Photos and text by Keepemwet Fishing Ambassador Josh Udesen
I packed my bag (six or seven times), made lists for months, spooled reels with new line, strategized grain weights, read airline baggage restrictions, learned how to use a new camera, imagined fly crushing hook-ups, plotted strategies for throwing massive flies, lost sleep dreaming of what was yet to come, spent nights on airport floors, spent a small fortune, bounced on the back roads of Mongolia and rode rowdy horses to the Russian border, all for what? A fish… A mythical fish, a unicorn, a taimen.
The lengths anglers go to actually fish is mind boggling to those who don’t fish, but the stuff of dreams for those who do. We live for the chance to explore unknown rivers, to feel the hook set on a fish we’ve worked hard for, to experience new cultures and create the stories we will tell for a lifetime. For anglers the Mongolian backcountry is the stuff of dreams and taimen live in the land of myths and legends. “Bucket list”, trip of a lifetime, a true adventure are some the superlatives used when I told people I was embarking on a headwaters expedition of the river know as the Delger Moron in Northern Mongolian.
By the time I threw my first cast I felt like I was in a dream. Although jet lagged and worn out from days of planes, Land Cruisers and riding feisty Mongolian horses, the dream was elicited by anticipation not fatigue. The lengths to get so far from anything gave the impression of being on another planet. Throwing flies into a river few ever wet a line on, searching for 30-year-old fish capable of reaching 60” skewed my perspective, along with the unrealistic anticipation every angler possesses. In my dreams I imagined years of fishing experience, the lack of pressure and voracious, mean and hungry fish meant there was a good chance of getting regular hook-ups and landing my fair share of fish.
Boy was I wrong.
Experience, lack of pressure and targeting an apex predator do equate to unbeatable fishing, but there is nothing easy about it. If a steelhead is a fish of a thousand casts, the taimen is the fish of a thousand casts with flies as long and heavy as my forearm. Beyond their primary diet of abundant lenok trout and grayling, taimen are known to eat large rodents, ducks and whatever else may be protein rich and unlucky enough to float by. With such large prey, they don’t eat often, but do so with ferocity and purpose. Eleven hours a day of arm searing, hand clenching and seemingly unproductive casting is easy when a hungry taimen is imagined.
More importantly and far beyond the act of fishing, the taimen is a species to be reckoned with. It is a species worthy of garnering earned respect and wonder. With seeming impossibility, rivers such as the Delger Moron support a fish of epic proportions. For comparison, imagine fishing a river like the Big Hole, the Upper Gunnison, the McKenzie or South Fork of the Boise with the chance to hook a 35, 45 or 55-inch trout. Taimen live in landlocked rivers, meaning they do not migrate to the sea, as a result, they prowl relatively short stretches of river during their impressive 20 to 30 year life span. Much of the river is frozen solid in winter, forcing them to hunker into the handful of deep holes for months at a time. The rivers themselves are pristine mountain outlets with little or no human alteration, at least for now. Certain organisms on earth earn respect simply by their existence, and the taimen is one of them. The bottom line, within a short period of time I came to realize the unbelievably fragile nature of both the fish and fishery I was now exploring.
I’ve never felt guilt about fishing but I quickly began to ponder whether or not fishing, at least for a species like taimen, is a selfish endeavor with consequence. Other than a hatchery steelhead headed to my grill, for most of my fishing life I’ve done everything I can to make sure the fish is returned to the river healthy and in good shape. With the taimen I began to wonder if fishing for them was a good idea. Furthermore, hooking, fighting, landing and “documenting” the catch seemed an added pressure the taimen may not need. I was caught between the magnificence of fishing for these beasts and simply respecting their existence without casting a line.
I was not alone in my dilemma. My trip was organized and arranged by the outfitter Fish Mongolia, and they clearly understand the paradox of fishing for a species that is both unique and potentially threatened.
Their efforts to preserve the fish are profound and clearly not motivated by business alone. First off, I was astounded by the almost fanatical reverence and respect for the fish by both the Mongolian and western guides. In conversation and action, it was clear protecting the fish was part of their psyche. Every fly, no matter the size, was limited to a single barb-free hook. Each guide carried a ridiculously monstrous rubber net the entire time we hiked, fished, floated or otherwise had the chance of catching a fish. The minute a fish was hooked the guides sprinted (not hyperbole) to the river and immediately began the process of netting the fish. There was no standing by to watch the fish run or wear it out. If the fish could safely be netted, it was. The guides often doused their waders and ended up soaked to their toes with no second thoughts just to get the fish in the net. The largest fish I caught was hooked, fought, landed and released in about 5 minutes. Before anything else happened, the fish was measured and documented for data purposes. All the data is collected and collated to keep tabs on the numbers, size, distribution and particulars of each fish landed on the Delger Moron. Rarely, if ever, did the fish leave the water. In the end and only if the fish was clearly doing well was there an opportunity for a photo, but a photo was not a given. The guides, who I commend, were not obligated to allow for grip and grins. In one case, a fish I caught was netted, revived and released with little more than a glance because it appeared fatigued. Even with the opportunity for a photo, the angler is asked to keep the fish submerged and release needed to be done in short order. By the time it was all done, the experience was often a blur, as it should be.
I came to realize fishing for, promoting and reverence for this fish is the only real way to make sure the habitat, watershed and fish are protected. After discussion with the other anglers and guides, there was consensus about how little it would take to quickly diminish or completely eliminate the species from the last few remaining watersheds they are found. It seems one of the only ways it is not going to become a declining species is getting the recognition it deserves. As is stated by the Fish Mongolia website:
In an era when biologists struggle to assign financial value to endangered species—and nature’s blessings have been re-branded as ecosystem services—people who like to catch fish with bits of foam and feather represent a rare demographic.
Nobody has to convince this group that native fish, clean water, and pristine landscapes are precious commodities. In fact, some might rather fore-go the word commodity altogether, given its association with prices and markets, to argue instead that the world’s finest fly fishing destinations are holy places, shrines, temples in which humans have both rights and duties. The right to worship. And the duty to protect.”
In Mongolia, the taimen is revered but certainly fragile. As a result, there is a concentrated and remarkable conservation effort developing. As of right now the Delger Moron is designated as a “sanctuary” river and is both regulated and supported by the Mongolian government. The government should be commended for being so proactive in designating wilderness status for a river that could be developed for resource extraction. Additionally, the awareness brought by people who fish, practices like “keep ‘em wet”, the efforts of companies like Fish Mongolia and intrepid anglers willing and able to key in on a species using these methods, there is a tangible motivation for both fishing, reverence and preservation. The “Keep ‘em Wet” mentality and practice is actually accounting for the preservation and continuation of a species, and that is a good thing.