January 03, 2017
[This is an short excerpt from the feature story "The One Path" in the Feb.Mar. 2017 issue of Fly Fisherman. The "complete" story of Mongolia may never be told, but the adventure of our two-week, 100-mile journey down one of Mongolia's most remote rivers was one of the greatest learning experiences of my life, and a pleasure to relate. —Ross Purnell]
The girth of a truly large Mongolia taimen may be more impressive than the incredible length.
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.
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.
This 55-inch taimen was caught using a 9-weight 14-foot Sage Method and a 675-grain RIO Skagit Max line with a heavy MOW tip. The fly was a black, 16-inch T-Bone tied by muskie guide Blane Chocklett.
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.
[Thanks to all who joined me on this incredible expedition including Richard Clark, Grace Smith, Earl Harper, Joe Stevens, Vadim Hsu, Rob Horn, and James Byrns. It was a special trip that will never be forgotten. My next hosted trip is an expedition far into the headwaters of the Amazon River in search of giant peacock bass. For details, please contact Pat Pendergast at firstname.lastname@example.org.]