all the way around.  That’s my structure, the foundation for the width of the head and the feature that provides the ability to “push” water while still remaining light enough for an eight or a nine weight to throw.  Then comes the Steve Farrar’s Flash Blend.  Amazing stuff.  So much better than any other synthetic body material I’ve tried it is like comparing Zeiss glass to Tasco’s.  This stuff is amazing.  The only thing I wish was different is that I need it in longer lengths!  What comes in the package though maxes me out at around 14” unless I add intruder shanks in strings behind the hook (which sometimes I do).  This isn’t a function of movement though, only length; the material moves all on its own even when tied only to the front of the single hook. 

Flies tied for Taimen fishing in Northen Mongolia

I work blends of different colors around the spun deer hair which keeps it all spread from below, generally going from darker on top to lighter on bottom with as few as two or sometimes as many as five different colors, then use zap a gap to glue extra large eyes on the heads.  Voila!  What I end up with is a fly that presents an enormous profile, pushes tons of water, moves through that water in a seemingly infinitely tweakable number of ways.  Sliding across the current on a swing they simply ripple, vibrating like fast swimming snakes.  Fast jerky strips make them dance like drunken Sufis who’ve been hit across the back of their heads with a ball bat.  Change the speed or the angle of the rod and you’ve got everything in between.  I’m tooting my own horn here but it’s the most exciting new fly I’ve ever tied, and it works!  At least on Taimen.  I’m still looking forward to putting in in front of Patagonia’s Trout, South Georgia’s Largemouth Bass, and the Bull Sharks of West Andros Island.  I’m pretty certain though the pattern will be good to me on all of these and many, many more.  It just looks to fishy in the water to pass up. 

 

But back to the fish at hand.  Nothing about the fly made any difference.  This particular Taimen was on to me from the beginning.  The truth of the matter was that there just simply was not a place to stand and cast from that I wasn’t obvious to the fish.  He wasn’t that big anyway, I told myself, maybe 36” at best (a farcical attempt at consolation).  But I’d seen the fish, and the impression it had made was almost better than if I’d caught him.  We tell ourselves these things.  They’re usually not all that convincing.   

Exploratory development of inexpensive Taimen Bum program for Hemispheres Unlimited

Once Mike caught up that afternoon I switched to host mode though, and throughout the rest of the week as we worked our way upstream day by day and camp by camp I remained mostly in that position.  The upper river was hard.  Fishermen are known for their excuses (we did have an unusually early fall cold front, lower than normal water, and far too bright skies), but the truth is that Mike and I had no idea what we could possibly be doing wrong.  He had a total of three takes throughout the week, all of which failed to sink the hook, plus one Taimen that jumped clear over his surface slider and had us all screaming out loud like an Argentine at a football game when the ball finally goes into that net thing behind the guy they call the goalie.  But the Taimen would not be hooked, would not come to the net.  Sometimes it is like that.  Like fishing, as they say, after all.  Too soon we floated back down to our start point and it was time for Mike to go home, lamenting the fact that he had not talked himself into staying with me for the lower river float.   

Back-country-camping-float-trips-in-Mongolia.

Change out day waiting for the second group I decided not to fish, instead climbing a mountain across the river from base camp and having a look downstream to see what I could see.  The climb took much longer than I expected, but was totally worth it for the view.  Then the next day the new group arrived and we made ready to load the boats and head downstream.

Mountain climbing Mongolia on a Taimen Trip. What could be better?

The lower stretch of river was quite different both in that the gradient and landscape change with an increase in valley to mountainside ratio, and in that almost all of the fishing we did was from the boats.  I had never been in an inflatable drift boat before, and must say that I was seriously impressed.

Camping and floating int he middle of nowhere for Mongolia's fabled Taimen

  Set up time seemed egregious compared to what I am used to with the rafts we run in Patagonia and Alaska, but once the things are built they handle as well as any drift boat I’ve ever rowed, and really better even than quite a few.  I ended up removing the knee locks from in front of my stern seat because I prefer to just balance and not risk stripping loops around aluminum frame parts.  And I decided to stick to the stern as well until my boat partner caught his first fish, which was most of the week.  Not so for me though!  We started seeing Taimen and getting takes the very first day, and then the second day it all came together just like it always does – with instinct. 

Taimen fishing is all about instinct

I’d been trying different colors and lengths of flies the whole time and casting to all the usual spots in terms of structure and currents in the river, and I had seen fish chase and even missed some strikes but failed to connect every time.  Then around mid-morning I had that sort of electric crackle that happens in the foreground when things get right - a feeling really, just the sudden “knowing” that the tides are about to change, and I instinctively clipped off my fly.  Looking into the box my eyes stopped on a Swook of about 12” with peacock herl longer than that spread across it's back from head to tail, orange bucktail “fins” coming off its pecs, and a body tapering from green down to white at the belly.  The only problem was I’d hit a rock with it the day before, and the hook had been dulled to the point that I’d put it away thinking it was for good.  The feeling was strong though, and so I pulled it out, tied it on, got out the hone and went to work on the point.  It is so easy to ruin a hook like that.  The temper of the steel even on the best quality hooks gets less hard the further you file, and our tendency is always to overdo it. 

Sharp hooks in Mongolia

I’ve found over the years though that less is more, and that as soon as the point stops tight when you slide it across a thumbnail it is time to let it go.  It got there pretty quick, the loop knot was tested, I cleared my stripping, and sent the thing out sixty feet to nine o’clock.  Exactly the opposite of what I had been doing for a day and a half thus far.  The rest is of course predictable.  Retrieve begins, fast and erratic; fly stops, feels like it’s on a rock; I miraculously remember to strip-set instead of raising the rod like I’d done the last dozen times; and in my hand it begins to throb.    

 

I’d heard it said that Taimen don’t really put up much of a fight.  This isn’t true.  For all that my first fish was “only” forty two inches long, it was definitely no joke. I am a tight drag and heavy tippet man but the reel lost a lot of line - fast.  Then it took a while to get it back.  The fish are just so heavy that even outside of the question of strength there is one of sheer mass.  If he decides to sulk, he sulks, it’s as simple as that.  We had the boat on shore pretty soon though with the net ready, and although I never felt certain we’d pull it off until the second he was in the net (feeling certain too early is always a sure way to lose any fish) we did in the end make it happen. 

Justin Witt and his first Taimen

Taimen!!!  At last!!!  Very, very cool.  According to a biologist I’d met the week before on the upper river a Taimen over 40” long is at least one year old for each inch of its length.  That meant the fish I was holding head forward into the current as it gained its bearings was born at least two years before I was.  This was a humbling thought.  He was calm, perhaps as result of his age, and we spent a long time together there in silence as I held him by his tail and supported his weight on my palm, water flowing through his gills and his mouth opening and closing every so often as though he was chanting some sort of ancient river mantra.  I looked closely up and down the entire length of his impressive frame, at his enormous eyes, at the mouth that could easily have swallowed a marmot whole.  We had our moment.  And then he writhed once against my tail hand, I let go, and he was gone swimming slowly and calmly across the bottom and out into the river as though the whole thing had been nothing more than an adventurous encounter that he’d remember only for a short while before going on about his life, which might well last another forty some odd years.  The fish and I were both middle aged.

Releasing large Taimen

I took my position again in the stern of the boat and we shoved off.  The fellow in the bow resumed casting right away but I let my rod sit for at least an hour.  Some fish you just don’t get over very fast.  The Swook I’d caught the fish on had been utterly destroyed, but when I was finally ready to stop staring off into the abyss through flowing water I tied on one that was similar and stood up to make another cast. 

Taimen in the net

“Bullshit!” yelled the guy in the bow a few seconds later when my ten weight doubled over to the butt with backing starting to peel.  I could hardly believe it myself.  And thus began the change in my luck that continued the rest of the trip.  A tipping point, if you will.  The energies had finally aligned. 

Once the Taimen started hitting, they just kept it up

They aligned for everyone at more or less the same time it seemed, and from that point on multiple Taimen were landed each day.  There were six of us on the float and by the end five of the six had all landed Taimen with several of us having gotten more than one, and the sixth fellow having worn his arm out daily on Lenok fishing dries, which he very much loved to do. 

Best rivers in Mongolia
Lower Delgar Moron

The entire 150+ mile stretch of river we floated was beautiful, the food was amazing, and at one camp we even had a hot tub (no kidding).  Nobody drowned,

Luxury in the wilderness on a float trip in Mongolia

very little politics or news items were discussed, hot showers were made available although not necessarily taken advantage of every day, friendships were formed, and everyone involved had a pretty darn good time.  Except poor Mike Terepka that is, he was back in Oregon weeping into his cheerios every morning and imagining what might be going on without him.  Luckily there’s next year (see footnote below).   

Food for Back Country Fly fishing in Mongolia

On the next to last day I had a fish snap the butt section of a nine weight off at the cork (never seen that happen before) and then lost him trying to pull off the old hand line maneuver with eight feet of fly rod dangling somewhere between the two of us underwater.  Luckily he threw the hook.  And that was that.  The energy tipped again and I was done.  No more fish for me.  We reached the takeout the next day and I reflected on my last three weeks in Mongolia as the helpers loaded the trucks.  Amazing.  It's always easy to exceed my expectations when I’ve kept them minimal to begin with, but this was on par with the best trips I’ve taken in my entire life.  And I was already scheming about how best to get back.

End of the float, at the takeout in Mongolia

Two Footnotes:

 

  1. ~Tulga~
Tulga, the Mongolia fly fishing angel

I have to take a moment here to express my gratitude to all of the team members that made this trip as comfortable and enjoyable as it was.  One of those though stands out as such a brightly shining star, I would feel reticent if I did not express my thanks to her specifically.  Tulga was in charge of the services in our dining ger on both legs of this trip, and her Buddha like stabilizing energy kept the entire operation grounded in Light and Love the entire time I was there.  She not only tolerated my presence and was willing to work around me as I sat at the table typing into my laptop every morning from 5am until breakfast was served three hours later, she was always waiting for me with hot water for my coffee when I arrived!  This woman’s smile could melt the heart of any Hitler, Pol Pot, or Stalin, and immediately leave them weeping like babies and begging the universe for forgiveness of their sins.  God please give us more Tulgas for this world.       

 

  1. ~Moving forward for next year~
New Taimen Bum affordable back country fly fishing program 2019 launch

I did in fact manage to figure out how I’ll get back, and the way that plan is working out is another newsworthy miracle.  Hemispheres Unlimited has been continuously developing and adding to its line of “Bum” programs since our original one in my old home town of Rio Pico, and I am proud to announce that we are in the process of negotiating the details for a potential launch of the first ever Taimen Bum style program in Mongolia.  Finally, a back door to this fishery that even guys in my tax bracket can afford!  The trip will not resemble what I’ve described above in terms of staff to client ratio, luxury, or numbers of livestock in use, but it will put you into boats floating the best rivers in Mongolia with everything you need to catch Taimen.

 

Assuming it all comes together the way we are hoping it will, we’ll be running the highly discounted beta-test season soon and need lab rats for the photography. So if that sounds like a plan to you, shoot me an email!    

Comments
On Saturday, 16th February 2019, 1:11 pm Randy said:
WOW!!!! Great post Justin you are indeed, living the good life.
On Wednesday, 13th February 2019, 6:10 am George nettles said:
Great post, sounds like a amazing place in the world! Cheers, George
On Monday, 4th February 2019, 9:36 pm PATRICK CUCCARO said:
Fantastic adventure! Thanks for the great blog post. I won't be a lab rat for you, but I hope your beta-test is a huge success. (...weeping into his Cheerios...lol)

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